Genomics gaining ground in beef business

Genomic tools are offering commercial and seedstock producers more precision in identifying and blending genetics to accomplish specific goals.

Wes Ishmael

August 20, 2015

9 Min Read
Genomics gaining ground in beef business

“The market is strong. I’m selling fewer head, making more money and still keeping more replacement heifers back,” says John Mazoch, DVM of H&M Veterinary Services at Bueche, La.

Historically high prices for a protracted period is part of this reality, but so is the power of the genomic technology Dr. Mazoch is using to more accurately identify and blend genetics in his herd.

About a year ago, Dr. Mazoch began obtaining genomic data on his heifers from Method Genetics LLC at St. Joseph, Mo., using that company’s Method Choice product.

Bill Bowman

Bill Bowman of Method Genetics explains Method Choice utilizes genotypes of the cattle being tested, along with available ancestral pedigree, basic performance weights and measures. The result is EPDs for calving ease direct, calving ease maternal, docility, carcass weight, marbling and ribeye area. With Method Choice, producers also receive selection indexes expressed in units of dollars: Maternal Production Index, Quality Pounds Index and Retained Ownership Income.

Along with his other selection criteria, Dr. Mazoch uses the EPDs and selection indexes to cull the bottom 10 percent of his heifers. He ships the dams of those heifers, too. Dr. Mazoch utilizes artificial insemination with synchronization and fixed-time breeding.

“If we’re doing it right, the offspring should be better than their dams,” Dr. Mazoch explains.

Moreover, if the genomic evaluation is accurate, Dr. Mazoch reckons his oldest cows and their calves are most likely to be culled. So far, he’s found that to be the case in his program.

“Without this, you have to keep a heifer for three years before you know what you’ve got,” Dr. Mazoch says.

With the added assurance offered by the test, he can cull deeper, keep fewer replacement candidates and then market or feed the rest.

“In most situations, the average commercial cow has produced and weaned more than four calves before returning a profit,” says Kent Andersen, Ph.D., Zoetis associate director of global technical services, animal genetics. “This makes it imperative that producers select and develop the right replacement heifers to optimize revenues versus costs for enhanced profitability.”

GeneMax Advantage from Zoetis is a genomic test for prospective commercial Angus replacement females that are 75 percent or greater black Angus. It was developed through a collaborative partnership between Zoetis, Angus Genetics Inc. and Certified Angus Beef. The test gives producers three economic scores: Cow Advantage Index, Feeder Advantage Index, and Total Advantage Index. It also flags outliers for cow cost, docility, marbling and tenderness based on producer criteria.

“For current selection, GeneMax Advantage results are most effective when utilized with existing selection criteria,” Andersen explains. “Structural soundness, disposition, age, and many other important factors must be considered, too. Keeping those in mind, give the heifers with more desirable GeneMax Advantage results stronger consideration as replacements into your herd.”

“The Method Genetics test costs me $32 per head. It’s the cheapest thing I ever did,” Dr. Mazoch says. “When you’re working with a program like this, you can develop reputation cattle with verified genetics that allow you to become more of a price maker than price taker (see “How and Why Commercial Producers are Using Genomic Tools” in the sidebar).”

Dr. Mazoch has begun introducing some of his clients in Mississippi and Louisiana to the technology as an added-value service.

“You can read about it, but you can’t see the power of it until you do it yourself,” Dr. Mazoch says.

Genomic potential catching up with promise

“The opportunity to use genomics to further characterize genetics within herds and to manage and mate commercial cattle on an individual basis provides an exciting tool for improvement,” Bowman says.

Seedstock producers latched on to genomic tests when they first became available almost 20 years ago. Back then, plenty of folks thought identifying the presence of a couple of genes could pretty well guarantee the phenotypic outcome. History quickly proved that notion wrong.

A long, costly slog later, the ability to cost effectively take a snapshot of individual genotypic composition, along with advancements in computing technology, ushered in the age of genomic enhanced expected progeny differences (GE EPDs).

“Every time you buy a bull, you’re betting on predictive genetics with your dollars. You’re betting on the true transmitted genetics that contribute to the weigh-up of the bull’s calves, how well his daughters perform as cows and all of the rest,” Andersen says. “This technology helps you hedge your bets. Rather than betting on only the bull’s pedigree and on his own performance—what typically comprises the initial EPD of a young bull that hasn’t yet sired progeny— HD 50K from Zoetis and GE EPDs allow you to turn over another card.”

HD 50K from Zoetis identifies DNA marker genotypes at 50,000 locations on an animal’s chromosomes. In other words, at 50,000 locations, the technology tracks whether an animal inherited the most favorable or unfavorable genetics from his parents, for 18 different traits in the Angus breed.

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Other companies offer their own versions of such tests and services. For instance, GeneSeek (Neogen) provides the genotyping for Method Genetics.

Andersen likens using GE EPDs in selection to predicting this year’s end-of-season record of your favorite football team with the benefit of knowing how they fared in their first few games.

If you only have the previous year’s records to go by, odds would favor a fair amount of error associated with your prediction for this year’s success. If you knew more details—how many starters were returning, the state of the coaching staff, the relative level of competition on the coming schedule and the like—your prediction could be more accurate. If you could wait to place your bets until they’d played a few games in the new season, the odds of you predicting their record accurately would increase exponentially.

Like knowing your team’s past success, a bull’s EPD based on pedigree alone offers some notion of potential, though with a fair amount of expected error. Add in the bull’s own performance and the error associated with the prediction declines. If you could wait to buy and use the bull until you knew how his first calves performed, the odds of you making the right choice would multiply.

Specifically, HD 50K from Zoetis increases the EPD accuracy for young, non-parent bulls from 0.05 (based solely on pedigree information) to 0.25-0.35. Depending on the trait, that’s the equivalent of having performance data from 7 to 21 progeny already contributing to the bull’s genetic evaluation. In the case of breeding females, that’s the equivalent of more than her lifetime production of natural calves for most traits.

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In other words, GE EPDs enable producers to select yearling, virgin bulls that have an EPD accuracy equivalent to already having performance reported from a first calf crop.

“Seedstock producers have had the luxury of using EPDs with increased accuracy values available in their selection decisions,” Bowman explains. “This has led to a steeper rate of genetic improvement for economically relevant traits in beef production. The ability to use EPDs and indexes to make more rapid and reliable progress has been a tremendous benefit. Focused selection on multiple traits has generated unequaled progress.”

Moreover, Bowman explains genomics allow for selection and improvement of traits that are difficult to measure and for traits with little available phenotypic data.

“This area has helped not only the seedstock providers but also their commercial bull buyers,” Bowman says. “Research endeavors to further expand these capabilities into additional arenas of health, disease resistance and environment adaptability continue to generate questions and offer tremendous hope for the future.”

Opportunities grow for continuous improvement

“A new and exciting use of the technology, as it has evolved in the commercial sector, is how this commercial data can provide additional feedback to evaluation systems, allowing seedstock producers to further develop specification genetics to meet commercial customer and industry targets,” Bowman says.

In tandem with 50K, genomic companies like Zoetis could begin developing genomic tests aimed at describing the genetic potential of individual cattle for particular traits or trait areas.

For instance, both companies mentioned here also offer tests that provide deeper genetic knowledge than EPDs alone, but less than the tests mentioned earlier.

“Method Commercial is best described as a screening test for producers that may not know a great deal about the cattle they are testing,” Bowman explains. “It provides an assessment for five individual traits (marbling, gain, ribeye area, docility and calving ease maternal) as well as a Method Genetics post-weaning selection index value called the Value Base Premium Index.

Zoetis offers GeneMax Focus, which enables commercial producers to assess the gain and grading ability of individual calves sired by Angus bulls tested with HD 50K from Zoetis.

Tests from both of these companies also provide the opportunity to match calves bred in multi-bull pastures to the specific sire.

“Knowing which specific bulls sired each replacement heifer informs a lifetime of mating decisions and allows you to minimize in-breeding and associated depression in fertility and survival traits, and if needed, to manage around known genetic conditions,” Andersen explains.

Combined, genomic-enhanced genetic evaluation and specific genomic-based tests offer producers a level of selection accuracy never before available.

Using the Zoetis suite of products as an example, Andersen explains, “Bulls selected based on superior GE EPDs are expected to more dependably produce calf crops with the right genetics for profit.

“Next, the steers from those sires can be tested with GeneMax Focus to identify gain and grade potential more precisely in order to empower better marketing decisions. Similarly, potential replacement heifers sired by these bulls can be tested with GeneMax Advantage to help select replacements from sires that are strong in maternal traits, possess more gain and grade potential, and improve future production using more informed breeding decisions.”

“It’s a valuable tool to any cattleman,” Dr. Mazoch says of the opportunity to select genetics more reliably. “I can’t overemphasize how valuable this information is. The benefit of using these tools is that the cattle will be even more valuable genetically down the road.”


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