More than ever, genetic influences impact herd profitability. That’s because beef producers now must target production to fit branded beef programs rather than just commodity beef. As buyers of cattle become more specific in what they need from producers, it’s up to you to identify that target to hit in order to obtain top market prices and avoid discounts.

Hitting that target requires making continual genetic improvement to meet both production and marketing goals. For commercial producers, that sometimes becomes a shot in the dark due to lack of understanding and awareness of tools available to help in the decision process.

Much of the genetic improvement goals depend on what producers are trying to do with their operation, says Blake Angell, director of commercial marketing with the Red Angus Association of America. This can be done by tracking progress to set benchmarks, then choosing traits for improvement.

“There’s tremendous information available on bulls’ differences between and within breeds,” says Jim Gosey, animal scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “That’s where crossbreeding, EPDs and profit indexes come into play.”

Utilize a planned crossbreeding program
A well-thought-out crossbreeding program is the simplest way to make genetic improvement thanks to hybrid vigor.

Colorado State University animal scientist Tom Field says that although selection within a breed is a useful tool, the maximum genetic benefit is typically obtained by exploiting breed differences through the creation of heterosis as a result of a planned crossbreeding system. “Hybrid vigor provides a buffer against environmental stress that allows crossbred animals to be more productive in some traits than the average of the parental breeds that originated the cross.” In particular, hybrid vigor boosts reproductive performance. That’s why good crossbred cows are the staple for many ranching operations.

A crossbreeding system, however, needs planning. “There are a lot of crossbred cattle out there, but not necessarily a lot of good crossbred programs,” says Keith Bertrand with the University of Georgia.

“The choice of a mating system depends on a careful assessment of the environmental and market constraints associated with a particular ranch,” Dr. Field points out. “Environmental considerations include forage availability, regularity of precipitation, feed costs, and the design of a grazing system that best utilizes and conserves the forage resources. The performance of progeny from the mating system should be appropriate for the desired market outlet.”

Basic crossbreeding systems include rotational, terminal, composite or a combination of these. There are a number of articles available on the Internet to help you develop specific crossbreeding systems. You can search through past articles of Drovers by logging onto and conducting a keyword search.

Evaluate EPDs
EPDs have been around for years, but you may still avoid this evaluation tool because of the multitude of EPDs available. “A lot of commercial producers still aren’t basing bull decisions using EPDs,” Dr. Bertrand says. “EPDs can be a very effective tool to minimize calving difficulty and those types of traits.”

In addition, more EPDs are being developed on a regular basis. Greg Comstock, marketing programs coordinator for the Red Angus Association of America points out that five of the largest breed associations publish between 25 to 30 separate EPDs. Some of these traits may overlap in influence and/or be antagonistic.

For commercial producers, you must know your goals and determine those traits that are relevant to your operation and your bottom line.

Look into breed-specific indexes
Indexes are not a new tool, but now more breed associations are developing indexes based on the goals of commercial producers. For instance, the American Angus Association offers $Value indexes such as Weaned Calf Value, Feedlot Value, Grid Value, Beef Value and Cow Energy Value. The American Hereford Association also offers economic selection indexes such as Baldy Maternal Index, Brahman Influence Index, Certified Hereford Beef Index and the Calving EZ Index.

“These indexes are tools that we use where we combine several traits into each profit index,” says Jack Ward, who works on breed improvement at the American Hereford Association. He uses an example using the Certified Hereford Beef index. “If you have a customer that’s coming to buy bulls and he wants to raise terminal cattle that will be put into a feedyard and marketed to a grid, then he can select bulls strictly off that CHB index. That way they don’t have to look at all 11 different traits that went into that index and it makes selection easier.”

It also prevents producers from chasing a single trait, points out Dr. Gosey. That’s because the indexes utilize a number of different EPDs rather than focusing on one trait.

But remember that bulls can rank differently depending on what kind of index you’re using because the index is going to emphasize different traits. “The indexes put out by the breed associations are a good start for producers, but those are still based on what the breed association thinks or the person that put those indexes thinks is what the average set of circumstances is going to be,” Dr. Bertrand says. “Not everyone is going to fit that index.”

Also keep in mind that each breed has different indexes based on EPDs developed for a specific breed. Since those calculations are different, you can’t look across breeds and compare indexes to one another.

In the future, he says, some breeds are working to develop index tools that producers can customize to their particular production parameters. So a producer could go online and enter some production data to come up with a customized index to help select bulls. That, however, is just in the development stage and still a ways away from practical application.