Remember that old comedic song, “Along Came Jones” with poor Sweet Sue tied to the railroad tracks and the chorus “And then along came Jones. Tall, thin Jones. Slow walkin’ Jones, slow talkin’ Jones. Along came long, lean, lanky Jones”?
The brave new world of DNA marker testing is like that. Sort of.
The first benefit of DNA marker testing  to the industry as a whole was in identifying a predisposition to genetic defects . And that was no small thing, because it allowed seedstock producers to find individual carriers, rather than purging an entire line based on pedigree associations.
Then there was parentage identification. Although not widely used in the commercial cow-calf segment, some producers were (and still are) able to generate within-herd EPDs in multi-sire herds by retaining ownership through the feedyard, collecting feedyard and packing plant data on each calf, then taking that phenotypic data back and matching it with each sire.
Using that approach, coupled with artificial insemination and ultrasound, Art and Merry Brownlee , Ashby, NE, were able to take a 1,400-head commercial herd that 20 years ago averaged 26% Choice to a herd that now produces 100% Choice with 75% of those calves in the upper two-thirds.
Now, with the advent of marker-assisted EPDs in the Angus breed and with several other breeds getting close, cattlemen are on the cusp of being able to more widely use genomics  to improve what Dave Nichols, patriarch at Nichols Farms, Bridgewater, IA, calls “the good stuff .”
Back in the day when a commercial cow-calf producer bought a yearling bull with EPDs, it was basically a shot in the dark. Given that it’s estimated there are 1,152,921,504,606,850,000 genetically different full sibs that can happen from one mating, the accuracy of pedigree EPD estimates on yearling bulls is, by necessity, very low.
Then the Angus breed pioneered the use of DNA marker tests to generate marker-assisted EPDs and the world of animal breeding and genetics, to an extent anyway, was changed forever.
“From a commercial bull buyer’s perceptive, the benefit (of marker-assisted EPDs) is the mitigation of risk,” says Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln geneticist. “You’re buying increased certainty or increased accuracy. From the seedstock perspective, the benefit is faster genetic progress.”
So, just how much certainty are you buying when the gavel bangs on a yearling Angus bull with marker-assisted EPDs? “If you have a young, unproven bull with a Beef Improvement Federation accuracy of about 0.05, on average it’s improving them about 0.25,” says Alison Van Eenennaam, University of California-Davis Extension beef geneticist. “So you’re going from 0.05 to 0.3. Effectively, that’s like having progeny equivalent of 10 or so offspring.”
That’s significant. But many of the phenotypic traits that genomics now boost aren’t directly beneficial to commercial cow-calf producers unless they are involved in an alliance or retain ownership through the feedyard. “It has been suggested that U.S. cow-calf producers should have a relative economic emphasis of 47% on reproduction, 24% on growth and 30% on carcass traits,” Van Eenennam says.
Yet the current state of DNA testing emphasizes primarily post-weaning traits, and less on reproduction. “We started with the traits where we had a lot of phenotypic information – growth and carcass,” Spangler says. Those traits were the logical place to start, because without the ability to tie DNA markers back to phenotypes, geneticists can’t “train” or validate the tests. And it takes several thousand individual phenotypes to develop a DNA marker test with any degree of accuracy.
But Spangler says the real promise of genomics is to develop predictors for traits that are hard and expensive to measure, like fertility and feed efficiency. “We need a discovery or training population that has phenotypes recorded. And that’s no trivial task for a lot of these traits,” Spangler says. For feed efficiency, a large, multi-university research project is underway to do just that. You can learn more at www.feedefficiency.org .
Value of genomics
But that doesn’t mean commercial cow-calf producers should dismiss the value of genomics . Brownlee was in a meeting earlier this year with about 60 other cow-calf producers. “Somebody asked what they looked at in the way of EPDs when buying bulls. Most everybody raised their hands if it had something to do with carcass.”
Brownlee thinks that has a lot to do with who buys their calves. “The commercial guy understands that if somebody is going to buy their calves at auction, they hope it’s the same person year after year who will continue to bid on them. They understand there might be a tie-in to their better-quality genetics that might achieve them a higher price at auction.”
Mark Gardiner agrees . Gardiner, whose family owns Gardiner Angus at Ashland, KS, says he helps many of his commercial bull customers sell their calves at weaning. “We’ll forward information to where the calves are selling and we’ll give that EPD profile of what their genetics are – marbling, muscle, post-weaning merit. We typically see a $5-$10, even a $15/cwt. premium if we provide that information to the order buyers in the country or U.S. Premium Beef feedyards.”
As the promise of genomics to deliver “the good stuff” continues to unfold, Spangler offers this caveat – “If you think you’re overwhelmed with EPDs now, it could get dramatically worse” as more and more information surfaces. “And that argues for index selection. The way to mitigate this information overload is through the use of bio-economic index values.”
Angus breeders in both the U.S. and Australia are using indexes to great effect. Van Eenennaam says Australian Angus breeders use indexes that focus on dollar profit/cow bred. “It’s increased about $4/year since 1988,” she says of genetic change over time. “We were at $18 and now it’s up to about $88.”
So, are genomics helping commercial producers? Yes, most experts say, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. “I tell commercial producers the fundamentals are still in place in a genomics era,” Spangler says. “You use EPDs. Multiple trait selection is more critical perhaps now than it ever has been, now that we have more traits to select from. It can be cumbersome, but economic indexes can help alleviate this. The need for phenotypes hasn’t gone away – phenotypes are still critical to collect for seedstock producers.”
As more breeds develop marker-assisted EPDs and as the science of genomics becomes more refined, commercial producers will likely see even greater direct benefit. “If this stuff doesn’t work, nobody will use it,” Gardiner says. “The bottom line is, this stuff works, and it works very, very well.”
For more information, go to www.nbcec.org  .