Is DNA Testing Hitting Its Stride?

The reliability of the genomic test results is the key.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

January 27, 2011

6 Min Read
Is DNA Testing Hitting Its Stride?

It’s the age-old conundrum in the pursuit of animal science – sometimes the “animal” and the “science” aren’t singing from the same page in the hymnal.

That’s why, when Mike Holden began DNA testing his bulls three years ago, it was as much an exercise in curiosity as it was an attempt to add another tool to his new seedstock enterprise.

He has more than 20 years of data on his commercial calf crops, beginning with individual birthweights and ending with carcasses in the cooler. Three years ago, when he decided to add seedstock production to his commercial cow-calf operation, he wondered how closely the genomics data on his cattle would match up with the real-world data he already had.

What he found was pleasantly surprising.

Seedstock niche

While Holden’s home base is in Scranton, IA, the bulk of his cattle run in the Nebraska Sandhills, near Stuart. “We calve 350-400 cows out there and they stay out there year ’round,” he says. About a third are straightbred commercial Angus cows. “Then we’ve got a third that are registered Maine Anjou cattle; the balance is what they call MaineTainer, which is less than a quarter to five-eighths Maine.”

His entry into the seedstock business is typical of the fast-moving, forward-thinking approach Holden takes to his cattle operation. He has long run Maine Anjou bulls on his commercial Angus cows, producing a half-blood calf. “I noticed there were no Maine Anjou cattle in the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association sales, and there haven’t been for years. I thought that was a niche somebody ought to go after and I couldn’t think of a better guy than me.”

Data is important

Since his roots are in commercial cow-calf production, he knew that bull customers wouldn’t be any different than he was (and is) when it comes to wanting all the information he can get on the bulls he buys. And he knew that the brave new world of genomics data would be increasingly important in that quest for genetic knowledge.

So he began DNA testing on his seedstock bulls, as much for his own sake as for the cattlemen who buy his bulls. The data, he says, matches up very well.

Quality and yield grade (YG) are good examples. The results of the genomics testing indicate Holden’s cattle should have a high propensity to grade Choice. “And we are. We’re running 95-96% Choice and Prime and we’re getting to the point where we’re past 50% Certified Angus Beef®.” He’s getting similar results for YG and cutability, with the genomics data indicating his calves should produce a majority of YG 1 and 2 carcasses. “We’re running about 60% YG 1 and 2,” he says.

Not all traits match up quite that well. Last year, he put three bulls on test, and the residual feed intake (RFI) data ranged from a -1 to -3. For RFI, the higher the negative number, the more efficient the cattle are. The genomics data on those three bulls, however, didn’t indicate they should be quite that good. In other traits, he’s seen the opposite, where the genomics data indicated the cattle should perform better than actual data indicated.

He’s not sure why there’s that kind of deviation. Some of it may just be the nature of genes and genetics. Holden thinks it’s because his sample sizes are small – he’s not producing many bulls yet; thus, his testing window is narrow.

Moving forward

Overall, Holden says the genomics data matches up very well with his numbers and observations. That gives him the confidence to use the tests as he moves his herd forward.

In that regard, he says commercial producers should ask their seedstock suppliers for DNA data along with ultrasound results when they buy bulls and replacement heifers.

“If I’m going to try to get somebody to pay top dollar for my calves, why would I not want to create as much information that’s going to create more value for my cattle over the next guy? I’ve got to give them a reason why my cattle are worth more,” he says.

He uses age and source verification as an example. “We’re age and source verified. I don’t expect to get the $20 to $50 premium that they’re going to get in the feedlot, but I’d sure like to think that they might give me a $10 to $15 premium for my calves. Ten bucks on 400 calves is $4,000. That buys you an awfully nice bull.”

With DNA data, Holden says a cattleman has a better idea of what he’s getting. “Somebody might want $4,000 for his bull, but what makes him worth $4,000 vs. $1,500? That’s where the DNA data can come in.”

The DNA data, however, is just one more tool in his toolbox of tactics for selecting cattle. But it’s an important tool because it’s predictive.

“I’m fortunate that I collect actual data on the cattle,” he says. “But that comes after the fact. If I need to buy a bull and I know some of the DNA information, I can get that information before the cattle are ready.”

Culling pressure

Presently, Holden is just testing the bulls he produces and the bulls he buys to use in his operation. He’ll begin collecting genomics data on his replacement heifers this year. In the meantime, he’ll place heavy culling pressure on his females and use the genomics data from the bulls to make breeding decisions.

To make the first cut, a heifer has to have a 90-lb.-or-less birthweight and gain at least 2 lbs./day on the cow. At weaning, they have to weigh at least 110% of the average weaning weight of the herd. Same for any bull calves he’s considering for herd bulls. Plus, he measures the pelvis on both his bulls and heifers. The target is 170 cm, adjusted to a year of age.

Any calves that don’t meet these benchmarks will be culled into the feedlot as feeder cattle. “I don’t want any headaches. If I’m selling a replacement female, I’m not going to sell a headache to somebody else.”

The replacement heifers and the light end of the feeder cattle are shipped back to the home place in Iowa. There, the replacement heifers are developed, bred and calved, and the feeder calves are fed to be harvested for Moo Meat, Holden’s direct-to-the-consumer locker beef business.

Given his experience with correlating DNA testing with real-world data, Holden looks at the genomics data as a report card. “Are we doing what we’re thinking we’re doing? I think it makes me more knowledgeable, provides a tool.”

Tip of the iceberg

He thinks cattlemen have only seen the very tip of the DNA iceberg.

“I don’t think I can tell you today that I even remotely realize the value that information has for me,” he says. As the technology changes and more information becomes known, he thinks that will change. But he wonders if the art of practical application will ever catch up with the science of genomics. “We may not ever realize what the real value is.”

For now, he sees plenty of value already. Knowledge and information are power, and that power can help you more quickly realize the goals you’ve set for your operation.

“If true supply and demand is going to be the key, it’s going to be awfully good in the beef industry for the next three, four, five years,” he predicts. “So, anything I can do to differentiate myself from the next guy, I need to try to do, especially if it’s creating value. Commercial cattlemen need to know as much as they can about what they’re buying and what kind of product they putting on consumer’s plates.”

About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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