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Genetic improvement lays the foundation

Prime Cuts with Steve Kay: from the February 2017 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Black Aberdeen Angus cow at pasture in England

Ask any winemaker how he or she produces a great drinking experience and all reply “It starts in the vineyard.” The same is true of the beef industry. A great beef eating experience starts on the ranch or farm. And just like constantly improving the quality of the grape, it should include upgrading the genetic quality of one’s herd.

Cow-calf producers on both sides of the border have done an outstanding job in the past 20 years in improving the genetics of their herds. Most importantly, they have focused on the genetics that produce the best carcass and therefore the best beef. This is the exact opposite of what occurred for many years. Producers in the 1960s and 1970s experimented with just about every breed that originated in Europe. The result was a mish-mash of crossbred cattle, some of which could be called the “Heinz 57” variety.

Producers finally realized this genetic free-for-all was damaging beef demand because it was producing beef of wildly inconsistent quality. While others wrung their hands, the American Angus Association (AAA) was the first breed association to act. It began its Certified Angus Beef (CAB) branded beef program in 1978, with a series of strict protocols to give the brand integrity. The program aimed to produce higher-quality beef than was on the market. It also aimed to help Angus producers by growing demand for Angus cattle at the seedstock and cow-calf levels.

AAA accomplished both goals beyond its wildest dreams and in the process encouraged other breed associations and producers to follow a similar path. Angus genetics are now in nearly 70 per cent of the U.S. beef cow herd and in about 40 per cent of the Canadian herd. That’s a big reason why fed cattle in the U.S. now grade 77 per cent USDA Prime or Choice. Only 10 years ago, cattle graded less than 50 per cent Choice and less than three per cent Prime. Marbling has become producers’ mantra.

CAB’s success is all the more remarkable as the program struggled for its first 19 years. But it persevered and last year reached a remarkable milestone. Global sales surpassed one billion pounds for the first time in its fiscal year ended September 30. This was up 119 million pounds or 13.3 per cent on the previous year. The record sales were fueled largely by U.S. retail sales, proving that consumers will pay more for beef of high quality and consistency.

As the AAA notes, cattle producers are answering the call from consumers for high-quality beef. Registrations for Angus cattle in fiscal 2016 grew by 4.5 per cent and totalled 334,607 head. This was the 15th largest number of registrations in the association’s 133-year history. Sales of registered Angus bulls in 2016 averaged US$5,605 per head and registered females averaged US$5,036 per head. Sales of Angus genetics remained highly valued despite almost 10,000 more animals marketed by members versus the prior year, says the AAA.

The association has also been in the forefront of adopting key technologies involved in cattle breeding. Of the nearly 335,000 calves registered with the association in 2016, more than 53 per cent were produced by artificial insemination, while embryo transfer calves represented 11 per cent of total registrations. Total females enrolled in the association’s MaternalPlus program were up more than 56 per cent at 37,895 head. This inventory-based reporting system is designed to capture reproductive trait data. In addition, genomic testing now accounts for one-third of all Angus registrations.

Whether you have an Angus-based herd or one based on another breed, the message is clear. Invest in quality genetics and you will be rewarded all the way to the retail meat case or the restaurant menu.

About the author


A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.

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