Times are changing for beef producers. Although genetic statistics like expected progeny differences, or EPDs, are becoming more widely used, many still see the value in live evaluations. In the rolling hills of southwest Iowa’s cow-calf country, young beef producers gathered recently at Anita Vet Clinic’s new facility to examine Randy Dreher’s bulls. It was a meeting of the Beginning and Young Livestock Producer Success Network.
Several young couples met to participate in a bull evaluation clinic. Bulls were first evaluated by visual appraisal and then by EPDs. This allowed the producers to appreciate the value of analyzing all the information available. Mary and Adam Ebert, who farm near Coon Rapids, were two of the producers.
An increasing number of producers are looking into EPDs, and the Eberts are interested in using both EPDs and live evaluation. “If the bull doesn’t look up to specs like we want, we would definitely choose the appearance of the next bull over the EPDs,” Mary explains.
• More beef producers are incorporating the use of EPDs into sire selection.
• Live evaluation still valuable; numbers alone aren’t always entirely accurate.
• Expected progeny differences of separate bulls provide the data to compare.
It’s all about finding a balance. The standard deviation is less concise in a younger bull vs. an older bull. Structure and soundness are two of the traits the Eberts look for in live evaluations. “Sometimes the information isn’t as sound as what you think it is,” Mary adds. “The bull won’t be any good if he comes up lame or something happens to him.”
Willingness to use EPDs can vary. “I think it probably depends on what you were brought up with,” says Mary, recalling her own experience selecting bulls on the family operation. “EPDs were a part of it, but they were never all of it. If you want to sell some of the offspring as breeding stock, you may want to pay more attention to the EPDs.
EPDs are a helpful tool
EPDs provide valuable information, but producers usually have a particular kind of animal they prefer based on visual appraisal. This trend is evident among producers attending the Anita meeting.
“There’s something to that; you do have to look at the animals in your pasture every day,” says ISU Extension beef field specialist Chris Clark. “The key is to compile all the information.” This means using charts with figures for each trait. “You have to be able to sort through the numbers,” Clark says. “More and more information is becoming available all the time. If you can combine EPDs, genetic information and live evaluation, hopefully, you can find the bulls that work for you.”
Sorting through the numbers can be a challenge, although it provides some uniformity in the terms used to rank sires. Because EPDs are predictions based partially on performance of progeny, they aren’t always accurate. Accuracy ratings help producers estimate how much confidence they can have in the EPD numbers. As more progenies are evaluated, accuracies will improve and EPD numbers may change to some degree.
EPDs are a shift from the days when producers dropped cattle off at a stockyard test site, where they would be evaluated. Many older-generation producers still prefer live evaluations, says Dreher, who farms near Audubon. “For decades that’s been the standard people used,” he says. “More and more, we’re selecting based on the genetics component.”
Comparing two bulls genetically side by side is a challenge without a base. With EPDs, there is a base to compare. “A number by itself does mean something in this context,” Dreher notes. “It’s essentially comparing one animal against everybody in the entire system.” Clark says these comparisons are difficult with separate breeds. “If you’re comparing bulls of different breeds, there are adjustment factors you have to use because each breed uses a different scale or base,” he says. “However, Simmental and Red Angus are working together to get on the same scale.”
Live evaluations alone don’t provide all the necessary information. “You can see the animal, but you can’t tell how well it’s gained to that point,” Dreher says. “As a producer, you care how it gained.” An example EPD is the expected weaning weights of calves produced by two bulls with a 10-pound EPD difference breeding with the same herd. “Bull A should produce 10 pounds more statistically on average.”
EPDs list growth traits like yearling weight and birth weight, carcass traits like fat thickness and marbling, and reproductive traits like calving ease and gestation length with percentile breakdown numbers. “Those all play into your decision,” Dreher says. “It shouldn’t be a single component selection.”
These kinds of specific data are easier to define than physical descriptions, which vary depending on the farmer and the breeder or sale barn the farmer is buying from. “Descriptions are fairly general,” says Dreher. “Soggy for two people could mean something different.” He uses a car’s style as another analogy.
“It’s very hard to differentiate that,” he says. “Clear communication can minimize confusion and unhappiness down the road.”
Producers have different desires they may not be able to see with live evaluations. Dreher notes an example in selecting replacement heifers. “If you’re going to maintain ownership or finish them out yourself, you might be more concerned with carcass characteristics. You may have different preferences.”
For these reasons, EPDs can help, and Dreher has noticed a rising interest in them. “More young producers are willing to try it,” he says. While older-generation producers may stick with live evaluations — what they’re used to — younger generations like to try new things.
“We’re not saying people should use EPDs as the key component, rather they are one component of a multifaceted selection approach for breeding stock,” he adds. “I don’t see where there is a downside to understanding EPDs. The more information you have, solid information, the better.”
EVALUATION: Beth Irlbeck (right) and Adam and Mary Ebert of Coon Rapids examine Randy Dreher’s bulls at Anita Vet Clinic. Like an increasing number of producers, they see the value in combining EPD information with live evaluations.