A new customized interactive Web site developed by researchers at the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock (CGIL) will soon permit farmers to surf the Net to find bulls anywhere in Ontario with the sort of genes that will produce the steak qualities their particular markets prefer.
Until now, predicting the kind of cut - lean or highly marbled - and the kind of profits that a sire will produce have been largely guesswork. But thanks to the Guelph team, farmers will be able to go online to shop the genetic traits of individual bulls, find what bulls would best suit their operation and the markets they're targeting, and see how their bottom line will benefit from buying one bull over another. Although beef production will improve - and hence the support of Beef Improvement Ontario (BIO) in this project - the country's steak eaters are the ultimate beneficiaries.
That's because two key factors dominate steak marketability: marbling and muscle size.
"Different clients prefer different cuts," says Prof. Steve Miller, Animal and Poultry Science, who developed the interactive BIO-Mate Web site with CGIL director Prof. Jim Wilton and research associates Marc Lazenby, Larry Banks and Steve Klinge.
"For instance, the 'white tablecloth' crowd, the Keg chain of restaurants as well as other steakhouses, likes more highly marbled steaks," says Miller. "Grocery stores, on the other hand, prefer leaner-looking meat. With this Web site, farmers can go to an independent one-stop source to select bulls that will produce progeny best suited to the market the farmers are targeting."
Miller says that many Canadian steakhouses are currently obliged to go to the United States for the highly marbled steaks their clients prefer. With BIO-Mate, farmers in the future could mate breeding beef cows with sires tipped to produce calves with marbled flesh and so capture more of that particular niche market.
Matching information from the farmer against genetic profiles of available bulls in the province, BIO-Mate produces a detailed list of bulls with the sort of qualities the producer is looking for.
Although the average consumer perhaps considers his or her beef preference only while perusing the meat section of the supermarket, farmers know the answer begins with the genetic traits of the bull whose progeny will eventually end up on the dinner plate.
In the past, farmers choosing sires were forced to guess what sort of traits any given bull might produce based on limited information. More recently, advances in genetic evaluation have given producers much more information about individual bulls - sometimes producing information overload for the buyer.
So as part of the BIO-Mate Web site, the Guelph research team developed a ranking system called predicted dollar difference. This system combines inputted information from farmers about their operation with an array of genetic variables for all the available bulls in Ontario to produce potential profits for farmers should they choose a given bull.
With bulls costing on average $2,500 but as much as $10,000, the choice is critical to the success of a producer's operation.
"For years, producers were stuck with a limited amount of information from a variety of sources and were forced to guess which bull would be best for their operation," says Miller. "Genetic evaluations were developed that provide an ever-growing number of factors for the producer to consider, but still result in the farmer having to do a certain amount of guesswork. With BIO-Mate, we provide producers with not only the genetic traits of potential sires, but also an economic model that allows them to see what sorts of profit they can expect from any given bull."
For now, the Web site will list only Ontario bulls, but the developers hope to expand to other markets in Canada and the United States in the near future.
This project is funded by the BIO and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Miller, who joined the faculty of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science in September 1999 after completing his B.Sc.(Agr.) and PhD at Guelph, will next research whether those same qualities of fat thickness, marbling and muscle can be measured and predicted from genetic traits of feedlot cattle. That project is funded by the Ontario Cattlemen's Association.