The present and future of cattle breeding: DNA testing, GE EPDs & gene editing
When Faulkton rancher Troy Hadrick took over management of his parents’ commercial cattle operation in 2012, he knew he wanted to work to make the cattle more valuable.
“I didn’t want to sell average cattle at an average price,” said Hadrick.
His first move in adding value to his future calf crops was starting a whole-herd artificial insemination (AI) program, using proven Angus genetics on his females. His next step was retaining ownership and getting carcass data back on those fed cattle.
“At this point, we had 0 percent prime, 69 percent choice and 30 percent qualify for Certified Angus Beef (CAB),” said Hadrick. “The results were pretty average.”
The following year, they chose to AI to another bull with excellent carcass merits, and they used GeneMax testing to help select steers to retain ownership on, as well as making an educated decision on which heifers should stay in the breeding program.
“The knowledge from the DNA testing was valuable to help us understand how the cattle would perform,” said Hadrick. “It was interesting to see how spot-on the data really was. The testing accurately correlated to the carcass results in those calves we retained ownership on.”
Thanks to DNA testing, Hadrick has been able to make more accurate breeding decisions, and the investment has paid off. In the last four years, he’s received $8-9/cwt in added value to his cattle sold. In actual grid premiums, his first two years of testing earned him an additional $49/head. In 2016, that jumped to $76/head, and in 2017, Hadrick has earned $100/head premiums, which he credits to his extensive use of proven sires and using the data from the DNA tests to help make breeding and culling decisions.
“With the improvements I hoped to make to our commercial heard, I figured it would take at least a decade, but we’ve been able to get there in four years,” said Hadrick. “This year, we’ve got cattle going 35 percent prime and 82-84 percent CAB or better. We aren’t done though. Our goal is to get to 100 percent. Once we’ve fine-tuned our carcass traits, we can then use DNA data to fine tune other traits in our herd that are important to us.”
Using these innovative tools has allowed Hadrick to reach his goals more quickly, and his efforts were recognized in Sept. 2017 when Troy, along with his wife, Stacy, were honored as CAB’s 2017 Progressive Partner of the Year at the CAB Annual Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
“Attending the CAB Annual Conference and receiving this award was an incredible experience,” said Hadrick. “We were able to meet the retailers and chefs who sell and use CAB products, and it really brought it full circle for us. If they are going to succeed in selling high-quality CAB products, it starts on the ranch with high-quality cattle. Today, we have the tools to manage and market our cattle better and that can result in consistent, high-quality beef that consumers love and will pay a premium for.”
DNA testing, genetically-enhanced EPDs and other reproductive tools like embryo transfers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the future of beef cattle breeding and genetics. Gene editing is an emerging technology in beef cattle breeding that allows researchers to precisely edit or change a sequence of DNA.
For example, the dairy industry has used gene editing to work to eliminate the horned trait. Gene editing can also be used to correct diseases or genetic defects.
“The best analogy I’ve heard to explain gene editing is like finding and replacing a certain word within a text on Microsoft Word,” said Kent Anderson, Zoetis associate director of genetic technical services. “The simple cowboy definition of gene editing is ‘find and replace,’ at the embryonic stage, so we can find an allele that is not desired and replace it with something we want.”
Still in the research and development phase, gene editing is limited to just a handful of traits at this point. This is because most production traits (growth, milk, maternal, etc.) are impacted by hundreds and thousands of genes, says Anderson. Each trait has a small effect on the others it’s connected to, so it’s difficult to find and replace these genes. However, traits like polled and horned, color and genetic abnormalities are traits that can be edited using this technology.
“Another example that is being explored by researchers is adding the F94 (muscling gene), which the Limousin breed carries, to a high-marbling animal like a Waygu,” said Anderson. “If you wanted to make an animal that has the muscularity associated with a Limousin with the marbling of a Waygu, it may be possible to edit the Waygu to have two copies of the F94 gene and also retain the high marbling trait in one package.”
Of course, cost and efficiency of these technologies will limit industry use, but companies like St. Paul-based Recombinetics are using gene-editing advancements to innovate animal breeding and benefit human health.
According to the Recombinetics’s website, gene editing (or precision breeding), “uses molecular scissors to precisely edit the animal’s genetics. By adjusting the letter order in the animal’s DNA, we can select and amplify or repress traits more efficiently than ever before.”
The company has collaborated with experts in academia, agriculture, genetics and sustainable production to enhance natural disease resilience, increase animal productivity and improve animal welfare, with work in cattle, hogs, poultry, aquaculture.
In cattle, they’ve worked on breeding naturally hornless cattle, heat-tolerant cattle, animals that are more resistant to respiratory disease, foot and mouth disease, and double-muscled cattle for higher meat yield.
What’s more, with gene editing, pigs could help researchers find cures for cancer and even grow human organs. The industry is anticipated to grow to $8.1 billion by 2025, but its does come with its own set of challenges. While Anderson says researchers aren’t creating new genetic material or some kind of Frankenstein creature, he points out that there is a negative public stigma and some ethical considerations regarding genetically-modified animals.
Currently, animal breeding is not regulated by the federal government, and although gene editing does not introduce foreign genetic DNA into the genome, it becomes murky water if trying to distinguish between naturally occurring alleles and edited variations.
According to proceedings from the 2017 Beef Improvement Federation, “In January 2017, the Food and Drug Administration expanded the scope of its ‘Guidance for Industry #187’ for producers and developers of genetically improved animals and their products to address animals whose DNA has been intentionally altered through the use of genome editing techniques. The new guidance from FDA entitled, ‘Regulation of Intentionally Altered Genomic DNA in Animals,’ triggers mandatory, pre-market FDA new animal drug approval of any ‘intentionally alliterated genomic DNA’ sequence in an animal.”
While genetic editing has not been proven to produce negative effects on milk and beef products, it remains unclear how geneticists will differentiate between intentional alternations and naturally-occurring traits. It’s natural for an Angus to be polled, but with improved precision breeding, Holsteins can also be polled. Does that make the trait then unnatural? Depending on who makes the definition, regulations and public perceptions could limit the use of gene editing and advanced animal breeding.
“With the regulatory environment and practical limitations, I don’t think we’ll see too many producers leveraging this technology in the very near future,” said Anderson. “However, the technology is certainly promising, especially if we can correct a defect or make a genetic improvement. However, the practical application may be a little exaggerated for the majority of producers.”