Cow-Calf Commentary for Iowa Cattleman Magazine

By Randie Culbertson, extension cow-calf specialist

March 2023

The value of research herds

In the context of a production operation’s value, I think of it in terms of financial viability through the value of its assets, profitability and economic feasibility over time. When I think of the value of research herds, I don’t think of it in terms of monetary value. Instead, I think of the value of its contributions to scientific knowledge and application to the beef industry. Research herds are uniquely positioned to conduct research that would not be practical for beef producers to conduct, yet provide information and scientific data for application in today’s cattle operations.

When teaching about genetics and beef production, two topics I try to emphasize are crossbreeding and matching your genetics to your environment. Thinking about the industry as a whole, we take for granted the knowledge we have when it comes to crossbreeding, heterosis and their benefits to cattle production. How do we know that crossbreeding works? The bulk of our initial data for linebreeding, crossbreeding and heterosis originated from research herds.

Everybody knows the old joke: what is the difference between linebreeding and inbreeding? Answer: linebreeding is when it works and inbreeding is when it doesn’t. At the USDA-ARS Range Station at Miles City, Montana, the Line 1 Herefords are the longest-running selection experiment in the world dating back to 1934 and were managed as a closed herd that was intentionally inbred. Data from Line 1 has significantly contributed to our understanding of the interaction of different environments with genetics (often referred to as genetic by environment interactions or G x E), and a beef cow’s milking ability and influence on the growth of her calf. The long-term linebreeding resulted in an increase in genetic uniformity within the Line 1 herd. This genetic uniformity is why a Line 1 cow (Dominette 0 1449) was selected for the sequencing of the bovine genome in 2003. This was the backbone for understanding of cattle genomics and led to the development of DNA tools we use today.

In contrast to the Line 1 Herefords, the USDA-ARS Meat Animal Research Center (US-MARC) in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been conducting a research project since 1969 for the evaluation of breed characteristics. Most of what we know about heterosis and breed complementarity in beef cattle originates from the long-term selection experiments from the US-MARC research herds. US-MARC has strictly designed crossbreeding programs for the estimation of breed differences and effects of heterosis on production traits. Every year US-MARC releases adjustment factors for the comparison of EPDs generated from different genetic evaluations. These adjustment factors allow cattle breeders to take EPDs from one breed (e.g. Angus) and directly compare them to another breed (e.g. Hereford). Without these adjustment factors, a bull buyer looking to compare EPDs for an Angus bull to those of a Hereford bull would have no method for comparison, and this could lead to a misinterpretation of the bulls’ EPDs.

The USDA is not the only institution with research herds. Most land-grant universities also maintain herds for research. These herds not only provide hands on learning experiences for students, they’re also valuable resources for answering questions facing the beef industry. University research herds provide an opportunity for both basic and applied research. Initial research on cow longevity, fetal programming, genetic evaluations for novel traits, reproductive technologies, and development and utilization of synchronization protocols, these are a short list of the contributions these herds have made to the beef industry.

Iowa State University’s research herd located at the McNay Memorial Research and Demonstration Farm near Chariton in southern Iowa has maintained a breeding project for an Angus herd focused on carcass quality, specifically marbling. Since the herd’s inception in 1996, this breeding project has focused on selection for intramuscular fat (IMF) to increase marbling, and has been used to validate the use of ultrasound on live cattle to make genetic improvement for carcass traits. The use of ultrasound IMF as a tool for making improvement on marbling was developed from data generated from the McNay herd. Today it is common practice to use carcass ultrasound data in genetic evaluations for the selection of improved carcass quality in breeding stock.

Information gathered from research herds can have profound implications to the cattle industry as a whole. In the area of animal breeding and genetics, these projects can take years to gather enough data from which to draw viable results. Having access to records collected from long-established research herds are critical for scientific advancement in the beef industry. The value of these herds is not monetary, but they are invaluable through the wealth of information and knowledge they generate.


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