It’s not everyday you visit a 7,000-head beef operation in Kenya, but that’s not the only reason the experience was memorable for PJ Budler. When he visited this herd of Boran cattle, a breed native to Kenya, for a consulting project, their quality left him amazed.
“You could hardly find an animal that didn’t have perfect feet, perfect udder, and bulls with perfect testicles,” he recounted at the Canadian Beef Breed Council’s Technical Forum, held during the 2018 Canadian Beef Industry Conference in London, Ont. “I said to them, ‘How did you do this? This is incredible.’ And they said, ‘We didn’t.’ These cattle have been there for 1,600 years, and they’ve got a herd instinct, and the ones with bad feet get eaten by lions.
“There are lions on the property and leopards and hyenas and wild dogs. The cows with bad udders that can’t get a calf up and sucking in good time, that calf gets eaten by predators as well, and the fertility traits just go naturally with it,” he continued. “These guys are letting nature select their cattle, and also they had immaculate records when it comes to pedigrees and performance, but they’re not even doing any EPDs.”
Budler, who was raised on a fifth-generation beef operation in South Africa, is now based in Fort Worth, Texas, and also runs TheCattleMarket.net LLC. While genomically enhanced expected progeny differences (EPDs) and other measurements rule the day in his new home state, a person would be unlikely to find a herd there with the overwhelming quality of this Kenyan herd. There’s also the popularity of the U.S. club calf industry to consider. “Functional efficiency isn’t a term that’s used at all down there, so maybe this gives context to why that Kenyan experience sobered me up quite a lot.”
Whether it’s through consulting projects or his role as the international business development manager for Trans Ova Genetics, Budler has seen how genetic selection tools such as EPDs can have an impact on a herd or breed. However, this isn’t always for the better. “Is it genetic improvement or is it sometimes just genetic change?” he asked the audience. “I’d argue for the latter in some cases.”
In one such case, he noted that “Angus EPDs in the U.S. have gone up significantly in the last 10 years, the weaning weight EPDs on average. But has the genetic potential improved? According to statistics, it hasn’t. At best, real weaning weights have improved by 10 pounds.”
Budler argued that while EPDs can be extremely valuable to producers, they need to be used with thought, caution and honesty, and there are other tools and factors to be considered to make the best genetic selections for your operation.
Genetics is one of eight aspects he considers to be key in running a beef operation, the other seven being nutrition, herd management, animal health, forages, budget and record-keeping, marketing and human capital. “It’s really just an eighth of what it takes to make a functional, sound beef cattle operation that’s economically viable,” he said. “No matter how good a job we do, there’s seven other jobs that need to be done just as well for the deal to work. So I think we need to be careful.”
As well, what is considered an ideal EPD can vary based on the setting and situation. “To say that an animal’s got good EPDs is such a broad and subjective term,” he said. “What is a good milk EPD? It depends where you live. It depends what your climate is. It depends what your resources are in terms of nutrition. There’s no one good milk EPD.”
EPDs are also just one tool available for genetic selection, and Budler stressed the importance of considering all the tools available, including phenotype, pedigrees and in-herd ratios. He gives equal consideration to each tool and notes the need to know what traits work in terms of functional efficiency. “It’s an important job we’ve got, trying to feed the world, so these four make it pretty important.”
Environment, other factors play a role
Budler considers technologies such as genomically enhanced EPDs to be beneficial tools that should be handled with care. “This is an incredible science,” he said. “Unfortunately… a lot of the people who are taking this vehicle and driving it in the industry maybe don’t have a license to drive it.”
The metaphor of a car works nicely when considering this technology. “We wouldn’t buy a car if we didn’t know what its fuel conversion rate was or its top speed,” he said. “I think the same goes for bulls. We want to know what their genetic potential is, and some of it we can’t tell just by looking at it.”
However, the conditions in which these traits are measured need to be considered. “We need to know whether that fuel conversion was measured in Toronto traffic or on a Saskatchewan highway, because that’s two very different things,” said Budler. “I can measure a Brahman bull’s feed intake in Texas and then come measure it in winter in Saskatchewan, and it will be 60 per cent more to put on the pounds in Saskatchewan.”
Environment and adaptability play a large role, one that Budler believes needs to be better considered. “The environment plays such a big part in the potential of an animal to express its genetics,” he said. “If we put an animal with an incredible potential to produce milk on marginal land, it not only doesn’t produce the milk it could produce compared to others, it also eats a lot more to not produce that milk.”
The traits considered most economically important in cattle will vary depending on the setting. “I think up here fertility, longevity, adaptability and efficiency are essential,” he said, noting that in places closer to the equator, a lack of adaptability will have a negative impact on the other three traits. “These are the things I think we need to get straight and get in line long before we start playing with some of the growth and carcass traits.”
Accordingly, he takes issues with programs that promise premiums for certain breeds when these animals may not be best suited to a particular region. “What Certified Angus Beef has done in the U.S. is criminal, because they’ve convinced guys on the Gulf Coast to run Black Angus cows where they should be straw-coloured or red or white Bos Indicus cattle,” he stated. “The Black Angus cows are in the ponds all of summer. You don’t see them, they’re like hippopotamuses with just their noses and ears sticking up like that. The amount of energy it takes for those cattle to do anything is all sent away from their ability to have fertility or to have longevity.”
Even with such premiums, the cost of raising an animal that isn’t best adapted to an environment may have an impact on producers. “When they take that steer to market they get a premium on it, but it’s probably 10 per cent of what it cost to get there,” he said. “That’s my argument: we’ve got to push back against that propaganda and re-invite science back into the conversation. There isn’t a breed that works everywhere in the world.”
A valuable tool when used with care
Budler explained that EPDs are most valuable when used with best practices. “It’s an incredibly useful tool if people are doing all that measuring, and if the program that you’re buying genetics from has got a similar environment to where you work, and you know that there’s integrity and honesty in the way in which they’re collecting data.”
He praised the Canadian beef industry for its realistic approach to genetic improvement. “The associations I’ve dealt with in Canada are far more cautious and measured and don’t want to run with something new at a million miles an hour,” he said. “I think that’s why Canadian genetics are so appreciated globally, because there’s a measure of balance and caution when it comes to producing.”
Budler urged forethought in using genetic selection technologies to allow for the best use of these tools. “We need to encourage everyone to measure everything all the time, accurately and honestly in large numbers,” he said. “Associations and marketers need to make sure we drive this vehicle the way it was intended, with the fuel it was intended to run on, on the roads it was intended to run on, cautiously, thoughtfully and honestly.”