Selection Indexes

“If you are not in this business to make money, then good luck with your hobby”

This was the phrase I heard as I set foot into the 3-10 Room of the Ag Building at the University of Alberta- Canada. This was around 10 years ago.

Dr. Michael MacNeil was about to start his presentation on selection indexes.

Struggling to pay my grad tuition at that time, when I heard 'make money', it was like music to my ears. I thought 'How do I get into this pyramid deal?'

But what I was about to listen to would be a lesson that I would not learn until after I had submitted my PhD thesis and was well into receiving my first paycheque (Canadian spelling) outside of Academia. Because, that’s how life rolls. It ain’t graduate school.

After a presentation that covered topics on production systems, breeding goals, aggregate genotypes, derivatives and profit, the message was clear:

Selection indexes are not for hobbyist, because they require the collection and the use of information based on what drives profit. And that, isn’t always fun.

For those that have taken economics, or run an AgriBusiness, you know that:

Profit = Income – Expense

That is the formula you must use to figure out which direction your business is going.

Selection Indexes are not for hobbyists. They are for producers that want to make money. #AgFRONT #SelectionIndexes

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You can apply all sorts of accounting rules to make your profit look a little higher or lower, whichever way you want to make your business look. But, if that formula doesn’t yield a real positive number over time, there is not a lot any accounting rule can do to help you have a real profitable business.

Related: The Path to a Successful Technology Commercialization

Fast forward 10 years later and Dr. MacNeil is “rowing his own boat” helping organizations to create their own selection indexes to drive profitability and efficiency of production.

We run into each other from time to time at various meetings. He sometimes comments on my articles. Sometimes I agree with him. Sometimes I don’t.

So, I reached out to Mike to ask him a few questions about how he helps organizations and producers set the right path for efficient and profitable production using selection indexes.

Dr. Marques: Mike, when I first reached out to you, you were in South Africa. Still there?

Dr. MacNeil: After my trip to South Africa, I spent some time in Ames, Iowa, helping with the Ultrasound Guidelines Council’s proficiency examination for certification of field technicians. We are trying to achieve the greatest possible accuracy and integrity in carcass data, via ultrasound, which goes into the national cattle evaluation.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your business and what you do?

Dr. MacNeil: Sure. At the end of 2011, the USDA offered financial incentives for early retirement. Before then, I had feelers from a couple of entities about consulting for them. So, when USDA was offering old guys money to go away, I reached out to those entities and we found mutual interests. Needless to say, I took USDA up on their offer and have not looked back. Today, what I do fits into two boxes. One, I apply the tools of genetics, statistics and systems analysis to assist food producers in becoming more profitable and efficient. Two, I work to help build human capacity in the next generation of scientists and advisors to agricultural industries. Both aspects of my work have national and international audiences.

Building Selection Indexes

Dr. Marques: That’s great. Our work overlap in many levels. Over the years, I have seen a huge gap between research and the implementation of genomics tools in the field, so when I saw the opportunity to venture out on my own, I decided that helping to fill that gap was going to be my next objective. In one of my early jobs after graduate school, we introduced the use of selection indexes to our group of breeders and that was my first exposure to witnessing the real differences in communication between academia and industry. So, helping the next crop of scientists to develop those skills is part of that mission as well.

Speaking of selection indexes, when we first introduced that tool to the group of breeders in the cooperative that I worked for, the immediate reaction was “do we really need them”?

Even though they were quite progressive having focused on data collection and early genomics work, there was still some skepticism about whether or not the indexes were going to work for them. In your opinion, what it is that makes selection indexes a little harder to grasp or to “believe in”?

Dr. MacNeil: Any time you ask someone to make a paradigm shift, a certain degree of skepticism is natural. There were a couple of circumstances that led me to embrace selection indexes. No matter how hard I try, I am not capable of sorting through a couple hundred bulls in a sale catalog, each being described by about 20 different EPDs, and trading off those EPDs one against another in any consistent way. Second, and this goes back to what you said earlier. I believe commercial producers are motivated by profit and want to be consistent in evaluating candidates for selection. Because of that, selection index becomes the obvious method of choice.

Dr. Marques: Where should we start if we want to catapult and make the use of selection indexes one of the go-to tools in the producer’s toolbox?

Dr. MacNeil: The starting point is to understand the production system in which the index is to be used. At the end, that production system needs to be described in mathematical terms that allow us to estimate the individual contribution each economically relevant trait makes to overall profitability.

To put this into perspective one needs to think about the pyramidal representation of the industry where genetic material flows from a nucleus of breeders to a higher number of commercial producers. In most of my work in developing selection indexes, I have tried to target the commercial sector recognizing that if the commercial producers are more profitable some of that economic benefit will flow back to the nucleus breeder.

Using Selection Indexes

Dr. Marques: I often write about genomics-based tools for ranchers, breeders and veterinarians and in my last article I talked about what the first step needs to be for an organization that has never used genomics tools before.

After getting a database structured with the correct pedigree and everything else needed to move to the next phase of implementation – whether it be adding a new trait, a selection index or a genomic-profile -  what do you usually tell your customer about what you will need from them, in order to get them the help that they need?

Related: 3 Golden Rules for a Stress-Free Genetic Improvement Program

Dr. MacNeil: It has been my experience that the most effective index development activities result from a partnership where we can work back-and-forth in coming to a mutual agreement about the costs of production, the revenue streams, and the available biological resources.

So, each project takes on its own unique life-cycle. Certainly, we start off trying to develop a realistic mutual understanding of the potential outcomes. There is also a lot of time that may go into assembling the appropriate information to describe the production system of interest.

Dr. Marques: What do you recommend a producer to do when he or she looks at an index value and wonders which one to use?

Dr. MacNeil: My recommendation is to think about how you want to use the animal or animals that you will choose from your pool. Producers also need to be cognizant of the fact that the progeny will need to move through the entire production system.

For example, if I am searching for a bull to use on yearling heifers then I want an index that was developed for that target population. That is often called  a “calving ease index”. But that can’t be the end of the thought process. The progeny that are produced will ultimately need to be fed and harvested in order to produce revenue. So, what I want is a “calving ease index” to also consider those downstream traits.

Dr. Marques: A lot of my customers live in Latin America and Brazil, where the sky is the limit when it comes to implementing new tools – whether genomics or selection indexes. Some of the challenges that I see are not so much in wanting to use the tools, but rather the fear of the assumptions made to create the tool.

What’s your take on that and what do you tell your customers when it comes to some of the assumptions made about what drives profit?

Dr. MacNeil: This is where that partnership I spoke of before comes into play. The very natural skepticism about technology can be at least somewhat allied if the end-users (or their representatives) can follow along in the development process and have input throughout. If they are uncomfortable with how I describe (model) biology then it’s my responsibility to provide them a basis for believing in what we have done.

I think the most difficult part for everyone comes from recognizing that the impact of a selection decision that is made today will only be realized several years in the future. But, regardless of whether the criteria are formalized as a selection index or not, some assumption (either explicitly or implicitly) is being made as to what genetic package will fit the market at that point in time.

Dr. Marques: In your opinion, what is the next biggest contribution or investment that the industry (researchers, government etc.) should make to help take selection indexes mainstream?

Dr. MacNeil: Personally, I would like to see the use of indexes grow organically with producers adopting the technology because they believe it provides them a better way to achieve their own economic goals. For this demand to be realized, it requires continued outreach educational efforts. Producers make selection decisions every time they decide which bulls to turn out and which heifers to keep as replacements. So, they are continuously defining the breeding value profile of their flock or herd and it’s my hope that they would choose to move that profile in a direction toward greater profitability.

Dr. Marques: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the time to chat with you. I am sure we will run into each other at more meetings.

Dr. MacNeil: You’re welcome.

Make Selection Indexes a part of any breed improvement program

The verdict is in: Make Selection indexes a part of your breed improvement program. 

As bull buyers get ready to look over dozens of sales catalogues, what kind of information will you make available in your sales catalogue to help your customers maximize their profit and optimize their selection decisions?

About the Author Elisa Marques

An advocate for lifelong learning. A self-admitted textbook collector. I have been traveling around the globe since the tender age of 16 and have lived in 3 different countries. Some say that the 90's cartoon character "Carmen SanDiego" was loosely based on me, but who knows. I am a nerd at heart with a huge passion for science, marketing and teaching.

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