Genomics Coming Of Age For Commercial Beef Herds

The growth in DNA usage for commerical cattle herds has come from the ability to predict performance traits.

October 15, 2013

11 Min Read
Genomics Coming Of Age For Commercial Beef Herds

So it is with almost any new technology: There is a period of development, working out the kinks. Then come tweaks in application and the early-adopters begin to test it out. In the years that follow, as more and more people tend to pick it up, advances are made and it becomes a mainstream tool.

Where is DNA technology in that continuum and in relation to the cattle business?

Tonya Amen, with Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI), says uptake of genomic testing has nearly doubled in the last year, but it’s still used on less than 10 percent of the animals in the breed’s registry.

Yet comparing today to five years ago shows a broader range of commercial tools now and dramatic differences in the types of usage, she says.

“We all started using it for parentage verification,” says Richard Kirkman, DVM, owner of Carolina Equine and Food Animal Mobile Veterinary Service and purebred Angus breeder from Siler City, NC. “It’s really amazing the number of animals that we were unsure of who their parents were. When we have animals that excel, either on a registered or commercial basis, we don’t always know who their ancestors are and that’s critically important.”

Amen says the second use of DNA is to test for “simply inherited” traits, such as coat color or specific genetic defects.

But more recently, the growth in usage has come from the ability to predict performance traits.

“In the Angus breed, that genomic information is incorporated directly into the EPD with no need to look at the genomics separately,” she says. It’s the same with other breeds using the National Cattle Evaluations standards. That is a boon to both commercial and registered producers.

“There is one number to look at instead of trying to look at two sources of information and figure out how to properly weight them,” Amen says. “EPDs really are the selection tool of choice because they take into account all the information we have about an animal—their pedigree, any performance and progeny information and the genomics.

“It’s all there boiled down in one number,” she says.

DNA also adds certainty to that measure.

“When a commercial breeder buys a bull that has genomic information in the EPDs, they’re buying with the same level of confidence in that animal as one that has already sired between eight and 20 calves,” Amen says, referring to the increased reliability that DNA data adds. “It really increases the accuracy on those animals much, much earlier in their lives.”

Of course the tests have gotten better, but also less expensive, over the course of their lifetime, too.


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“In the early days, one of the first tests that came out only had a few markers on it for marbling and tenderness and there were a lot of skeptics, for good reason,” she says. Many genes determine how an animal actually performs so that means there were several hundred markers not accounted for in those earliest versions.

The American Angus Association currently uses a 50K platform, or a test that has 50,000 markers.

“We have come a long way in a pretty short period of time,” Amen says, noting that there is a 750K test available but it’s primarily used in research.

Advances have also allowed for “reduced panel” tests geared toward getting commercial breeders a subset of that data.

Any rancher who is purchasing bulls with genomic information is essentially using the technology already, but an increasing number of cattlemen are also starting to test their own herds.

genemax testing from American Angus AssociationGeneMax™ (GMX), marketed by AGI and Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB), is one example of a reduced panel product that is designed to help predict gain and grade.

Producers can use the test to sort feeder cattle, as it was in a trial at Pratt (KS) Feeders last fall. One-source steers from a commercial Angus ranch in Kansas were divided into two groups based on their average GMX score. The high scoring group averaged 89.5 (on a 100 point scale) compared to the low half at 50.7.

When 40 head of the highest scoring GMX cattle were harvested after 126 days on feed, they averaged 50 percent CAB brand acceptance, compared to just 32 percent for the lower group.

“It’s nice to see proof of how well this test is working in the field,” Amen says.

Dr. Kirkman is using GMX to scan commercial heifers for their ability to add high quality genetics.

The reason is simple: A research article years ago showed cow weights within the same herd spanned as much as 900 lbs. top to bottom. Although it might not be that dramatic, Dr. Kirkman notices variation in every herd he works with.

“It really doesn’t say much for our ability to just walk up and visually appraise the animals and try to make determinations about genetics and then bargain our futures against that,” he says.

Instead, Dr. Kirkman and a growing number of others are looking to technology to take some of the gamble out of the equation.

The Veterinary Connection

It doesn’t matter if they’re steers or heifers, groups of ten or 100, destined for sale or retained ownership. When producers think about testing them with genomic tools, it’s because they want more information.

And when they want to know more about the ins and outs of DNA applications, many turn to their veterinarian for help or advice.

Selection Strategies

For some, it’s about the ability to identify sires.

“Working with some of our commercial producers we’re seeing some of those bulls used in multi-sire pastures are siring way above their average share,” says Dr. Kirkman.

A five year California study noted this phenomenon, along with up to a $50,000 difference in progeny value from one bull to another based on the number and quality of calves sired.

Dr. Kirkman

“If we can identify who those sires are and determine whether they’ve got the quality of genetics to be doing what they’re doing, that’s obviously a big win for commercial breeders,” Dr. Kirkman says.

Others approach it from the female side, especially through replacement heifers, says Kara Lee, with CAB, which markets the GMX test. “Some producers with many heifers and not much individual data have started by testing all replacement candidates and sorting based on those scores.”

Dr. Kirkman helps his customers develop heifers using another strategy.

“We take all these phenotypic measures—body weight, body height, size and dimension, reproductive tract evaluation and all that—and then as a final selection criteria,” he asks, “which of these we’ve selected has a better genomic test score?”

DNA tests for commercial cattle typically cost from $17 to $20 per head.

“You’re talking about maybe less than 1 percent of an animal’s ten-year maintenance costs,” Dr. Kirkman says. “When you look at it from that perspective, it’s not an expensive venture.”

Fellow veterinarian Randall Spare, President of Ashland (KS) Veterinary Center, says it’s an insurance policy for many of his customers.

“In the drought situation we’re in where people have depopulated herds, if we’re going to go back, we’re going to go back with known quality genetics in their commercial heifers,” he says. “Many people understand it’s all about minimizing risks. When we use good health programs and nutrition programs, we can minimize our risks by knowing what’s out there in the pasture.”

Other cattlemen might use genomics as less of a culling tool and more of a management aid, says Lee. They may test all the replacements they’re certain they are keeping and then use gain and grade information to make strategic matings.

Regardless of program or test, she says demand for the new technology will likely grow.

“We are in an age when selling commodity beef at the grocery store is no longer profitable,” Lee says. “We are also seeing that the days of selling commodity cattle and being profitable are dwindling.”

Dr. Kirkman uses GeneMax on some of his own animals.

“We’re testing a lot of the females we’re considering using in assisted reproduction programs,” he says. “We’d like to get a better handle on some of these traits that are difficult to measure.”

It might change which bull those heifers are bred to and helps Dr. Kirkman “understand where their true strengths and true weaknesses are.”

The Rancher's Resource

The veterinarians say only their most progressive customers are using DNA tests today, but they expect that number to grow.

“Part of our job is to help people maximize the value they put into their cattle,” Dr. Spare says. “Coming alongside them we’re saying, ‘Hey, what about using this tool to help eliminate those cattle that aren’t going to perform, and also maximize performance in the cattle you do have?’”

He’s also used the test on his cattle and, like Dr. Kirkman, says that experience gives him a lot of common ground with clients.

Both offer the service of taking blood samples and sending them in for ranchers.

“There are some people that by nature just don’t want to try new things,” Dr. Spare says. “So a comment we often have is, ‘We can do that.’”

The added service not only helps build relationships, but also allows producers to get the most out of their health program.

“People add value to their cattle in four ways,” Dr. Spare says. “They do it through adequate health programs, through nutrition programs, through genetic choices and addressing temperament of the cattle. You take any one of those four away and the stool falls down, potential is not maximized.”

Dr. Kirkman says producers who have never gotten feedback on their genetics from others in the chain may fail to realize this.

“Typically those producers would not have access to that information, but genomics gives them a foothold in that door to improve,” he says. “Even if it’s just to say, ‘Look, this is where we started from.’”

Lee recommends producers use the information when they offer cattle for sale, too.

“You can’t just do everything right and expect people to pay you more for them,” she says. “Whether it’s genomic testing or having a premium health program within your cow herd, you have to be able to communicate that. Progressive practices also require progressive marketing.”

Dr. Spare says that applies to veterinary practices as well.

“People have given us the opportunity to serve them and it’s our job to be good listeners,” he says. “Every day has to be a good day in the life of a calf and that’s why a good veterinarian is more into production health than medicine.

“That’s how we can help customers get $150 to $200 in per-head premiums,” Dr. Spare says. “And that’s our goal, helping people to be successful.”

DNA Testing Tips

Adding a blood draw to routine cattle processing is often a simple way to collect the DNA sample.

“If you are working with your females, go ahead and pull that sample,” suggests Kara Lee, CAB Supply Programs Manager.

Even if there is doubt about submitting the samples for testing, blood cards can be archived. “The great thing about DNA is that information isn’t going to change whether you pull a sample on a calf the day it’s born or the day it’s harvested. It’s not like ultrasound where you have to catch the animal at a specific time,” she says.

Here are some simple steps to make sure a customer’s first experience with DNA testing yields positive results:

  • Make sure you have test kits on hand (either blood or hair cards specifically designed for DNA testing).

  • Blood on a card from GeneMax is preferred for that test.

  • Samples in red- or purple-topped tubes are messy and take too much time during processing.

  • Make sure cards dry thoroughly in a clean area out of the sun prior to closing or stacking.

  • Store at room temperature indefinitely.


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