MRW Memo, July 2022
This month, I decided to recycle an article that I penned for the July 22 issue of the "Shorthorn Country" magazine. The ASA is celebrating their 150th anniversary, and the July issue is a great issue that will be referenced to celebrate the breed for years to come. While you may not be a Shorthorn diehard, my thoughts in this article can easily apply to any breed of cattle you wish to support. Enjoy the read, albeit longer than usual!
"Looking Back, Moving Forward"
It's amazing to think how Shorthorn cattle have been on our continent even long before the formation of what became ASA in 1872. The master breeders and families who dedicated their lives to developing and improving the Shorthorn in the United Kingdom before the cattle arrived in colonial America would be amazed at what they could see now.
As with everything else, genetic selection has changed within the Shorthorn breed over those years since the cattle landed on our shores. Tri-purpose cattle of the early days helped build colonial America with meat, milk, and power. As the country moved west, survival was an important selection criterion of passing on your genetics. As our commercial cattle industry was born in the western United States, bulls of all kinds were turned loose on the range to improve the Longhorn cattle of the region. Shorthorns were the leaders in this movement, arriving and dominating the western terrain long before the Hereford and Angus cattle. With harsh conditions and a lack of modern animal well-being technology, only the strong survived to pass on their lineage.
As time marches on and cattle breeders became more studious of their craft, confirmation and pedigree became the means for choosing the next generation of breeding stock. Linebreeding and the adage of “breed the best to the best” dominated the era. Using the best tools they had at their disposal (pedigrees, their eye, stockmanship and intuition), the early American Shorthorn enthusiasts kept the breed thriving.
Over time, more tools were incorporated into breeding cattle to fit the needs of the commercial industry. Weights and measures became a means to quantify the performance of Shorthorn cattle. The evolution of performance testing into bull test stations and cattle improvement organizations brought a scientific and competitive avenue to beef improvement. In a visit I had with legendary cattle breeder Dave Nichols, he told me a story of his youth when he read a Shorthorn pamphlet titled “Best in Every Weigh”. Dave recalled using the information in that pamphlet to craft his FFA public speaking presentation that went on to achieve national recognition. He’s built a cattle breeding legacy around performance-tested selection in his breeding program. Weights, heights, gains, and conversions all became a part of many breeders’ philosophies to make Shorthorns better.
We’ve seen many type changes in the cattle industry over the prior century and a half. From big to small, belt buckle to framey, extreme to extreme and back to the middle, cattle producers have tried it all! I hope today we are closer to “correct” than ever before, and that in 50 years, my grandkids don’t look back and wonder what I was thinking when they see pictures of my cattle today.
The performance data collected by breeders became used in the tabulation of early breeding value statistics, which turned into what we now know as EPDs. The ability to compare genetics from across the land, backed by data and pedigree relationship, changed the game once again. We started with the essential basic traits of weights and milk, and since then, have developed a plethora of EPDs to aid in selection for longevity, carcass merit, calving ease, and across our industry, traits such as feet quality, feed efficiency, udder quality, and heifer pregnancy rate are now backed by these tools as well.
The genesis of genetic testing added another amazing layer to what we do as cattle breeders. The ability to identify a genetic condition carrier seems elementary now, but at the time it was a huge development. Parentage testing to help us maintain correct pedigrees in the herd book is often overlooked for its impact. And now, the incorporation of genetic markers to determine an animal’s merits for traits of importance (via genomically enhanced EPDs) takes our capabilities to another level.
While much has changed in our quest to make genetic progress over time, it will be interesting to see what tool is at our disposal next. Whole-genome sequence technology is on the horizon. Gene editing has become a popular topic among industry leaders. Or the next breakthrough that is most helpful to cattle breeders may not even be discussed yet. It will be fun to look back and see the continued growth of cattle breeding as we continue forward.
Even with all the tools we have available today, there are lessons to be learned from every great breeder and era that came before us. It’s still important to remember that the key to passing on genetics is surviving to pass them on, as a reminder to be good stewards and managers of these creatures. Breeding the best bulls you have access to (regardless of your goals) to the best cows you can assemble is still a great way of making a better calf crop. We just have more tools at our disposal to develop the opinion of what is “best”. Weights and measures on the cattle we raise are still paramount, as they are the fuel that makes the engine that is our EPD calculations run better. And as technology emerges, we need to listen with an open mind and determine if it can be beneficial to our goal of efficiently and profitably producing better Shorthorn cattle.
While some may argue “our predecessors didn’t have weights and EPDs and DNA to breed great cattle”, I’d wager that if those leading cattle breeders of years ago were in the Shorthorn business today, they would be selling cattle with full slates of performance data and genomic tests, while also combining their astute evaluation and stockmanship to breed cattle that would lead this breed in 2022, just like they did in 1872, 1902, or 1952. Leaders in their era would likely be leaders in any era, due to their forward thinking and desire for greatness.