Using the Power of DNA to Make Replacement Heifer Decisions

Developing replacement heifers requires a significant investment. Recent estimates suggest the cost of developing a pregnant female from weaning to breeding is more than $1,100.1 And research shows that a female may not break even until six years of age.2 Perhaps just as important, the heifers chosen as replacements will help define the genetic direction and profitability of a herd for years to come. Dr. Kevin DeHaan, technical services director, IGENITY®, says all of this adds up to one conclusion: Producers can’t afford to pick the wrong replacement females.

“Replacement heifers are an important contributor to herd profitability and a key to the future of the herd,” says Dr. DeHaan. “Not only does a replacement heifer remain in the herd for a long time, she impacts the genetic future as well. Producers can’t risk taking a gamble when selecting replacement females.”

Producers can help take some of the risk out of replacement heifer development by adding DNA technology to their existing selection and management protocols, Dr. DeHaan says. “By incorporating the IGENITY profile for replacement heifers into an existing herd management program, producers can gain inside information about four key economic traits: fertility, average daily gain, marbling and tenderness. Some of these traits are difficult, or even impossible, to measure with traditional tools, but directly affect the profitability of replacement females.”

Start Early to Help Avoid Unnecessary Expenses

Replacement heifer selection often begins at weaning with an initial sort of the female calf crop. Dr. DeHaan says producers should collect DNA samples at this time and add the information from IGENITY to their existing selection protocols. By using the power of DNA to evaluate young females, producers can help avoid the initial expense of developing heifers that will be culled at breeding. He adds that each step of this process has been designed to work into existing routines, starting with a simple, straightforward tissue collection system.

“Gathering DNA samples can easily be worked into preconditioning or weaning routines with a tissue collection device that works just like applying an ear tag,” Dr. DeHaan says. “Plus, IGENITY offers a combination radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and tissue collection device, giving producers the option to take advantage of two technologies in one simple step.”

After producers receive their results, the inside information can be sorted and managed based on their individual herd goals with the user-friendly IGENITY software. Dr. DeHaan says in the case of replacement heifers, producers can start with the custom sort software and focus on the fertility and average daily gain traits.

“A potential replacement heifer’s initial success hinges on her ability to grow quickly and efficiently and breed on time,” he explains. “If producers use the IGENITY profile for replacement heifers and custom sort software to evaluate potential females for key traits at weaning, they can help avoid the cost of developing sub-par females that may not have the genetic potential to reach these first critical milestones.”

Dr. DeHaan adds that DNA analyses for reproductive traits, as well as carcass traits such as tenderness and marbling, give producers an option to evaluate cattle for important traits that have traditionally been difficult to measure in young cattle.

“We have some tools that help us predict fertility and growth in young cattle,” he says. “But by using the inside information that is available from IGENITY to help evaluate these economically important traits, producers can gain a new level of confidence in selecting the right replacement heifers.”

Positive Selection vs. Random Selection

Selecting the right replacement heifers not only affects the profitability of the individual, but more importantly, it affects the profitability of the herd for years to come. To help illustrate how selection decisions affect a herd over time, Dr. Bob Weaber, state extension specialist, beef genetics, University of Missouri, developed a model for IGENITY that calculates the potential genetic outcome based on a given scenario.

“The purpose of this model is to explore the effect over time of different selection protocols and strategies,” Dr. Weaber says. “It is designed to illustrate the differences in genetic merit based on using the IGENITY profile to help select sires or replacement heifers, or the combination of both.”