by Sally Colby

The beef industry has worked hard to introduce changes that would make beef production more profitable. Shane Bedwell, COO and director of breed improvement at the American Hereford Association (AHA), discussed the role of genetics in rapid breed improvement and how changes have benefited both purebred and commercial herds of all breeds.

British cattleman Benjamin Tomkins is credited with founding the Hereford breed with a bull calf out of a cow named Silver. Bedwell said animals in the mid-1700s to early 1800s were framey, with ample length and excessive fat. Herefords arrived in the U.S. in 1817, and two Albany, NY breeders began the first serious breeding herd in 1840.

The AHA was formed in 1881. “‘Anxiety IV’ was one of the original founder bulls in the breed,” said Bedwell. “Cattlemen saw a drastic type change in Herefordshire, England, prior to Anxiety IV, with boxier and thicker animals when breeders realized more muscle and thickness was necessary.” As more bulls arrived in the U.S., they were bred to Longhorns and various Spanish breeds that provided more muscle.

In the early 1930s, a champion Hereford steer finished in 19 months at 1,280 pounds. “Not a lot different than where we were 15 to 20 years ago,” said Bedwell, adding that assessment was originally based solely on visual appraisal. “Then in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, cattle all had excessive condition with frame 2 or frame 3. But the breed was also seeing defects including dwarfism.” Breeding was often a guessing game – if no defects appeared, animals were considered to have clean pedigrees.

In 1965, the USDA implemented a yield grade system. The KPH system (the percentage of total internal fat in the kidney, pelvis and heart regions) was also established. Bedwell said the formation of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) in 1968 helped guide genetic evaluations and beef improvement. “There were state organizations, but everyone was going in a different direction with different bull test stations,” he said. “We knew it was a good idea to get bulls in one spot and feed them, but we didn’t know how to adjust, or what to calculate them to, let alone compare genetics across the U.S.”

At one point, cattlemen realized cattle were too fat and became determined to improve length and frame. However, Herefords, like other breeds, went to the extreme and cattle became too tall. “We’ve had a lot of evolution,” said Bedwell, “but it’s always good to step back in history to figure out where we’ve come from and what has allowed us to get where we are today.” He added that the job of today’s seedstock producers is to guarantee as much success as possible to the next buyer, feeder or packer.

After years of testing individual bulls, in the early 1980s, the BIF worked on performance ratios. “A lot of the information that started in the late 1960s allowed the phenotypic collection in the 1970s, which allowed the formation of EPDs and sire summaries in the 1980s,” said Bedwell. “It’s a step in time that we needed but the guidelines on registration papers wouldn’t be possible if leaders before hadn’t done that work. Since 1881, we’ve been selecting and visually appraising cattle a lot longer than we’ve been using EPDs, let alone DNA incorporated into genetic evaluations. I don’t think we’ll ever go through that rapid change of type compared to the last 30 to 40 years.”

Genetic evaluation at the AHA is global and involves North America, Uruguay and Argentina. Bedwell said having a genetic impact in other countries allows the AHA to gather more data and evaluations on more cattle. Additional information was collected through Whole Herd TPRÔ, which Bedwell said involves reporting all offspring – the best way to obtain non-biased data to improve the breed. “We have compliancy rules for certain traits, and if those traits don’t appear on all calves, you don’t get EPDs,” he said. “That’s something the board implemented in early 2000, so we’re going on about 22 years of whole herd TPR.”

While DNA testing was introduced about 14 years ago, it wasn’t yet clear how to best use that information. The breed currently measures 17 different traits, including three economic indexes. Pedigree information, individual phenotypic information and individual marker information is also incorporated.

“We can blend genomic impact with EPDs,” said Bedwell. “We can use software to run several iterations of genomic data in our evaluation with all the pedigree and phenotypic data. We have two million animals in the genetic evaluation, lots of phenotypic observations for each trait and 100,000 markers on top of that.”

At first, the organization ran two evaluations a year: a spring sire summary and fall sire summary. “We changed it to a monthly evaluation with breeders submitting timely information,” Bedwell said, “and we want to incorporate that information to give them the most up to date EPDs.”

Prior to incorporation of data, genetic evaluations assigned each ET calf 50% of traits from the sire and 50% from the dam. “All we could do at the time is say ‘take 50% of your weaning weight EPD and 50% of weaning EPD, the blend of that and a little fudging on a set of sibs could go one way,’” said Bedwell. “As we’ve fed genomic data into the evaluation, we can now see how closely full sibs are related.”

The goal of using genetics to improve a breed is to find genetic differences early to make better, more informed decisions. But ETs can and should differ. “We wrote a genetic evaluation for about 15 years where they did not differ,” said Bedwell. “The system only ‘knew’ what it knew. All we had was the ET pedigree average.” Enhancement allowed a boost in accuracy achieved through gathering more data early instead of waiting three generations to find out there was a mistake.

Bedwell said carcass weight can be an interesting genetic aspect because many believe it doesn’t affect them. Those who sell at weaning are interested in pounds weaned. “The good news is that weaning weight is highly correlated to carcass weight,” said Bedwell. “Yearling weight is highly correlated to carcass weight. Cattle have gotten bigger, fast, and it isn’t necessarily because we’re feeding them longer. We’ve created more of a rockstar athlete to do that.”

Beef enjoys ongoing popularity as a food choice, and although foodservice crashed during the pandemic, Bedwell said retail expanded and beef was a popular choice for many, particularly Millennials. “Millennials would go to their favorite restaurant to get their favorite steak because they didn’t know how to or have the desire to cook,” he said. “Through the pandemic, they could buy a high-end piece of meat and learn how to grill. The good news for beef producers is Millennials like to grill and like to spend money. As beef producers, we grew demand, and consumption of beef grew because we have a high-quality product. We win every time on taste.”