Swearngin Angus/CG Cattle
Genetic Selection and Symmetry
Why eye appeal Matters
Weather genetic markers, DNA, EPD’s or high dollar pedigrees, the litany of numbers displayed next to cattle in catalogs are supposed to tell us how a particular individual will perform. In today’s world of Internet sales and cell phones, those numbers are increasingly relied upon to buy cattle sight-unseen. But are the numbers telling the whole story?
When our customers come to look at our cattle we often hear comments that include “complete”, “uniform”, and “eye-appeal.” Over the years we have certainly had our share that excelled in the show ring. The irony is we never have had the goal of producing show ring winners. The eye-appeal of our cattle is tied to two selection traits, longevity and completeness. As we rigorously apply these two ideals to our selection process, we instinctively look for the greatest indicator of health and functionality. It’s the same thing all people and all animals are instinctively drawn to as the greatest outward indicator of fitness – symmetry.
Symmetry, what is it?
More than 525 years ago Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the importance of proportion and symmetry in human existence with his model of the Vitruvian Man in 1492. Symmetry is what is naturally pleasing to the human eye when we evaluate living things. Living things that have distortions, or are not balanced, are not pleasing to look at and therefore have less value than living things with symmetry. Research indicates that bilateral symmetry is an important indicator of freedom from disease, and worthiness for mating. Minor physical anomalies begin to appear early in embryonic development, mainly in the first trimester of pregnancy, and can be a sign of genetic instability during this growth. The higher the level of symmetry, the healthier the genetic makeup and the better able living things are to cope with environmental stressors, and perform at every level of production.
We know instinctively that a symmetrical udder is better functioning than a lopsided udder, and our EPD’s for milk and growth have proven it again and again, if we read them properly. We also know instinctively that structural correctness and feminine angular characteristics are indicators of longevity and fertility.
The interesting thing about symmetry and purebred cattle is that symmetry is usually an indicator of heterozygosity – like you get in a planed crossbreeding program. Heterosis – or hybrid vigor – is why you get big, healthy crossbred calves. Recessive, or less desirable traits are not expressed when gene pairs are heterozygous. As purebred breeders, our goal is to breed in more homozygosity through line breeding in order to breed out undesirable traits, select for desirable traits, and also to maximize heterosis for our commercial customers. So, achieving good symmetry in a purebred herd means rigorous selection through culling to preserve only the healthiest of genes. That’s why structurally correct, feminine, easy-fleshing, complete, symmetrical purebred cows and heifers produce at a higher level as compared to those selected by single trait selection, examples would be carcass, growth, EPDs. Over the years of breeding and culling cattle based on being profitable at the end of the year, we have seen time and time again that the resulting bulls also add all of these traits more consistently than those selected by numbers alone. This phenomenon is what keeps our commercial bull customers coming back in the good economic years as well as the bad. Our bulls are referred to as “cow herd fixers”.
What does this mean for the future of beef production?
Genetic markers and EPD’s are analytical tools the industry uses today to predict tomorrows beef eating experience for consumers. I have been to many sales, marked up catalog in hand, only to flatly reject cattle with great EPD’s upon visual appraisal. I am sure some of the cattle I’ve rejected have gone on to sell for tens of thousands of dollars or more. But I can also tell you many stories I’ve heard and experienced firsthand in a moment of chagrined confession, about a particular high-dollar cow or bull that didn’t perform like the numbers or marketing hype predicted. Many cattle producers today are looking at these numbers as a quick fix or short cut to breeding something no one else has, for a quick monetary return. The only problem with this corporate approach is that cattle and the environment have too many other variables to cooperate so concisely, and there is no short cut to breeding cattle that work long-term.
Visual appraisal and individual performance still top EPD’s
There are no short cuts for raising great cattle and great beef. We must keep in perspective that carcass traits are terminal traits, and market the cattle accordingly. Today many purebred multipliers mate cattle like a commercial producers pushing the Heterozygosis terminal traits. Where does that leave the commercial producer looking for consistent homozygous traits? Remember that carcass traits and growth traits are extremely heritable, while maternal traits are lowly heritable. Stacking carcass traits generation after generation will produce an animal that is out of balance with its environment and has little ability to perform on an everyday basis with any efficiency, in the production cycle. We know that the lowly heritable traits can definitely make a larger difference at the cow-calf level and add significant dollars to the bottom line. We also know that 80% of the opportunity to make a profit today is from input costs, not performance. Therefore efficiency is still the number one opportunity for profit.
At Swearngin Angus we have not sacrificed maternal traits to chase a bigger, better carcass or growth. Experience and our customers tell us we have to balance our selection decisions to include visual appraisal and individual performance in our environment along with EPD’s and genetic markers. After using DNA the last 3 years, I wish I could tell you it was worth the money. After three years of using it on our sale bulls 92% came back equivalent to parent average EPD’s. The positive side of that is it says we have very consistent genetic value in our cattle. Our customers recognize the importance of phenotypic ally correct females that are also structurally correct, easy fleshing on forage with great longevity. These traits can be discerned through visual appraisal alone, and are valuable indicators of fitness and health. Our system of genetic selection, environmental pressure and symmetry does not produce many outliers, however our customers tell us repeatedly about their consistent, uniform, calves bring premiums at the market, and our bulls and their resulting daughters last for years.
As a member of the less than 1% cattle producers that make 100% of our living from our cattle, I need a 100% calf crop, low feed costs, and fast breed back, before I can worry about dressing percentages. With a breeding philosophy that emphasizes efficiency, and completeness, we have developed a herd of cattle that allow our customers to sleep better during calving, feel better when evaluating their production costs, and at the end of the year have cattle that are marketable in more than one arena. We have paid no attention to fads and famous cows, we tried them- they just didn’t pay our bills. One of our good friends and customers put those famous cows into perspective the other day. He said, “A Mule sired by (famed racehorse) Secretariat, is still a Mule.” Ain’t it the truth!