Silly Season on EBVs

21st October 2013

by Jack Allen
Technical Director, BREEDPLAN

Why is it that around the start of each sales season there is an article expounding that “EBVs don’t work” with quotes from sheep and cattle breeders expressing their opinion? Some Patsy, Scottish Farmer, journalist hunting for a headline runs with it, seemingly without due diligence in following up the opinion with actual facts; people are entitled to their opinions, but my opinion is that it is reasonable to expect a balanced and researched article.

The bottom line is that EBVs do work. By measuring animals as contemporaries and analysing the pedigree and performance data in a sophisticated genetic analysis (like BREEDPLAN), you get better information on the animals for those traits than what you get by simply looking at the animal on sale day. This is the issue – trying to get better information on animals bred and managed by others so that you can use them in your breeding herd to breed better animals. Not only do we estimate the ranking of animals using EBVs, we are also prepared to give an indication on how much information was available to calculate the EBVs (ie accuracies).

EBVs do not tell you everything about an animal. But they do give you more information on the analysed traits so that you can make a better decision. EBVs do not replace breeders/stockmen. EBVs are a tool to be used by stockmen in making breeding decisions. That same decision making process will also include animal structure, locomotion, breed character, temperament, colour, polling, etc. and likely costs and returns. Just because a stockman uses an accountant doesn’t mean that they are inept at handling their finances. Rather it is more likely to mean that they get a service from the accountant that maximises the return on their investment.

Just as we need balanced journalism, stockmen will tell you that you need a balanced animal – not just a focus on a single issue. Single trait selection is not a good breeding strategy – whether you use EBVs or not. Similarly, there is not a single, one size fits all perfect animal. The different production, management and market systems in the UK mean that stockmen need to define their own breeding objective and select animals that meet their own criteria. It is alright if this criteria is different to another person’s.

As with any tool, a craftsman using it gets a better result than the novice. Performance recording and EBVs are no different. Stockmen that understand the tool and know how to apply it will get more reward. Those that don’t understand may well blame the tool.

Discussion on “cheats in the system” is just a distraction. Every industry has less than reputable people involved – unfortunately it is human nature. However, successful breeders have on-going repeat buyers driven by the herd’s good reputation in the industry. You don’t gain that good reputation overnight – but you can certainly lose it that quick. There are processes in place in all recording systems to identify anomalies, as there should be. However, the reality is the breeds are making on-going genetic progress and this can only happen if the vast majority of parents produce progeny that are breeding as expected.

So as Stockmen, use any of the tools available that you feel will help you make better breeding decisions. It is a stockman’s choice about whether they use EBVs or not, but just because someone decides to not use EBVs does not mean the EBVs are wrong or don’t work.