Added value: Genomic testing becoming more affordable all the time
September 13, 2018
From its start at $200 per head to around $37 per head today, genomic testing is looking more affordable to the commercial cattleman all the time.
During the Red Angus Association of America convention in Watertown, S.D., Dr. Stewart Bauck, vice president of AgriGenomics for Neogen Corporation, discussed the evolution of genomics and DNA testing in the cattle business.
"As the cost goes down and more tools become available to commercial cattlemen, you need to begin thinking about what you can do to make this technology part of your herd," Bauck said in his presentation Wednesday.
One Red Angus seedstock breeder from Sydney, Mont., who has worked to implement these technologies in his herd is Melvin Leland, owner of Leland Red Angus Ranch. For more than 100 years, the Lelands' ranch has been in the family, and today they breed over 500 females by Artificial Insemination.
"We've always been driven to performance and work to identify performance in cattle," said Leland in an interview. "Our ranch first started collecting data in 1964, and by 1980 we were recording our whole herd. Now it's been three years that we've been genomic testing all of our calves with tissue samples."
Leland shared readily the benefits of genomic testing in increasing EPD accuracy but wanted to stress the importance of seeing the whole picture. It's necessary to continue promoting both terminal and maternal traits because both are just as important to the cattle industry.
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"Genomic testing is not only very interesting but has tremendous economic value. It helps to take the guess work out of our breeding," said Leland. "If you want to end up with something, you better start with something. DNA testing sure helps with that."
Commercial cattlemen play an important role in this as well. When purchasing a bull, Bauck suggests asking that bull be genomic tested since the accuracy of the EPDs will be so much higher. It's also become increasingly possible to apply genomic selection to a commercial herd with more genomic profiles available to use for replacement heifers.
Located in Deer Trail, Colo., John Price is a big proponent of genomic testing for his commercial herd and has been involved with it since around 2011 when he began purchasing genomic tested bulls.
"It just made a lot of sense to me to be using that information and giving it the weight it deserved," said Price. "Every year I lean on that DNA information more and more because of what I've seen it do for my herd."
Price's ranch is on its third calf crop to pull genomic DNA samples from all its heifer calves. When it comes to the cost of it, he hopes that feedlots will continue to come on board with it and offer premiums for cattle that have been genomic tested.
Genomic testing has proven to be a worthwhile and necessary tool for many ranchers across the nation, and Bauck stressed his views on its importance for the beef industry going forward.
"The last 15 years have been a whirlwind of activity," Bauck said. "Even I didn't realize we would end up where we are today."
Neogen's genomics lab operations, GeneSeek, began in 1998. At that point, Bauck and the AgriGenomics team were essentially hunting and pecking in the genome until full DNA sequencing began.
Genomic testing really took off on Dec. 4, 2003, when the USDA announced its initiative to sequence the bovine genome. Once a full DNA sequence was acquired, they found three billion base pairs in the genome and over three million single nucleotide polymorphisms.
"Once we understood that there were a massive number of these SNPs in the genome, we could harness that information and use that to begin applying more technologies for animal breeding," Bauck said.
When Illumina came out with a revolutionary 50K chip to test the genome in 2008, it was a transformational moment in the industry. From there, the very first genomic-enhanced Expected Progeny Difference came in late 2009. Providing genomic data to add to a classical EPD on an animal allowed for the EPD's accuracy to be increased greatly, particularly on a young animal.
From 2010 to 2014, many of the major beef cattle breeds began their own DNA testing program, and today, nearly every breed has their own version of the program. As genomic testing became more common, researchers eventually game up with a more streamlined testing approach, the "Single Step Program."
Data and information gained from DNA testing can allow cattlemen to understand what actually went on in the Mendelian shuffle, therefore, understanding which specific traits that animal took from its family ancestry instead of assuming 50 percent from each parent.
In doing this, some people figured that the days of phenotypic measurements would cease, but instead, they found that it has actually done the opposite.
"The cattle breeder that pays attention and does a good job of accurately measuring the performance of their cattle will be able to use genomic data to get the most accurate prediction of their animals, thereby accelerating their genetics," Bauck said. "If I had one message for seedstock breeders, it would be this: Phenotype like crazy and genotype as broadly as you can possibly get."
Ranchers gathered in Watertown, S.D., for the Commercial Cattlemen's Symposium as part of the 2018 National Red Angus Convention to learn about applying DNA technology to their operations. F