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  1. Pasco

East Pasco rancher raises cattle by the numbers

LACOOCHEE — When Ronnie Deese looks at the black Angus cattle spread across his secluded pasture, he sees what any longtime rancher does: the slope of their backs, the sturdiness of their legs and feet — how good they look.

He also happens to see in them a string of numbers like an athlete's stat line.

The 72-year-old runs Shiloh South, a small ranch in the Dade City area, and has grown his herd over the past 10 years by using genetic data to pinpoint desired traits. The metrics he uses are called expected-progeny differences, or EPDs for short, which allow ranchers to compare the traits and outcomes of calves based on their parents.

The field isn't exactly new — versions of it have existed since at least the 1970s — but it's one that's rapidly improving. The American Angus Association, the national registration organization for that breed, reported in April that average scores for many measures had increased across the board from 2004 to 2017.

Deese works as the finance manager for the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative and is a prominent resident of east Pasco. He started his herd so he could have something to retire to in the future. But because he didn't have a background in cattle breeding, he turned to science for help.

"I'm a one-man operation," he said one recent morning at his main ranch, some 65 acres nestled in the woods of Lacoochee. "I'm not a cowboy."

He rattled off some of the metrics he studies.

There's "calving ease," which tells you whether a calf sired by a particular bull is more or less likely to be birthed without assistance. That's desirable if you're a rancher looking to breed cows with little (or no) birthing experience. Or a measure for docility — a particularly useful trait for a rancher with few extra hands.

The numbers are generated and published by the Angus Association, which analyzes DNA samples and draws from its massive pool of data, Deese said.

Deese sells cattle to other ranchers and uses his numbers to fulfill customer needs. Say a rancher wants a cow that can produced more marbled beef. There's a stat for that.

"They're trying to improve their product. They're wanting these traits I'm trying to produce," Deese said.

Ranchers like Deese often use metrics in building their herds, said Jesse Savell, an academic coordinator in the University of Florida's animal sciences department. Savell runs a ranch facility at the college that teaches students how to care for and manage cattle. He mentioned Cigar City Cattle Company, based in Tampa, as a good example of a progressive, science-based ranch.

Data-based predictions have continued getting better, Savell said, especially as cattle populations grow. Take the Angus Association, which bills itself as the largest beef breed registry in the country. "It gets pretty doggone accurate," Savell said.

Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, compared progeny metrics to "the notches on the wall" a parent might carve to mark their kid's height at different ages. The predictions chart out how a calf is likely to develop as it ages, and then what value it can bring when it dies.

"The science has advanced a great deal in my lifetime," Handley said.

That's won't stop anytime soon, Deese believes.

"It is the future of animal husbandry."

Contact Justin Trombly at jtrombly@tampabay.com. Follow @JustinTrombly.

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