Data Collection for Commercial Producers

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Genetic awareness within the commercial beef sector has been a much-discussed topic and is an ongoing challenge to make it a widespread reality. Ideally, commercial producers would see the rationale behind accurate and timely collection of phenotypes and genotypes, have resources to capture them, and then use the data for decision making to improve the profitability of the herd. However, the practicality of the matter may be very different. Given the limited time and dollars available within commercial environments, the expense of collecting information needs to be measured against the use and economic profit from the data.

Role of the commercial producer

Clearly, commercial producers hold the keys to obtaining genetic knowledge on certain hard-to-collect traits such as cow longevity, feedlot, and carcass data. While progressive seedstock producers may prioritize these characteristics in their breeding objectives, many seedstock operations turn their cowherd over quickly in the pursuit of genetic progress, and a high percentage of male calves are destined for a bull battery and not meat production. Thus, commercial producers have access to possible data collections that seedstock breeders may not have. Adding commercial data promises immense value in genetic prediction.

The difficulty of capturing value from commercial data collection may limit the bottom-line focus of the commercial audience unless the demand for data can be turned into tangible actions and subsequent dollars for the commercial operation. There are two primary pivot points that will determine the uptake of serious data collection and use in the commercial sector:

  • The production of and demand for slaughter cattle with more predictable profit potential, whether that takes the form of retained ownership or the marketing of value-added feeder calves.
  • Replacement females with reliable predictability of long-term cow performance.

BIF and like-minded organizations need to continue to engage and relay information to those entities involved in the marketing of feeder cattle, cattle feeding, the harvesting of terminal cattle, and the promotion and sale of beef products if we are to significantly grow the appetite for serious genetic awareness of feedlot and carcass traits in the commercial sector. BIF and like-minded organizations should also continue to advocate for whole life-cycle indexes that reflect a holistic view of the impact a given female has on the bottom-line of an operation.

Commercial producers recognize these fundamental components of a herd improvement program:

For those commercial producers who seek to add genetic awareness to their decision-making process, there are multiple approaches available. The different approaches come with varying levels of ease, time commitment, expense, and with different levels of genetic insight.

Approach A: Bull knowledge alone

Purchase bulls from trusted seedstock providers and use the genetics of the bull battery as a proxy for herd knowledge. In this scenario, commercial producers are taking advantage of the genetic information provided by their seedstock supplier. No further steps are taken by the commercial operation to gather information to define the genetic value of their herd.


  • Easy - no added effort after purchase of bull(s) for record collection or DNA testing
  • No added expense after bull purchase
  • Allows access to most feeder calf verification programs (e.g. Angus Link, IGS Feeder Profit Calculator, Top Dollar Angus) <> as do the remaining approaches as well


  • Provides little to no understanding of genetic differences within the herd
  • Provides the least genetic insight and therefore the poorest opportunity for genetic advancement of the approaches discussed

Approach B: Bull knowledge and commercial DNA tests

In addition to the knowledge acquired with bull purchases, this option incorporates commercially-available genomic tests (e.g. Igenity and Zoetis) that give a rudimentary genetic view for in-herd comparisons. These tests range in price, efficacy, and appropriateness for various breed types or breed compositions.


  • Easy - typically requires only a blood or tissue sample captured chute side. The sample is sent to a commercial lab and results returned on a simplified scale.
  • Provides information to make heifer retention decisions. It can be used on terminal calves, but that is usually price prohibitive. In lieu of sampling terminal calves, samples taken on replacement heifer prospects are usually viewed as a proxy for the terminal calves.


  • Does not facilitate a full genetic evaluation derived from pedigree and performance knowledge
  • Serves as an in-herd comparison rather than an industry-wide comparison
  • Moderate expense. Return on investment should be rigorously considered.
  • Moderate knowledge

BIF’s own guiding policy makes clear the limitations of this approach: “BIF believes that information from DNA tests only has value in selection when incorporated with all other available forms of performance information for economically important traits in the National Cattle Evaluation (NCE), and when communicated in the form of an EPD with corresponding BIF accuracy. For some economically-important traits, information other than DNA tests may not be available. Selection tools based on these tests should still be expressed as EPD within the normal parameters of NCE.”

Approach C: Structured genetic evaluation using pedigrees and phenotypes only

This approach (and Approach D) require a more significant commitment to data collection. A structured approach to individual animal identification, performance records, and reporting identified phenotypes at regularly scheduled intervals is essential to gaining meaningful results. This approach opens the door for expanding the level of genetic knowledge of each animal in the herd, but also requires significant homework to make the data usable in NCE.


  • Significant genetic awareness - on par with seedstock operators
  • Expected Progeny Differences and Selection Indexes can be generated across all females or an entire operation
  • Expected Progeny Differences and Selection Indexes allow for more precise decisions on heifer selection, mating, or marketing.
  • Cost can be low when viewed on a per-cow basis through some genetic evaluation providers
  • Robust software, system support, and technical assistance available through some genetic evaluation providers


  • Greater time and labor commitment for data collection and reporting
  • Greater learning curve to understand the reporting software
  • Cost can be variable (and thus fairly expensive in some cases) depending upon the provider

Upon first glance, the demands of data reporting through a structured genetic evaluation are foreign to many commercial clients. However, many thorough and progressive operations are already capturing a large portion of the information needed - and often more. Seedstock operators should encourage their data-conscious customers to consider this step. It empowers their customers and also provides an avenue to get more information regarding the seedstock providers' genetics into a genetic evaluation. All parties benefit from enhanced data collection, in particular on hard-to-capture phenotypes. The commercial customer gains more insight into their own ranch and thus is better equipped to determine the next step in their genetic purchases. This holds the seedstock operation more accountable for continuing to improve if they are to service that customer. In turn, the seedstock operator has greater knowledge to better consult and guide the commercial operation. Beyond the genetic evaluation knowledge of their animals, commercial producers also benefit from knowing their animal's performance for future marketing and management decisions.

Approach D: Structured genetic evaluation using pedigrees, phenotypes, and genomic data

This approach adds genomics to a structured genetic evaluation. As such, it becomes the pinnacle of thorough genetic awareness. Of course, that brings with it the greatest demand of time and dollars. This approach allows a committed commercial operation to ultimately attain a similar level of genetic awareness with the most elite seedstock programs in the business. This approach isn’t for every commercial program, but where appropriate adds a unique level of knowledge and informed decision making not possible with the other approaches.


  • Greatest amount of genetic knowledge. With time can attain a similar level of genetic awareness of elite seedstock programs.
  • Provides powerful genetic insight for all facets of the operation


  • Most expensive approach. This is still quite varied depending upon the genetic evaluation provider and the relationship with the genotyping lab. These costs will range from moderate to high.
  • Largest commitment of time and labor for data collection and reporting
  • Learning curve for reporting software

Content by Chip Kemp, Rachel Endecott, and Jackie Atkins

Herd Measurements

The systems approach to cattle production recognizes that interactions among numerous factors influence profitability of beef cattle enterprises. Genetics, management, and environment all affect input, output, and profit. The systems concept incorporates an awareness that there is more to consider in a beef cattle enterprise than simply the level of production. What is most important is the overall efficiency of the enterprise – in other words, net return. While the level of production is an important factor affecting profitability, costs of production are equally important.

Calving Distribution

In a systems approach to beef cattle production, net return to the operation is the golden ticket for assessing progress. One tool that can begin to characterize this relationship is a calving distribution report, which relies on reproductive performance as an indicator of compatibility of cattle with the production environment. Deviations from acceptable values can alert producers to variation in fertility caused by differences in genetic potential in other traits, or to ineffective reproductive management.

The following example of using calving distribution to assess reproduction is from the BIF Guidelines 9th Ed., March 2018

Calving Distribution
Spring Calving Period Fall Calving Period
Cow Age Number of Cows 1 2 3+ Avg Day of Calving Number of Cows 1 2 3+ Avg Day of Calving
2 79 55 27 16 24 33 45 39 15 26
3 62 29 43 27 33 34 47 23 29 31
4 44 43 36 20 26 22 27 50 22 31
5+ 70 60 21 19 23 52 29 40 31 33
Total 255 48 31 20 26 141 36 37 25 30
Trait Avg Performance by Calving Period Herd Avg Avg Performance by Calving Period Herd Avg
Milk EPD 5.0 3.9 4.1 4.4 4.0 4.8 6.6 4.9
Weight (lb.) 1243 1234 1233 1240 1281 1304 1247 1280
Height (in.) 51.9 52.2 51.9 52.0 52.3 52.4 52.4 52.4
W/H 23.9 23.6 23.9 23.8 24.5 24.9 23.8 24.4

The top portion of the report is used to monitor reproductive management. Cows are grouped by age in this report, although breed-of-sire and other groupings may be useful as well. The numbers in the table represent the percentage of cows calving in the first, second, and third 21-day increment of the calving season, and the average calving date. In this example, a higher percentage of cows calved early in the season during the spring compared to the fall calving season. However, there was greater difficulty rebreeding two-year-old cows in the spring than in the fall, as illustrated by the calving distribution of three-year-old cows.

Results from the bottom part of the table can indicate a level of genetic potential in the herd that is less-than-optimal for total production efficiency. The herd’s genetic potential for a trait is considered within the range for optimal performance if cows calving early, late, or not at all have similar average performance or EPDs for that trait. On the other hand, herd genetic potential for a trait may surpass the range for optimal performance if there is a significant trend in performance or EPDs for cows calving early, late, or not at all. If the trait affects net profit, the producer then must determine whether it is cost-effective to modify the environment to meet the needs of the cattle or to change the cattle to match their genetic potential to what the environment can support.

In this example, average hip height was very similar for cows calving in each period, indicating that herd genetic potential was not too high for prevailing conditions. However, for cows calving in the fall, there was a trend of increasing milk EPDs as the calving season progressed. This does not establish cause and effect, but it suggests that higher-milking, fall-calving cows had difficulty consuming enough feed to simultaneously meet lactation and reproduction requirements.

The only true systems indicator of compatibility is the bottom line - net return to the beef cattle operation. Therefore cattle producers that are serious about using the systems concept for beef production must keep records necessary to analyze profitability from different types of cattle and management alternatives. A standardized performance analysis (SPA) program can be used to collect, process, and interpret information on biological efficiency and economic returns to a beef cattle enterprise. Using a local extension office is a great place to ask for assistance in finding the right software system for your operation. Finally, simply keeping the necessary records is not enough. Producers must go one step further and be willing to act on the information that their analyses reveal.

In addition to the many tools discussed here, commercial cattle producers can reduce risks associated with bull infertility by obtaining bulls that have passed a breeding soundness examination. Reputable bull sellers will hire a veterinarian or reproductive physiologist to perform a BSE on bulls prior to offering them for sale, and cull those that do not pass.