DECI: Information Age Tool for the Cattle
A computer will tie breed evaluations made by specialists like animal scientist
Tom Jenkins (left) and geneticist Larry Cundiff together with other databases
needed by livestock producers for efficient decisionmaking.
Change stares Jim McAdams in the face every day.
The fourth-generation cattleman from Lubbock, Texas, knows he must adapt to
change if he's going to remain profitable. So he's among a cadre of beef
industry people who recently checked out a new personal computer program for
McAdams says the computer model called DECI--Decision Evaluator for the
Cattle Industry--may help him make the right decisions with the cattle he
raises on Spade Ranches in Lubbock.
"The margin between profit and loss is getting tighter in all segments
of the beef industry," he says. That means a single decision can easily
make the difference between making or losing money.
Times have changed in the cattle business. More than a century ago, along
routes such as the Chisholm Trail, drovers counted on unsettled country
stretching from San Antonio, Texas, northward to provide abundant grass and
water for cattle.
When the fattened cattle reached railcars at the trek's end--Abilene,
Kansas--they'd have nearly doubled in value. And consumer demand back east was
such that by the time the cattle reached Chicago for slaughter, their price
would have nearly tripled.
Laws of supply and demand still reign for modern-day ranchers like McAdams,
but management options are more complex.
"No longer can one simply assume increasing pounds of beef on the hoof
will lead to profitability," says Thomas G. Jenkins, an
Agricultural Research Service animal
scientist at the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in
Clay Center, Nebraska.
Jenkins and cooperating researchers at Clay Center are trying to help
McAdams and other cattle ranchers sort out management options that may help
them produce beef that consumers want--at an acceptable price.
At the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, animal
scientists Calvin Ferrell (left) and Tom Jenkins are involved in feeding
studies that generate experimental data for the model called DECIDecision
Evaluator for the Cattle Industry.
Complex Findings Simplified
The Chisholm Trail of halcyon days gave way to more extensive transportation
systems and to settlers' barbed wire fencing. In today's information age,
producers' roads to success may depend on applying a complex array of beef
research findings to farms and ranches, each with its own set of resources.
This is the idea behind DECI.
"Our goal is to keep improving decision support aids that people in the
industry can use to think through choices, step by step," Jenkins says.
"The computer ties several databases together in a way that lets producers
use large amounts of information garnered from research without being
overburdened by it."
Using a computer to pose a number of what-if questions could help producers
avoid costly mistakes or missed opportunities that otherwise might not be
recognized for years--if at all.
This approach strikes a resonant chord with McAdams. It's old hat for him,
when considering purchase of a new bull, to use computerized databases to
decide whether the animal is likely to increase the herd's average weaning
weight. But the impact of one change can affect others.
Producers like McAdams ask, "What will happen to the grazing capacity
of land stocked with more cows or with cows of a different breed that produce
heavier calves? Will the extra grazing lower production over time?"
For answers, McAdams selects questions and supplies relevant information to
DECI in response to prompts. By entering information that includes historical
management strategies, users of the model can consider changes that may help
them better match genetics and feed resources to meet market demands.
Other questions DECI can address: Is the cost of harvested feeds impeding
profitability? Would reducing the amount fed or breeding cows to calve earlier
or later in a season make better use of forages available on the farm? As
choices involving feed are made, what happens to cow conception rates, weaning
weights, and the need for female replacements?
A laptop computer running the DECI model shows animal scientists Tom Jenkins
(left) and Charles Williams an array of management options for cattle-breeding
Answers to questions like these would be obscure without research on
nutrition, genetics, breeding, or other problem areas that Clay Center
scientists tackle. MARC animal scientist Calvin L. Ferrell's studies on cows'
use of feed energy helped start the first computer modeling on beef production.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ARS researchers at three locations--Clay
Center; Miles City, Montana; and El Reno, Oklahoma--began work on a model to
show how feed energy can be converted most efficiently into lean beef.
Coordinated by MARC geneticist Gary L. Bennett, the model provided answers
based on genetic traits and ages of the cattle. Beef cattle industry
representatives then asked for a model that would further help breeders,
producers, and feeders manage their operations, considering other
The proposed model, later named DECI, would address the total beef
production system. Charles B. Williams, an animal scientist who had developed
much of the energy model, and colleagues found ways to incorporate their
original work into the DECI project that Jenkins led. Additional elements going
into DECI included research information on genetics, growth, body composition,
"We were excited by the scientists' enthusiastic response to the
complex challenge, and the model was put together in just 2 years," says
Barry Dunn, chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA)
subcommittee on production efficiency.
Based in Brookings, South Dakota, Dunn runs a cow-calf operation near there
while pursuing a doctoral degree in animal husbandry at South Dakota State
University. He is 1 of 20 producers, beef extension people, and consultants who
evaluated the first version of DECI last spring. Since January 1998, the ARS
scientists have made the new version available to other researchers. Soon, more
general distribution will be handled by the NCBA. To run, DECI requires a
personal computer with the Windows 95 operating system.
Change Will Be a Constant
DECI's designed to evolve continuously with updated research information
related to productivity measurements, weights and carcass composition, and
conception, calving, and weaning rates. Plans are under way to combine DECI
with SPA, a standard production analysis that the NCBA uses to evaluate
economic performance of cattle.
The model could eventually help producers evaluate costs versus returns for
producing cattle suitable for marketing under a premium pricing system based on
qualities such as meat leanness rather than on carcass weight.
Technician Eldon Shetler readies an air sample bag for analysis of respiration
gases collected during an indirect calorimetry study. Data on heat production
will help the DECI model predict energy partioning in growing cattle.
Already the model can tell producers whether their feed resources are
appropriate for cattle breeds that tend to produce less fat. Cattle with
genetic leanness are not for every producer, Dunn points out, because thinner
cattle may have curtailed reproduction. Not to worry, he adds, because sizable
markets exists for both the leanest of beef and beef well marbled with fat.
Beef that's most popular with consumers has both marbling with tiny fat
flecks characteristic of British breeds and the leanness characteristic of
Continental European breeds, says Larry V. Cundiff. He heads the Genetics and
Breeding Research Unit at MARC.
Researchers have shown that crosses with 50:50 ratios of Continental to
British inheritance provide about the right balance. Projects are in progress
at Clay Center and Miles City to assess other advantages and disadvantages of
alternative mating systems using various breeds.
Meat can be quite lean, yet tender. Research led by MARC animal physiologist
Mohammad Koohmaraie has shown marbling accounts for only about 10 percent of
variation in tenderness among steaks. He and MARC food technologists Steven D.
Shackelford and Tommy L. Wheeler have developed a way to help meat processors
quickly identify carcasses most certain to yield beef cuts that are both lean
Beef tenderness or toughness is controlled about 70 percent by environment
and 30 percent by genetics. As researchers map out the active genes and develop
tests to identify animals having them, DECI can be programmed to more precisely
define impacts of genetic leanness and tenderness in individual herds.--By
Ben Hardin, Agricultural
Research Service Information Staff, 1815 North University Street, Peoria, IL
61604, phone (309) 681-6597.
Thomas G. Jenkins and other
scientists mentioned in this article are at the
USDA-ARS Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat
Animal Research Center, P.O. Box 166, State Spur 18D, Clay Center, NE 68933;
phone (402) 762-4100, fax (402) 762-4148.
"DECI:Information Age Tool for the Cattle Industry" was
published in the May 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click
here to see
this issue's table of contents.