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Extension: Agriculture Moves from Being an Art to a Science
Missouri Ag Connection - 04/15/2019

The rate of technological advancement that we witness in our day-to-day lives is amazing. Cell phones do more today than personal computers could do 10 years ago. Self-driving cars, packages delivered by drones are not ideas for the future, but a reality today.

"Agriculture, though a traditional way to make a living, is on the forefront of these advancements in science and technology," said Eric Meusch, agriculture educator with MU Extension. "In this area, the University of Missouri is continually working to develop new technologies, as well as use these technologies to address real, on-farm problems."

The cattle industry is a good example of this change. For centuries good stockmanship was approached like an art. To improve his animals, a stockman needed a good eye and a knack for following pedigrees. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder and good breeding stock was selected by choosing those that looked the best and came from a reliable, known bloodline.

"Early cattlemen that advanced the various breeds took this skill to the level of an art. The skills it took were difficult for the average cattleman to replicate, and hard to pass on from generation to generation," said Meusch.

In the 1960s frozen semen made it possible for cattle producers to begin using artificial insemination to improve their herds. This technology allowed cattlemen to use the top bulls in the various breeds without owning the bulls.

"The major breed associations promoted these technologies to improve the overall quality of their breed by getting their best animals into more of the herd's pedigree," said Meusch.

In 1983 a new technology call Estimated Progeny Differences (EPDs) was introduced that used statistical analysis to determine how likely certain traits would be passed on to offspring. This took much of the "art" out of cattle breeding by giving producers actual numbers to use in making breeding decisions. By the mid-1990s the use of EPDs in selecting breeding stock had become widespread.

"Today, with the advancements in computers and the sheer size the of the data sets held by the breed associations, EPDs have become remarkably accurate estimates of how traits will be passed on from one animal to another," said Meusch.

Although EPDs are a great tool, they are basically a statistical guess of how that animal's offspring will perform. Developments in genetics have taken the guess work out. Genomically enhanced EPDs (GE EPDs) take the approach to a new level by using genetic samples from the individual animal to develop the EPDs. Rather than using statistics to guess what genes the animal might have, they determine what genes the animal actually has through genetic testing.

"Now we are also able to sort the male and female semen when it is collected for storage. This makes it possible to choose male or female calves," said Meusch.

Producers can use artificial insemination to breed a set cows to have all female calves with the best GE EPDs for maternal traits in the breed to save as replacement heifers, and breed another set of cows to have all male calves with superior growth and carcass characterizes.

"This isn't the future I'm describing, folks, these technologies are here today. Agriculture is changing from an art to a science. Not mad, Frankenstein's monster science; but good, solid, research-based science. The science done at land grant universities, by scientist that may have been farm kids that grew up right down the road."

For more information, contact any of the MU Extension livestock field specialists in southwest Missouri: Eldon Cole in Lawrence County, (417) 466-3102; Andy McCorkill in Dallas County at (417) 345-7551; Dr. Randy Wiedmeier, in Ozark County at (417) 679-3525; Elizabeth Picking in Howell County at (417) 256-2391 or Dr. Patrick Davis in Cedar County at (417) 276-3313.

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