By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
The types of cattlemen fall somewhere along a bell curve; the vast majority are on one side or the other of the median but close to it. The folks on the extremes are often the loudest voices coaching the folks in the middle about their cattle selection criteria. On one side you have folks purely influenced by stock shows, where visual appraisal is almost everything, maternal ability, performance measurements, and carcass merit have very little influence on these folks selection criteria. On the other side you have folks that are heavily into EPDs (expected progeny differences) and Genomics, these folks are greatly influenced by universities and breed association criteria. The EPD enthusiast makes their selection criteria based on data, real data measurements, but especially derived data based on correlations and algorithms, with no interest in visual appraisal.
To make it simple, I am going to call the one extreme the “Show Jock” and the other extreme the “EPD Doc.” Both extremes have added things to the industry and both extremes have led the industry off course. The Show Jock has led the industry into belt buckle height cattle in the 1950s and 1960s, where bellies nearly drug on the ground. As well, the Show Jock lead us into the frame race of the 1980s and 1990s, where cattle were judged on maximum height and ground clearance. Neither of these variations were practical to the cowman in the middle seeking cattle that could turn a profit and survive in the real world. The EPD doc arrived later to the scene, this enthusiast was spawned out of a need to measure performance to make cattle more profitable, but the true EPD doc blew right past weights and measures and found a passion for correlations and algorithms. Solely looking at trait associations with the goal of maximizing data on paper, the EPD doc took the industry down a road of bad feet, bad udders, poor joint angles, and lack of mothering ability.
I have seen a show judge pick an 1,800-pound bred heifer to win a national show. I have also seen the EPD doc pick a cow-hocked bull out of a cow with a poor udder to go to stud for mass collection based on the genomic roulette wheel. Both of these creating trends is equally as damaging to the cowman in the middle trying to find seed stock whose offspring will pay the bills. The reason these folks on the extremes have such amplified influence is because breed associations like them both, as well as agriculture colleges and marketers. These folks that like both extremes are primarily responsible for the publications, research papers, and marketing that we all read, and therefore the influence is unduly amplified. Although there are a whole lot of us in the middle, the extremes are more appealing to feature because it gives the feeling of progress.
There are many cowmen and women that have multigenerational knowledge, not only the multi-generations of humans that have influenced them but also the multiple generations of cattle they have experienced. These folks can point out what a good cow or bull should look like. They may not be able to give “reasons” taught from a judging textbook, but the eyes know shapes, hair coats, symmetry, and function. These folks may only look at three or four of the twenty plus EPD traits some breed associations have, but many of them have a more profitable cowherd than the guy that makes a spreadsheet. All that to say, I don’t think we should dismiss the show and the importance of visual appraisal, and we shouldn’t dismiss EPDs and the prospect that correlations could add to a producer’s profitability. But the cowman looking to make a payment needs genetics that will hit down the middle.