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Genetic IQ: Defining Traits That Matter in Your Beef Herd and Tracking Data to Make Decisions

beef herd genetics in red beef bull at sunset

In beef production, genetics play a critical role in management and profitability. However, knowing whether you’re on the right track can be challenging. Compared to other livestock species, beef cattle have a long gestation period. Those 283 days, plus the period from birth to weaning or beyond, can seem like a long time to find out if a particular genetic combination is a winner or a bust. 

What tools and technologies exist that can help producers optimize their genetic selection? What traits are more economically relevant than others? How can genetic selection tools be useful for marketing?

Many purebred/seedstock producers use data collection along with DNA testing to generate expected progeny differences (EPDs) to help their customers make decisions. Commercial producers may take advantage of the benefits of cross-breeding, also known as heterosis, using two or more breeds. They may choose to keep track of which breed combinations work best to help them achieve their goals.

Need ideas on how to record genetic information in your farm records? Pre-register for the BCRC’s upcoming online Cow-Calf Record-Keeping Course for Tracking Genetic Improvements, launching in January 2024.

Cow-Calf Record-Keeping Course on tracking beef herd genetic improvements

In order to use genetic data as a decision-making tool, you need to start with some form of on-farm record-keeping. The BCRC has a suite of free genetic record-keeping resources available for producers who are at a beginner (Level One), intermediate (Level Two) or advanced (Level Three) stage. 

In the recent BCRC webinar, Keeping Production Data to Improve the Supply Chain, Betty-Jo Almond from AgSights says data has value in both a broad context and on an individual basis. “You may be operating on a herd level, but when you can identify those animals that do a good job, or those silently strong animals, or the ones that are not doing great for you, and cull those, you can see some pretty quick advancements in your profitability,” Almond says. Her company works with producers to analyze data and make on-farm production decisions. 

“Genetic selection is impacted by a lot of different things and a lot of different traits are important to different producers,” explains Sandy Russell, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Beef Breeds Council (CBBC). The CBBC connects Canada’s purebred breeds and genetic industry around the world. 

While commercial and purebred herds may gather and manage their own unique genetic data, most large-scale genetic information is collected and maintained by individual breed associations. Russell acknowledges that keeping this valuable information in silos has made using the data a challenge for commercial producers looking for broader information to make breeding or feeding decisions. 

To address this, the CBBC embarked on an initiative called the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) which will help standardize information across breeds.  

Click above to watch this webinar in its entirety or jump to each panelist’s presentation:

  • (4:02) Bruce Niznik of Niznik Farms shares how he uses careful genetic selection to advance the marketing practices for his cow-calf and backgrounding operation near Brooks, Alberta.
  • (16:17) Betty-Jo Almond with AgSights explains how their company works with farmers to enhance data-based decision-making.
  • (28:56) Virgil Lowe with Granite Cattle Inc. near Nanton, Alberta, explains how they source, buy and feed cattle based on prior production data.

Betty-Jo Almond and her team at AgSights developed an across-breed selection tool as a pilot project for CBIN. “We’ve created a dashboard in collaboration with the breed associations so that we can start to pull in purebred information, but also commercial information, and connect the data and try to demonstrate the value of having a resource where you can find that superior genetics to incorporate into your breeding program,” says Almond. 

“Part of the dashboard is providing some visuals so you know the strengths of the bulls you are reviewing,” says Almond, who adds that the project is evolving to include a stronger focus on the commercial component across all levels of beef production. 

impact of top sires due to genetic traits
This is an example of average EPD comparisons for top sires compared to all sires. Image from 

Russell explains that having a unified approach to genetic advancement will help highlight information in a way that producers can use to inform their decision-making. “It’s not about identifying the perfect cow but about helping producers make decisions using sound data.” 

Beef producer Marlin Leblanc says the concept of building a bi-directional pipeline of genetic information that goes up the chain and back down is the key. 

Leblanc had a long, successful career as a purebred breeder with R Plus Simmentals and recently switched gears to run yearlings following his herd dispersal last winter. He has seen a lot of different aspects of the business and is co-vice chair of the CBBC and a proponent of CBIN and what it might mean for the industry. 

“I bought feeder cattle for years too, and you had five to ten seconds to decide what that calf will yield when it hits 1,500 pounds and decide what you can pay for it,” Leblanc says. “Now if we can prove that those cattle are right, the whole system changes.”

Leblanc adds that cattle are getting marketed differently now, and tracking prior owners of feeder cattle is something many lots are already doing. “Sourcing cattle that yield, that feed from feed-efficient herds — feedlots like data too. We just need someone out there to make that connection to share that data.” 

He believes the purebred industry has an important role to play and getting a seat at the same table as stakeholders at the other end of the supply chain is highly valuable. “The big players realize that genetics are important,” Leblanc explains. “This is an opportunity if they’re willing to share information, which will allow us to breed better cattle and help them get what they want.”

Finding out what might not be working also has value. “The thing we might have to realize is sometimes the cattle we believe are right, aren’t,” Leblanc says. “There’s always a risk with information but if you’re using a bull that doesn’t meet some of these criteria, you aren’t helping your commercial customer. . . . We’ve all used the wrong bull before and the best thing you can do is move on to something else.

“I think CBIN will move the needle,” he says. “When you start working with feedlots and packing plants, that’s real data. When you know what these cattle did, you can make them better and make the customer better.” 

Sandy Russell says that through CBIN, breeders and associations will maintain control of their data. “For individual producers, if you want to share data, that’s your choice,” she says. “But this will make it easier for breeders to do so if they choose.

“Each individual commercial producer has a goal that is unique and evolves over time, and if we can inform those goals and help them achieve results, that is what this is all about.” 

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