AUSTRALIAN beef breeding has backed itself into a “trickle down” model that is holding up genetic gain and not adequately linking into consumer demand.
It’s time for a major overhaul towards an “outcomes up” model, the likes of which are delivering massive gains on a day-to-day basis overseas.
This was the argument made by one of the country’s most experienced meat quality men, former producer, feedlotter and butcher shop owner Dr Rod Polkinghorne, at a recent livestock breeding and genetics attended by hundreds.
Dr Polkinghorne outlined the phenomenal gains being made in Ireland, where a national cattle breeding database sits on 100 million records from 30m animals and incorporates commercial progeny testing of sires.
The result is the very best bulls being used in commercial herds are identified.
In stark contract, Australia’s “absolute pearlers” can effectively be hidden, according to Dr Polkinghorne.
Our stud breeders focus on breeding better bulls and then push them out to commercial herds, Dr Polkinghorne said.
“We have this trickle down genetic model which was world leading 20 or even 30 years ago; it’s a breed society-dominated structure based on pedigree augmented by genotyping,” he said.
“It relies on having very good stud breeders - and we do - but the frustration is how much are we missing?
“Most bulls are sold at 15 months - we know how he grew, a little bit about his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles but we know absolutely nothing about his progeny.
“And yet what would you rather know about?”
An ‘outcome up’ system, where we utilise every bit of carcase data out there, from carcase yield and eating quality results to reproduction and growth data, to drive sire, dam and progeny ratings would move Australian beef ahead in leaps and bounds, he said.
“We need to lift our game with regards to data to drive genetic gain and produce more of the high eating quality beef consumers want,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
Every year, Australia’s meat quality grading system Meat Standards Australia captures 3m records on everything from marbling to carcass weight, yet only 500 make it back to Breenplan.
Too much opportunity for gain is being lost, Dr Polkinghorne said.
“We know genetics does have a big impact on eating quality but how it links together we are a long way from knowing,” he said.
“In a perfect system we would know the absolute potential of any animal.”
The Irish example, which is the world’s largest livestock genomics program, sees every beef and dairy animal recorded for pedigree and production traits.
“There is a rating on every bull sold, regardless of whether it’s purebred, crossbred or composite,” Dr Polkinghorne said.
“If you want to get the extra money, you use bulls with a four or five star rating so imagine what that does to drive progress.
“To me this is an absolute model.
“There is now no excuse, we know it can be done. We need to get up to speed.”
What genomics could deliver
Leading red meat scientist consultant Dr Alex Ball agreed.
Property of birth was where the first genetic selection was made but at the moment the cow/calf breeder and store lamb producer was the data orphan - they don’t get any information, he said.
“If we get it wrong there - if you don’t value the fact you are giving data to someone else who will then deliver a better decision for you, we aren’t going to move forward,” he said.
“If you can’t see there is a value proposition in getting that data to the critical decision point, the whole industry has it completely wrong.”
Dr Ball said within the next three to five years, producers could be using genomics to make decisions about what animal should be fed under what production system for a particular quality or brand outcome.
“If you know the potential for an animal is to produce a marble 4 on 70 days of feed and the genetic potential of another animal is marble score 8, then ultimately you will end up being able to say at the crush these animals go this way, these the other way,” he said.
“The consumer is getting less and less worried about whether it’s 100 day grain fed or 80, instead they are saying “does it meet the eating quality attributes I want”.
In the north, if a producer was supplying into a branding structure that did not reward quality, then profit would come from yield per hectare and fertility drives that, Dr Ball said.
“It may well be you’ll screen say 30pc of the herd to meet that production system, 30pc to go to a feedlot and 30pc elsewhere,” he said.
“But you will be making those decisions based on more objective information.”