"Collect more data on your cows and calves, and you will be able to track performance characteristics that are valuable to your operation." How many times have we heard this said in recent years, and is it really true? Data is only valuable if you have a way to adequately interpret and understand it. Otherwise, it is just another cost to your operation. We should all ask ourselves what are the tangible benefits of additional data and is there a means to process that data to knowledge.

The industry we market calves into has changed dramatically. Alliances, grids and value-based marketing are reality. According to Cattle-Fax, just seven short years ago slightly more than 15 percent of fed cattle were marketed on some type of formula, contract or through an alliance. By the year 2001 that number had jumped to 48.5 percent.

We are developing an industry that rewards or discounts cattle based on carcass and retail value. It is obvious that we must supply the right kind of information to make informed decisions. For example, the Texas A&M Ranch-to-Rail Program has clearly illustrated the effect of herd health management programs on carcass quality and profitability. Data gathered through the American-International Charolais Association's (AICA) Sire Evaluation Program also has shown that when marketed on a grid, as much as $5 per hundredweight or more can exist between sire groups of fed cattle. Further, cattle that are profitable on one grid may actually receive discounts on another. Targeting management and genetics to the right market makes it possible for producers to enhance profitability.

Producers must understand how management, environment and genetics interact. This understanding is necessary to make possible the production of a quality product at an acceptable level of profit. For instance, by examining phenotypic trend tables in most breed Sire Summaries, we can begin to understand how a combination of management and genetics interact to add pounds to weaned calves. Over the last 10 years, Charolais breeders have shown a 30-pound increase in weaning weights. The genetic trend table indicates that approximately 10 pounds of this is due to direct genetic selection for weaning weight. This leaves another 20 pounds of weaning weight that can be attributed to improved genetic selection for milking ability of dams, management, health, nutrition and other non-genetic factors.

Source verified genetics
Beef breed associations have supplied the industry with a source verified genetic product since their inception.

The largest pedigree identified databases for birth, growth, reproduction and carcass traits reside with breed associations. The implementation of Whole Herd Reporting programs and leading the charge for researching new technology such as ultrasound will only enhance the breed association's ability to continue providing the best genetic selection tools available. New programs and guidelines that have and are being implemented will enhance the accuracy of genetic selection tools.

Market assistance
Although it takes on numerous forms, breed associations are assisting cattlemen in receiving more dollars for their calves. Hundreds of thousands of cattle have been directly sourced in one form or another through the efforts of programs and contacts. Indirectly, multitudes more carry the genetic stamp of one breed or another and receive premiums in the market place. Many breed associations like the AICA, have placed contacts in the field whose primary responsibility is to assist in the identification of genetic source verified cattle. These cattle have been placed or marketed for premiums through alliances, auction markets, video auctions or premium grids. Value is being created by sourcing calves that are linked to a breed association database.

Individual cattle management tools, improved communication links and sharing of information will aid cattle-men in collecting meaningful data on larger numbers of cattle. The next step is to benchmark this data to gain knowledge concerning areas where improvement is needed. Producers that have a prior definition of their breeding and marketing objectives will have a better idea of how to apply this gained knowledge.

Robert Williams is director of breed improvement and foreign marketing for the American-International Charolais Association, Kansas City, Mo. robertw@charolaisusa.com