For cattle ranchers and breeders, buying a new bull or cow is a huge risk: Will the offspring bring home the profit?
Jared Decker, a Ph.D. student in genetics at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, thinks he's found a way to manage some of that risk. The trick? Figuring out the genetic value of cows immediately after birth.
Decker grew up in New Mexico. And really, you can trace his research back to a childhood memory. He explained the connection recently before a handful of interesting onlookers at a small presentation in Columbia.
"I grew up on a small farm," Decker said. "I always wanted to win at the state fair."
He spent nine years learning to raise a grand champion cow.
"Her name was Goldie. She was all gold and had white on her," he said.
But building a genetic champion like Goldie isn't easy because there's no exact way to tell how effectively two animals will breed, Decker said. You might get a cow like Goldie, or you might get something else.
There are two ways to breed cattle - either buy genetic material from a breeder and do it artificially, or let cows take care of it themselves out in the field. Even with the careful science of artificial insemination, there's no hard guarantee.
"What genomic selection provides compared to traditional selection techniques, is it just provides a more accurate estimate earlier in the life of the animal," Decker said.
Decker has spent hours in his lab at the University of Missouri putting values on each of his 56,000 samples.
If the research goes as planned, farmers will be able to this information to figure out how efficiently cows turn feed into pounds of meat and how resistant they are to illness and disease, said Jerry Taylor, Decker's mentor and a professor at the university. That could save farmers money and lead to higher quality beef.
But Ben Eggers, farm manager for Missouri's largest Angus cattle breeder, Sydenstricker Farms in Mexico, Mo., said the breeding process is very complicated.
"I remember buying a bull that was all hyped up and he brought $115,000 and we outbid everyone. He did not do well," said Eggers, who makes a living breeding cows with desirable traits.
Eggers who has more than 900 cattle doesn't think he has much to gain from Decker's research, though he has used genomic technology.
"I know what's worked over the years, even if I am watching the genetic markers," Eggers said. "I'm not going to bet the farm on a young bull just because he's high on the genomic process."
Even relying on his intuition, Egger's method seems like a science all in its own. He collects data on the cow, from birth weight to milk production. A cow's value is also based on its parents' information. Accuracy takes time with this method and keeping data can't tell Eggers immediately everything he wants to know about a cow.
"In general, most sires have to produce more than 1,000 calves to reach an 80 accuracy, or to be considered a well-proven bull," Eggers said. "The sire is probably 5 to 7 years old by the time that's done."
Eggers said it's all about the data now, while 50 years ago farmers chose a cow based on what they could see.
"Back when I started in the Angus business, all value was determined by how they did in a showroom," Eggers said. "Merit was based on what we saw with our eyes."
For many small farmers, that's still the primary assessment method in the auction barn risky guesswork in an age where cows cost an average of about $1,700.
But genomic technology is too expensive for small operations. And hasn't yet proved its worth to others.
For now, Eggers said he will continue to use genomic tests only rarely. But if the next phase of Decker's research goes as planned and he can pinpoint how effectively a cow will gain weight, then breeders like Eggers could have a more effective tool at their disposal.
That could produce better cattle and lead U.S. consumers to see more high-quality beef on supermarket shelves.
Taylor, Decker's mentor, said the research has perfect timing.
"People want more marbling, better tenderness," Taylor said. "The demand for certified beef is through the roof, to the point that we can't meet that demand anymore."