There is value – measured in hard dollars and cents – in improving cattle performance in the feedyard. “If we could change feed efficiency 5% on a pen of cattle, that would be about a $30-$35/head premium for us,” says Tom Hill with Agri-Beef in Boise, ID. “If we change death loss from 2.5% to 1.25%, that’s about $15/head for the rest of the cattle in the pen.” Then, there’s retail yield. Hill says a 1% change in yield equals about $45/head.
With numbers like that dangling in front of them, feedyard managers are looking hard at DNA marker tests as a potential way to capture some of that value. The operative word, however, is “looking.” For DNA marker technology to gain a foothold in the feedyard, the industry will have to figure out how to value the information and how feedyards and ranchers can both profit from it.
“Our very, very initial conversation is, if we can identify groups of cattle that can meet these accelerated performance standards, can we develop the logistics to split that advantage back to the producer?” Hill says.
For Tom Brink, vice president of risk management and feeder cattle procurement with Five Rivers Cattle Feeding in Greeley, CO, one possible way to accomplish that is to embed the technology into the feeder cattle transaction.
“I would like to see a simple and inexpensive genomic test happen at the time we receive the feeder cattle, and the seller and us split the cost,” he says. Ideally, the test would include quality grade or marbling, growth and feed efficiency. Later, as health markers are identified, that could be included. “Then we value those cattle up or down, just like we do with a fed cattle grid, and we pay the seller more if those cattle score high on that test and we pay somewhat less if they score low.”
For that to work, there will need to be research tying the information from a DNA test back to those phenotypic traits so the real value of the genomics information can be quantified, Brink says. “And that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done.”
Five Rivers buys some feeder cattle on a grid now, Brink says. That grid includes the usual weight slide, as well as health and weaning management, such as whether or not the calves were part of a VAC 45 program, for instance. But structuring a grid with DNA test information as one of the price elements makes sense, Brink says. “There is at least theoretically the possibility of driving something that is quantitative into a system that today is pretty subjective.”
Another application would be at the packing plant. “Packers are always looking to differentiate themselves, to create the next brand to try to add value,” Brink says. “I think tenderness is one where the technology is ready to go. It’s just a matter of matching that up with the right packer and the right program.”
Another possible use of genomic testing is for the feedyard to test the cattle, then sort them into outcome groups based on the results. While that may happen someday, Brink says it will require their feedyards to retool their operating procedures, which is a much harder sell. He says the industry may eventually get there, “but I see that as being quite a ways out.”
There is another area where cow-calf producers and feedyards alike could find added value in genomics, and Brink is surprised it hasn’t already been tapped. Using the genomically enhanced EPDs in the Angus breed as an example, he asks why we don’t we see calves being marketed with a claim that they were sired by Angus bulls that had dollar value indexes in the upper percentile of the breed? “I don’t know that I can ever remember seeing that. And that would be beneficial.” It will be up to the producers who know and are confident they have good genetics to lead the way, he says, “because they’re the ones who have the most to benefit from it.”