DNA important to cattle profits

For better or worse, the DNA revolution is upon us

Make no mistake, the increased rate of genetic change is the beef industry’s biggest game changer.  

The DNA revolution has become the cool thing to talk about in the seedstock industry. It seems that almost everyone believes we’re in the official beginning of the DNA era and that’s all seedstock producers can talk about.

And for good reason. The changes that have occurred in the last three months in the genetics and genomics world have probably equaled the changes in the last five years. The technology is coming of age, and the reality is closing in on the promises we’ve all heard about how genomics will change the beef business.

With that said, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus on what the shift to the molecular genetic era really means. One of the biggest changes is that it changes the generation interval in the industry, which greatly changes the rate of progress, which potentially changes the face of the industry. What used to take a lifetime can now occur in a decade or less.

However, as is always the case, with the opportunity for greater rewards, there are also greater risks. If the oldest cow on the place is four years old, what do you really know about fertility, feet and legs, udder quality, mothering ability or even fleshing ability? One of the great ironies is that while DNA has created more accuracy, it has also increased the risk for breeders, because we are not only seeing generational turnover increase in cowherds, but in sires as well. 

The days of the highly proven, high-accuracy sire are fading away. Shorter marketing lives for both cows and bulls will result in fewer high-valued animals or outliers, and again, more risk because of the rate of turnover.

Improved tools have always caused the industry to focus on the traits that are measurable, which by definition means a devaluing the traits that aren’t measured. The risk of that is intuitively obvious.

DNA revolutionized industries like dairy and pork, leading to rapid consolidation and changing business models. There are good reasons to argue that the beef industry is different – more environments, more marketing options, more economically relevant traits to measure. But make no mistake: the increased rate of genetic change is a game changer. 

As the science of animal breeding gets better, the premium shifts more to the art of animal breeding. However, as is always the case, improved science or technology does not necessarily provide a competitive advantage to the adopters, it simply eliminates those who fail to implement them. Like the emergence of the first EPDs, those who failed to embrace ended up dispersing, at a sharp discount. 

The good news is that DNA doesn’t change the big picture. A good cow or bull before the DNA revolution is a good cow or bull today. It doesn’t alter the debates about mature size, growth, or the value of muscle versus marbling or terminal versus maternal. Those debates will not be answered by the DNA revolution, but it will likely increase their importance.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com and Farm Progress.

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