Big US beef index job for AbacusBio

Dr Jason Archer, from AbacusBio, and Dr Steve Miller from the American Angus Association at an...
Dr Jason Archer, from AbacusBio, and Dr Steve Miller from the American Angus Association at an Angus cattle stud in Kansas. Photo: Supplied
Dunedin-based agribusiness consulting company AbacusBio is rebuilding the selection indexes for the American Angus Association, the world’s largest beef cattle society.

AbacusBio partner Jason Archer, who has specialised in beef cattle throughout his career, was thrilled the company was chosen for the work.

The association has more than 25,000 members across the United States and Canada and the scale of the industry was "unbelievable",  Dr Archer said.

In fact, the work that was being done by AbacusBio meant it affected billions of dollars’ worth of production.

Often, breed societies had selection indexes balancing all the traits that were being measured, and those indexes were both a selection tool and also became "a bit of a benchmark" when evaluating bulls, he said.

The American Association wanted to upgrade its index, which had been created in 2004.  It looked around the world for  a partner and chose AbacusBio. Fellow partner Peter Amer had been doing such work for more than 25 years and was a "world expert" in it, Dr Archer said.

Dr Archer was contacted by Canadian-born Dr Steve Miller, with whom he had done some work  previously.

A beef cattle specialist, Dr Miller moved to Otago in 2013 after he was offered a job at AgResearch’s Invermay agricultural centre as a senior scientist in the animal genetics team.

In 2016, he was named director of genetic research for Angus Genetics Inc, a subsidiary of the American Angus Association, which was established to provide services to the beef industry that assisted in the genetic evaluation of economically important traits.

In June, Dr Archer went to the United States, where he gave a presentation to the association’s board, did a tour of the Angus industry and visited the Beef Improvement Federation conference.

It gave him an opportunity to gain an understanding of the industry  listen to messages from each part of it. It was very segmented and people were very good at what they did, he said.

The challenge was the likes of feedlotters and packers who wanted slightly different things from what the cow-calf person wanted. What it came down to was balance. Traits needed to be balanced economically and produce the best combination for going forward, he said.

One of the innovations AbacusBio had brought to breeding objective development was incorporating user feedback into its indexes. An index was  useful only if people used it and the company needed to listen to what people wanted from their programme. It released a survey in late July and there had already been about 1200 responses, Dr Archer said.

Some general survey questions were asked and then software from Dunedin-founded company 1000Minds  was used to ask trade-off-type questions. It came out with a preference ranking that could then be used to guide index development.

The project began in March and AbacusBio would probably have it done by Christmas, although it probably would not be implemented until the middle of next year, Dr Archer said.

Beef cattle has long been a passion for Dr Archer, who grew up in Australia with his Kiwi parents.After graduating with a degree in agricultural science, he completed his Phd on feed efficiency in cattle breeding then worked in New South Wales and at Invermay before joining AbacusBio in 2014.

He said it had been a great move and he believed, at the moment, he was doing some of the best projects he had ever done in his career.

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