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Embracing Data
06 Jul '15
After getting back into agriculture in 2007 we started out like every other cattle producer new to the industry, a handful of foundation females and a loaner bull to join them each year. As our herd expanded we found ourselves at capacity and facing decisions in which animals stay and which ones go. Some decisions are easy...reducing older cows or paddock injuries mean we are always looking to retain the best of our heifers but where do we go from there?
Visual Inspection
Until we began our stud operation, picking out replacement heifers was based purely on visual inspection. We could sort through focusing on eye setting, structure and feet but what do we do when there are more outstanding heifers in front of us and we only need to retain half them? This is a decision affecting our herd for the next decade so it's best to get it right.

While learning about the extra mile stud operations go to in identifying the breeds next generation I started thinking about the additional data that we could be collecting.
1. Calving Ease
2. Birth Weight
3. Weaning Weight
4. Muscle Scans
5. Temperament
6. Financial Return
Capturing this data can be tedious and expensive but the insight offered is helping build our herd's asset value well beyond the next crop of weaners.
Tying this information back to the cow is essential in building a full picture, trends begin to appear highlighting the cows best suited to our requirements which allows us to make well informed decisions around which animals will influence the future of our herd.
In Herd vs Cross Herd Evaluation
If you speak to 10 people about the merit of cross herd evaluation you will likely get two distinct opinions. I certainly started out with a raised eyebrow and still take the numbers with a grain of salt but when you put it into perspective, it's just another part of the picture.

For those unfamiliar with breedplan, it offers predictive insight into the genetic gain of individual animals. Now that artificial insemination offers access to top genetics without the financial commitment of buying the animal, breedplan is able to provide how specific genetics will perform within a herd with a reasonable level of accuracy.
The value in breedplan is also its weakness. Selective feeding and data recording within a herd will skew results, the animals favoured by the producer will naturally be supplemented which exaggerates the divide between pampered bulls and those left to be raised under commercial conditions.

Actual data on the other hand can quickly cause alarm and hinder sales opportunities. If a potential customer fails to account for climate differences and feed supplements they will often overlook animals raised under harder conditions.
Many stud operations will supplement feed to accelerate the development of animals, this is a very effective way of preparing their animals and giving them the best possible chance to succeed within the breeding program.
Others will raise cattle strictly on pasture and hay, which will usually put these animals at a disadvantage statistically speaking. Grass fed animals are subject to pasture quality year round, when things get tough they are supplemented with hay and/or silage which offers more protein than most winter grasses but will not fatten the animal like grain will.

Both approaches serve a purpose, no right, no wrong...simply different markets. Where breedplan succeeds is sheltering grass fed operations from subpar raw statistics when compared to supplemented operations...unfortunately this is also its failure, by ignoring the conditions in which the animals were raised we still heavily rely on the raw data when identifying the animals that will best fit our program.
In Summary
In summary, data fills in the blanks after we have looked at the physical specimen. So, when you are selecting your herd's next generation start by looking for structurally sound animals...once you have a shortlist and all fit your type physically move onto the data, first actual then breedplan. Some may disagree with the order in which I make my decisions but just remember that breedplan numbers don't mean much if the animal doesn't thrive within our program.

Contributed by James Cullis