Genomics help achieve uniformity |

Genomics help achieve uniformity

Genetic testing might help with heifer and bull selection, hopefully producing a more uniform calf crop as the end result. Photo by Stephanie Eayrs
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Bull sale season is just around the corner, and that means catalogs will soon fill mailboxes and ranchers will spend their evening hours studying over the sale selections.

Buyers may notice that seedstock producers are offering more information now than ever before. It can be a daunting task sorting through all of the data, but fortunately, with new genetically-enhanced expected progeny difference (GE-EPDs), the information is more accurate than ever before.

“Seedstock producers can jumpstart the reliability and dependability of the information or genetic materials the bulls will pass onto their progeny,” said Kent Anderson, PhD, Zoetis genetics associate director of global technical services. “The more you invest in these technologies, the more opportunities there are to favorably market your cattle at the point of trade.”

The use of GE-EPDs, or in layman’s terms – genomics, is widely used among most breed associations. The use of genomics in EPDs improves accuracy, allowing for more reliable information when choosing a bull.

“Sire selection drives the genetic component of commercial cattle production,” said Anderson. “Information for young sire prospects is imperfect and incomplete, but DNA enables more dependable and complete breeding decisions for increased net returns.”

Anderson explained that non-genetic variables like management and environment can skew EPDs, but with genetics added into those EPDs, the accuracy improves.

“Historically, we’ve gathered pedigree information and individual performance data,” said Anderson. “We used to depend on progeny for EPDs, but that takes time for the bull to have his first calves; his first calves to have weaning weights gathered; his first daughters to breed back and have calves, etc. Essentially that bull is four years old before we really know much about him. With DNA information, it saves time, money and shows the genetics you’re buying are accurate and dependable. As a bull buyer, I would encourage you to use GE-EPDs to better understand what your bull will be passing on.”

EPDs for calving ease, birth weight and weaning weights represent 14 offspring with GE-EPDs. Growth and efficiency data with genomics are worth 17 offspring, and carcass data is worth 10 progeny with genomics.

“You’re essentially buying the bull with the equivalent of a first calf crop,” Anderson said. “Buying a bull with superior GE-EPDs means you’re buying heifer bulls with less risk of calving difficulty, and bulls that produce more productive replacements. With superior genetics, you’ll purchase bulls that more reliably transmit genetics for growth, feed efficiency and carcass premiums.”

GeneMax is one tool on the market that allows producers to test their own calves. According to Certified Angus Beef, genetics account for 40 percent of marbling and growth performance. With genetic testing, a simple and affordable test can help make precise keep and cull decisions, determine the highest value of replacement heifers, make better breeding decisions knowing the commercial heifers’ genetic potential, and help market calves. At the feedlot, genomics can help manage risk by helping select those cattle with predictable gain and grade potential, and earn more predictable premiums by allowing feeders to market cattle with known marbling ability.

“It’s been 70 years since our cow herd inventory has been so low,” said Anderson. “It’s a conundrum. When calves are this valuable, it’s hard to keep them back as replacements and maintain inventory numbers, let alone grow them. When I retain one, it’s a $500 investment to raise her up to a bred heifer, plus another $500 a head to keep her in the herd annually.”

Anderson used the example of selecting replacement heifers, explaining how DNA testing can help choose the most profitable heifers to keep in the herd.

“Any good enterprise begins with the end in mind,” he said. “We try to select sires to produce the best calf crop, and our goal is to select heifers with the best reproductive traits. Traditional heifer selection is based on visual appraisal, the earliest born, best reproductive tract score, dam’s production, and soundness. Using the Cow Advantage score, we can look at everything from conception to weaning. With the Feeder Advantage Score, we look at weaning to the CAB carcass. With the Total Advantage Score, we look at conception to carcass.”

Anderson said that when doing the math based on the cost of production and revenue, using genomics can help keep ranchers in bounds on a few key traits to choose a heifer that will be a strong candidate to keep relative to disposition, cow size, milk, marlbing and tenderness.

“If you put everything in a pie, you would put equal emphasis on maternal traits (39 percent) and growth and efficency (41 percent), and about 21 percent on carcass merit,” he said. “If you have a heifer that scores 75 vs. 25 with GeneMax, it’s about $50 per calf difference. We hope the technology allows ranchers to make profitable decisions.”

It all sounds good on paper, but what about practicality of testing? For Scott and Paula Hamilton of Hitchcock, S.D., they have tried every method of testing for DNA, with varying results.

The three methods to collect samples are through blood cards, ear punch or hair collection.

“We have been collecting DNA for several years,” said Scott Hamilton, who runs a cow-calf and feeder operation. “We’ve done the blood cards, ear punch and hair collection. The blood collection is difficult because of cross contamination. When using blood cards, you need a separate needle for each animal. Then it must be set up to dry. Of course, when you’re outside collecting samples on 200 head of replacement heifers, the wind is blowing. It’s dusty. You have to carefully fold it up when it’s properly dry. If it’s too wet when you fold the card, the sample will mold. I didn’t find the blood collection to be the easiest method. It’s too hard to handle, store and is easily contaminated.”

The next method the Hamiltons tried was the ear punch. The first tubes they tested had a failure rate of 20 percent, but new tubes have since come on the market that are stainless steel and pressure-tested to lessen cracking problems.

“The ear punch is really easy to take,” he said. “We have found the best time to collect the sample is through processing. The scale head is right there. The computer is in front of you. It’s a clean method of collection. The biggest problem for us was there wasn’t any instructions included with the ear punch, and the numbers on the tube have to be transferred to a card sheet, which doesn’t easily match up and allows for human error when writing the numbers down.”

Hair collection is Hamilton’s favorite method.

“Collecting tail hair is easy, fast and takes up less space than a tube,” he said. “With a hair sample, all I have to do is pull it from the root, fold it over in a piece of paper and record the data right on the paper. The biggest problem is contamination. We collected tail hair from the calves in the summer. At that time, they were on mom’s milk and grass, so things can get kind of messy.”

Despite the extra hassle of collecting samples, Hamiltons have been DNA testing for the last four years, and they believe it has helped them make better decisions in their operation.

“In order to make informed decisions, you have to have data,” he said. “It’s just like a yield monitor in your combine. You need to collect the data, do it in a way that’s workable for you, and have years of data to make informed decisions. We started collecting individual carcass data and weaning weights. We then ultrasounded everything and have found the ultrasound data correlates very strongly with the DNA information.”

Hamiltons sell their cattle to U.S. Premium Beef, which offers the collection of carcass data free of charge.

“When I started collecting information on my calves in 2003, our fats were 70 percent USDA Choice or Prime; now I’m in the upper 90s,” he said. “My percent USDA prime has gone from 3-5 percent to 15 percent. Everything has advanced for us.”

Anderson’s comments were part of his presentation at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association “Cattlemen’s College,” sponsored by Zoetis. Hamilton was in attendance, where he shared his personal experiences with data collecting.

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