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DNA Is Their Way

Two Nebraska producers are using DNA technology to get ahead in teh beef quality and preformance game

This reporter has savored a lot of great steaks in my years covering the beef industry. But the one Art and Merry Brownlee served up in the kitchen of their Ashby, NE, ranch house last summer was among the best — tender, juicy and, oh, so flavorful.

I complimented the couple on the quality of their beef. Art's response was: “Well, that's good to hear because that's what we're after here.”

The Brownlees are working toward that goal in a non-traditional way for commercial cow-calf producers. Their herd consists of an Angus base and Braunvieh, on which they retain ownership of most of the calves. They use a combination of AI and pasture breeding on a total of about 1,400 of their own females annually — both heifers and cows — and they collect blood from the calves at processing.

Those smears, identified by the calves' tag numbers, will later be used to determine the parentage of selected animals that perform well or poorly in a number of quality and production traits. These traits include birthweight, replacement performance and carcass acceptability.

That data is used to determine future mating and culling decisions in their quest to maximize their herd's performance — on the range, in the feedlot and in the cooler.

Meanwhile, northeast of the Brownlees in Ainsworth, NE, Bob and Diana Sears are just beginning to use a new DNA-based test called the GeneSTAR® Tenderness test to determine which of their breeding stock carry genetic markers for tenderness. The couple plans to use results of that test, in conjunction with another GeneSTAR test for marbling, to build a purebred Angus herd maximized for its potential to marble and produce tender carcasses.

The Brownlees and Sears are among producers on the forefront of utilizing DNA tools to help produce a higher percentage of better-eating carcasses, while minimizing “outs.” Both couples say that while it's tough to quantify a payback in exact dollars, the accelerated level of genetic progress in their herds made possible by improved end-product predictability is certainly a positive factor.

Art And Merry Brownlee

The Brownlees are relative newcomers to the production side of agriculture, though Merry's family — the Shadbolts — has roots sunk deep in Nebraska's Sandhills. In fact, her family leased for 30 years the very acreage on which she, Art and their sons — Edwin (18) and Ethan (10) — now make their cattle living.

After residing in Omaha for 20 years, where Art worked with computers and financial cost analysis for what is now Qwest Communications, the couple moved to Ashby eight years ago. Before moving to the ranch, the Brownlees had backgrounded cattle and retained ownership through family members. Yet, Merry quips: “Moving here seemed like taking over a 747 in mid-air.”

Art says the sum of their previous experiences has provided them with a non-traditional, analytical approach to the cattle business. Part of that approach is a heavy concentration on gathering and analyzing performance data.

The result, Art says, is they've found themselves “doing very much what purebred breeders do, even though we have a commercial herd.”

For the past six years, the Brownlees have relied heavily on linear measurements of bulls and replacement heifers, and ultrasounds of their bulls for ribeye, marbling and backfat. For three years, they've used ultrasound to determine the optimal feeding endpoint for the roughly 1,100 calves on which they annually retain ownership. Four years ago, they began collecting DNA samples on calves.

“I think the days of the gate cut are basically gone,” Art says. “The margin is whittled down so much in this business today that we'll all be forced to use these tools to build back the margin on the producer end.”

The Brownlees AI about 1,000 females each year, not all of them theirs, before pasturing them in groups with four or five Angus and Braunvieh cleanup bulls each in a series of about 40 paddocks. They draw blood samples on all calves at processing, staining it on small blotter cards identified with each calf's ID number.

Art estimates that probably only 5% of those DNA samples will ever be used. But when the parentage of particularly good — or poor — performing females or carcasses is needed, they'll submit the cards of those individuals to MMI Genomics in Davis, CA.

Art reports that 50% of the time one test will determine parentage. Otherwise, two tests are needed to reasonably assure parentage. Each test costs $15, which Art characterizes as an “investment” cost.

“At this point, I can't say it pays for itself, but as far as shaping your herd for the future, I don't find it outrageous,” he says.

Art says his goal is to “find someone further down the line, either a harvester or retailer, who recognizes that outs cost them time and money and desire supplies that are beyond average.”

Upon determining the parentage of a particular calf, Art says both the dam and sire of that calf are considered in their final decision.

“You have to ask yourself how much is due to the cow and how much is due to the bull? So we look at the cow's history. The analysis aspect of this is continuous because if you don't attempt to take everything into account, it's worthless,” Art says.

He adds that through DNA typing and other management strategies, his cattle have performed better on quality-based marketing grids. Four years ago, he points out, they recorded 5% USDA Standards. In 2002, Standards were considerably less than 1%.

“We've certainly seen fewer discounts, but I can't say it's due solely to DNA typing because there are so many variables in this business,” Art says. “But it does allow us to close another variable. The more you can close, the more accurate you can be in what you're trying to accomplish. Certainly, however, you have to consider other year-to-year factors environment, feed quality, etc.”

The Brownlees' carcass target is USDA Choice. They strive to produce “a complete package that will give us the option of a Select or Choice grid,” he says.

Art says one downside of DNA typing is the time interval between collecting samples and actual use in selection decisions.

“If you've got good — or poor — carcasses hanging in the cooler, it's generally been 2½ years since that animal was bred,” Art says. “Still, if it's a bull we decide we don't want to keep, it allows us to cut at least one and maybe two years out of its production in our herd.

“And if it's a bull that works well with our herd, we can collect him. Even if he's dead, it gives us some insight into the bloodlines that work for us,” he adds.

For more on the Brownlee operation, check out the Web site at

Editor's Note: (MMI Genomics is a subsidiary of MetaMorphix, Inc., an ag biotech company that holds the rights to Celera Genomic's cattle genome. Last June, MetaMorphix announced a $10-million agreement with Excel Corporation and Caprock Cattle Feeders to develop and implement economic selection tools that will allow cattle breeders and feedlot operators to meet consumer demands for consistency and tenderness.)

Bob And Diana Sears

The Sears cattle operation includes Ainsworth Feedyard, a 30,000-head commercial feedyard begun by Bob's father Redmond in 1962, and a purebred Angus herd started six years ago by Diana. Today, Bob and three brothers own the feedyard that's managed by his son, Korley, while Diana heads up the 125-head registered herd.

Always interested in new technology to enhance quality, Bob's search a few years back for more information on DNA-based testing for carcass traits led him to Genetic Solutions Pty. Ltd. The Australian firm produced the GeneSTAR® Marbling test, the world's first commercial diagnostic DNA test for a beef production trait.

The test identifies the presence of the thyroglobulin gene in an animal's DNA, which indicates a beef animal's genetic potential to marble. Similarly, the firm's tenderness test, introduced in the U.S. in December, identifies the presence of two variations of the calpastatin gene — one associated with increased tenderness and the other with increased toughness. Calpastatin is a naturally occurring enzyme that inhibits normal meat tenderization during post-harvest aging.

Jim Gibb is general manager/co-owner of Frontier Beef Systems, a Colorado-based DNA technology company that represents Genetic Solutions in the U.S. He says independent studies on more than 5,000 carcasses show that cattle found to carry two copies of the tender form of the calpastatin gene had less than half the number of tough carcasses as those with zero copies of the tender form of the gene.

“This tenderness test could very well have the same level of impact on genetic improvement in the beef industry as expected progeny differences have had,” Gibb says. “These genes account for 30% of genetic variation in marbling and tenderness, and the heritability of the test is 100%.”

The Sears began using GeneSTAR's marbling test two years ago. They've thus far identified 13 cows and five bulls with two copies of the marbling gene (termed two-star animals in the test report vs. one-star animals that have a single copy of the gene). Their goal is to build an entire herd of two-star marbling animals by mating two-star bulls to two-star females.

Now, the Sears are beginning to test all their two-star marbling animals for tenderness. Their first enderness test results were expected back in mid January.

Bob says semen from their two-star marbling bulls will be available this spring. For more information, call 800/438-3148 or e-mail [email protected].

The marbling and tenderness tests each cost $55, or $85 for both, says Bob. That's a significant discount from the usual charges of $85 and $145, respectively, thanks to his volume-discount agreement with Genetic Solutions.

“Right now, we can feed some cattle 130 to 150 days and grade only 60% Choice. My goal is to get that to 90-95%,” Bob says.

Of course, he adds, any responsible breeder takes more than marbling and tenderness into consideration in making selection decisions.

“Of the five, two-star bulls for marbling that I have now,” Bob says. “I would only use three of them in my operation today, Bob says. “You still need to look further into the cattle to make sure everything is correct.

“I think this technology is exciting. It could really change the beef industry. Wouldn't it be nice to be 100% sure your steak will be tender?” That's why I think it could really change the whole industry.”

For more information on the Genetic Solutions tests, call 720/890-2832, e-mail [email protected] or visit