Better Contemporary Groups Makes Better Technology Work Even Better


Marty Ropp, CEO, Business Development Specialist & Field Representative, Allied Genetic Resources

I know the title contains a lot of betters, but the statement is true.  The old adage about “garbage in, garbage out” is absolutely correct and pertains to genetic improvement in a big way. It is the reason reporting data correctly and equitably is so important.  If you are like me, you are absolutely ecstatic about the new “Bolt” system for calculating the next generation of improved and more accurate genetically advanced information.  So much scientific advancement and hard work has gone into the new Quantum Leap Program, and we all stand to benefit from that effort.  With the future in mind, I want to revisit the past a bit because this and other newer technologies still depend so much on breeder commitment to high quality data collection and reporting.  In fact, one could argue that reporting data may be more important now than ever before.  Don’t be lulled by the promise of new technologies making life easier.  DNA diagnostics demand huge amounts of new data for re-calibration and updating so they can be effective both today and then in the future.

Well-defined and reported contemporary group information is still the backbone for the data systems we rely on to make better cattle and better beef.  Discussions regarding contemporary group data are often overshadowed by dreams of do-it-all technology, and the sad tendency to revert to the simplistic use of raw, individual data to characterize performance and progress.  The truth is, without quality contemporary group comparisons and evaluation, all the technology and marketing we use gives little hope of significant improvement or improved competitiveness.

Think of contemporary groups simply as races—races that take place on thousands of farms and ranches each year.  We report the results of those races to the ASA. They in turn evaluate the winners and losers, and report back to us which genetics won more races for more traits than others over a huge array of environments and situations.  No sire will win every race, every time.  No matter how sure we are that the results at our house are the only ones that count, different progeny rank and perform differently compared to their contemporaries in different situations.  Sires that win far more often than they lose build value for specific traits, those that come in below average repeatedly lose EPD value for those traits.  This combined effort of technology and data reporting is like being able to ask every breeder in the world how their calves did.  Remember that a sire can win and lose in different categories. It could win for growth and lose for carcass traits or win for maternal value and lose for calving ease.  The more race results reported from multiple  herds, the more sure we become about the results of future races; and the higher the accuracy of  the predictions of the trait we are trying to measure and or improve.  Our system even accounts for mating bias and our own logical tendencies for preferential matings.

Fair and honest races are the key to great and accurate genetic evaluation.  That is why well designed (fair) contemporary grouping is still the start and finish of great EPDs, and in turn maximizes genetic improvement.  Having a lot of race results really helps, but the more reliable and well conducted those comparisons are the better the data that is returned to breeders and the more powerful the genetic evaluation.

How then might we design and help guarantee “fair races”?  If you look up the rules for contemporary grouping, they are quite specific as to time ranges, environment, sex and details that should be followed to get the most accurate and useful “race” results.  If it is an “uphill race”, everyone has to run uphill.  If weights are taken with the cattle full, they all need to be taken with the cattle full.  If one group of cattle gets special treatment, of any kind, they should not be compared against cattle that were not given special treatment or advantage.  The goal is to remove as much environment from the equation as possible and only measure the differences due to genetics.  As breeders, we routinely add environmental noise to our programs for a lot of reasons, and it’s not a big issue for contemporary groups as long as we separate the groups into honest, fair races.  Thirty animals broken into 5 well planned contemporary groups can in fact be more informative than leaving 30 in one group even though some were creep fed, some had different pasture situations, one group got sick, etc.  All of those are reasons to re-define groupings when your data is reported.  Most of the time we don’t think about it, but animals at a significant disadvantage due to environment should be dropped from the groups as well.  Calves raised as twins are not compared to the average of the group for evaluation purposes because of the significant environmental disadvantage they have to single calves. A calf with a broken leg, chronically ill, or orphaned should be dropped from the group because their race was not “fair” or equitable genetically due to overriding environmental influences.  Those calves should be ratio-ed separately and thus their 100-ratio value will not contribute to the genetic evaluation or EPDs for their sire, dam or other ancestors.

One of the most overlooked contemporary group issues is pasture groups or units.  From a “Purist” point of view, different pasture or cow groups equal a different racecourse, and thus a different contemporary group.  One of the more common circumstances where similar pasture situations can result in a different race is when evaluating fertility or Stayability. For Example, a bull in one pasture failed to settle any cows and the one in an adjacent pasture did.  If both pasture groups were erroneously reported as one contemporary group, the cows in the pasture with the bad bull would be the ones blamed for failure to conceive rather than the “environment”, even though in this case the bull, in that pasture was the culprit.  If reported correctly, as two contemporary groups, the genetics of those cows with the non-breeder bull would not be discounted for their longevity because their race was a poor one and everyone lost.

Adjustment factors are there to help make races fairer.  Just like you might give your child a head start in a race across the yard when they are young to make for a more “fair” race, an adjustment factor tries to make hard-to-compare data, comparable.  We add birth weights to heifers to make the weight more comparable to cows because it makes for a fairer genetic comparison race. We add weaning weight to the progeny of heifers because, in general, their first calf is the smallest they will wean, and for that reason it’s hard to compare or ratio against the progeny of the mature cows in their pasture.  These adjustment factors may not be perfect for every situation and boy do folks like to point that out.  If you can prove through years of data that the first calf heifer adjustments for weights in your herd are always way too high or way too low, then simply report your heifer progeny data as a single contemporary group of its own. It won’t hurt the genetic evaluation regardless of which choice you make.  For instance, when the heifers are treated substantially differently than the cows, the calves should be reported as a separate contemporary group for more accurate data.  The decision is based on what makes for the most fair and equitable race.

It is important to remember a few simple things when it comes to contemporary groupings.  Once a contemporary group is broken up, it will not be put back together except in a few strange and isolated situations. There are rules for contemporary grouping, such as seasonal overlap protection, that may make your contemporary groups smaller than you remember reporting.  In general, fair races are between calves of similar age, the same sex and always based on a similar chance to compete in the race.  That way, the winners and losers will provide the best of information to the database and ultimately to the breeders who count on the value of the genetic information and EPDs.  A lot of data from a lot of breeders always wins the day, but a lot of good data gets us where we all want to go a lot faster.  Rethink your contemporary groupings and fair races for 2016 – make your data count!


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