O.J. Simpson's trial for murdering his former wife spawned around-the-clock TV coverage, a plethora of books and made or ruined many careers. Without a smoking gun, DNA testing became a household word.
About the only positive effect of this judicial circus was introducing Americans to the potential of DNA- marker technology. In this case, science came out the winner. At the conclusion of the trial, human errors, racism and incompetence were the only debatable questions.
You've probably heard that Texas-based Genomic FX has licensed intellectual property rights for DNA-marker technology from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and Texas A&M University (TAMU). In addition, Certified Angus Beef confirmed it has licensed DNA-marker technology from Ohio State University.
This news sure has kept my phone ringing. The calls have ranged from university scientists discussing intellectual property rights to cattlemen wanting to DNA test all their cattle (tomorrow). It even includes a rural wag who commented: "This is going to be the final nail in the coffin for the family beef producer."
Markers Are Not New News DNA genetic markers are not new news. We cowpokes started spending our hard-earned checkoff dollars on a series of DNA-marker research projects nine years ago. Initially, the Beef Board, via NCBA, funded research with TAMU to locate specific gene codes to identify the potential for economically important trait loci affecting carcass merit attributes, particularly tenderness and marbling.
Two years ago, NCBA launched the Carcass Merit Project. NCBA, TAMU, Kansas State University, Colorado State University, Cornell University and several U.S. purebred breed associations teamed up to analyze 11,000 individual carcasses. This carcass data is being used to predict each sire's genetic contribution to tenderness and to validate the original DNA markers uncovered through previous checkoff-funded research.
Each steak's tenderness and marbling scores are evaluated. This data can be used to generate EPDs for tenderness. Steaks by the sires undergoing DNA validation also are rated by trained sensory panels.
Keep in mind, DNA markers are most valuable in identifying traits that are difficult, expensive and require lengthy progeny testing to make selection and culling decisions. At this time, the most important carcass traits are tenderness and marbling because they most impact eating quality, consumer demand and ultimately the price of cattle.
When this technology becomes commercially available, seedstock breeders may take a blood sample from a day-old calf and identify its genetic potential for carcass merit. This will compress breeding plans into days instead of years.
Cow/calf producers will be able to trace parentage in multi-sire pastures. Feeders can DNA-test incoming calves for their genetic potential for marbling, tenderness and other traits. They can then feed them in groups to match their genetic potential for specific consumer markets. Bulls, replacement females and feeder calves will be priced in part on their DNA genetic potential.
Widespread Accessibility To those of us worried about concentration, there is good news. Thanks to NCBA and its elected leadership, checkoff-funded DNA technology will be available to all cattlemen on a non-exclusive basis. This is unlike the seed, pork and poultry industries in which this technology is tightly held by a few organizations.
But, before you load up Ol' Blue Nut and Suzy Snowflake and sentence them to a fate between two slices of bread, be aware that more research is needed, and a lot more data must be accumulated and analyzed before DNA markers become commercially available.
DNA marker-assisted selection will be just that - assistance. Superior genetics, good nutrition, sound health programs and aggressive marketing still will be essential to producing high-quality beef and maximizing profit in your operation.
Moreover, don't confuse DNA- marker technology with transgenic gene manipulation - the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - that has captured the attention of activists and the media. While many of those people marching and protesting simply have a flat-earth mentality or the-sky-is-falling syndrome, they are threatening American farmers and food processors.
Most of the self-appointed watchdogs for safe food have personal agendas fueled by their own quest for power and money. The beef industry must be proactive and emphasize the positive consumer benefits from DNA markers before these activists hit the street screaming.
When DNA marker-assisted selection is fully deployed by the beef industry, cattlemen large or small, East or West, can be winners. Sure, we might have to cull Old Bossy and say a tearful goodbye, but the big winner will be the beef consumer.
Every time consumers buy a steak, they will know it will be tender, juicy and good-tasting. And, the past year's run-up in cattle prices sure should have taught us that when beef consumers are happy, there ain't nobody in cow country crying.
Dave Nichols is a partner in Nichols Farms at Bridewater, IA, a family-owned seedstock operation selling Angus, black Simmental and Nichols composite bullsand replacement females. Contact them at 515/369-2829, e-mail at [email protected] or check out their Web site at www.mddc.com/nicholsfarms.