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Judging A Cow By More Than Its Cover

Frank Morris
Harvest Public Media

Backstage behind the cattle pens at the giant livestock show at the American Royal in Kansas City, Mo., “cow fitter” Maddee Moore was awash in glamour goods.

“There’s a large blower that you use, and several combs, and then glues and lots of hair products,” said Moore, who had been at the Royal since the wee hours primping what will turn out to be the livestock show’s prize Hereford heifer. 

Hair products? 

“Hair products, hair products galore,” said Moore, of Kansas City, a regular participant in the competition each fall. “The show cattle are like the supermodels of the cow industry.” 

Show cattle are not meant for hamburger, they’re for breeding. Just a measure of their semen can bring $25 to $100.   

Still, despite all the primping here, looks only count for so much these days. Because although breeding decisions have long hinged on visual inspection — the same method judges and spectators use at the American Royal — an ever-more-precise statistical analysis is poised to supplant the art of gauging cattle.

Data-driven decisions

Out in the show area at the American Royal, leaning against a rail outside the ring, Sue Stream watched closely, marking her own scores in a program next to the animal’s names as competing Hereford bulls paraded past. She has an award-winning purebred cattle breeding business in Iowa. 

Credit Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Maddee Moore, a “cow-fitter,” helps competing heifers look their best at the American Royal livestock show.

Stream is searching for just the right mate for some of her heifers and said watching the animals, seeing how they move, how they’re put together, is the best way to choose.

“I feel it’s very important because it’s the whole package of the animal that you are looking for,” Stream said. “The balance, the type and kind, the width, the depth – you can’t see all that on paper.”

The paper she refers to is the Expected Progeny Differences readout. EPDs, as they’re called, give ranchers detailed predictions of the traits a given bull, or cow, can be expected to pass on to its offspring.  

“It’s advanced statistics,” said Dan Moser, an animal sciences professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “It’s computer horsepower. And it’s sharing of data among producers.”

EPDs work like this: When a young bull starts producing offspring, the calves are weighed and measured at certain points in their development. As the number of calves from a particular bull increase and detailed information about those calves is collected, the accuracy of the EPD projections on the bull improve. So, by the time a bull reaches the end of its breeding career, statisticians are able to make good predictions about the traits it will pass on to its young. By then, of course, it’s a little late – the job is done for this bull.   

That is where genetic testing comes in.

What you can’t see

Dorian Garrick, at Iowa State University, looks at bulls and heifers a little differently than most.

“An animal is just an envelope containing genes,” Garrick said.

By looking at the exterior traits — size, for instance — you can tell something about the genes. But some traits, you can’t see: How efficiently a cow uses food; how soon it will be ready to reproduce; how much high quality meat it will produce. And, even more importantly, you can’t tell just by looking how likely a given bull is to pass on these traits on to his offspring.

Credit Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Attendees of the American Royal Livestock watch as Hereford heifers parade in front of judges.

“What really matters from an efficiency and profitability basis for a commercial farmer, is what are the value of those genes when they are disseminated through his herd and producing offspring,” Garrick said.  

But the science is just taking off in the cattle industry – partly because of the vast number of breeds on the market. Finding reliable genetic markers for the likelihood of passing on traits like “feed efficiency” or for producing lots of high-quality meat has proven elusive. Researchers have found a genetic marker that’s normally accurate for predicting good milk production in dairy cows, but nothing so dramatic in beef cattle.   

Researchers like Garrick and Moser say the traits are there and will become evident as detailed genetic workups from more cows, with known traits, become available. They expect to be able to test the genes of a cow embryo and accurately predict not just how big it will likely become, but whether or not it will pass on desirable traits to its progeny.

One thing cattle breeders don’t talk much about is genetic engineering. But according to Garrick, manipulating genetic code to produce a cow that would grow, say, much more high-end steak, is theoretically possible.

“Technically, yes we know how to do it,” Garrick said. “But right now, emotionally, people find it more acceptable to do those kinds of things in plants than they do in animals.”

That resistance means there’s no money in it and there’s not likely to be for the foreseeable future. Garrick said patent law prohibits staking a patent on a genetically manipulated animal, so even if regulations and consumer tastes changed, it would still be hard to find anyone to invest in the technology as there’s no way to make such an investment pay off.

So for now, the best use for genetic information about cows is as a supplement to the more mundane information gleaned from an animal’s lineage, measurable characteristics, and, yes, its looks.

What did you think of this story and Harvest Public Media's series “America’s Big Beef?” Click hereto share your thoughts with the Harvest Network.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, reports on farm and food issues in collaboration with public media stations across the Midwest. For more stories, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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