Worth the Cost? Genomic testing might be another tool in the heifer selection toolbox
May 29, 2018
Rising input costs in the beef business have ranchers evaluating ways they can save and operate frugally to reduce costs and improve their profit margins.
At the same time, more seedstock and commercial cattlemen are seeing the value in investing in genomic testing to determine which heifers will be best suited as replacements in the herd and which steers will outperform their counterparts in the feedlot.
While the upfront cost may cause some producers to hesitate, for Ross Ulmer, of Ulmer Land & Cattle Co. in Frederick, S.D., genomic testing has been able to advance his commercial bred heifer operation forward in just a few years.
"When we started genomic testing six years ago, we profiled our heifers for 14 traits, but now we're focusing on just four traits using Igenity's Silver Profile," said Ulmer. "We pull 1,400 tissue samples annually, and in just a few years, we've been able to develop a strong data base of our genetics that has not only helped us improve our operation, but has also served as an educational tool for our customers when they are making mating decisions on their females."
Igenity Silver is a profile designed for crossbred/multiple species breed heifers that will produce feeder calves and measures maternal traits such as calving ease maternal and stayability; performance including residual feed intake and average daily gain; carcass traits, tenderness and marbling; and parentage.
"We have found these traits to be most valuable in measuring," said Ulmer. "Looking at stayability gives us a good indication of the longevity of the mama cow. On performance, we can better understand that cow's ability to convert roughage to energy and being able to raise a big calf while taking care of herself. The profile used to include docility, but there are so many variables that made that score inaccurate, but we did find that carcass traits are very closely tied to docility. It seems the more calm and quiet the heifer, the higher she scored on things like marbling and tenderness."
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Ulmer Land & Cattle Co. hosts two sales annually where they merchandise fall and spring calving commercial heifers mostly bred to AI sires.
"Our program is focused on developing and breeding replacement heifers for our customers with five different breeds of cattle," said Ulmer. "We buy back heifers from our customers, so we already have solid data of who the heifers are and where they came from. Every heifer comes from a mama or grandma that we have previously profiled from years back, and now we are at the point, when our customers want the DNA profiles, we offer them as a way for them to make educated decisions on which females to breed with specific bulls in their programs."
Ulmer noticed a difference in his herd's performance within the first three years.
"If you look at throwing a $25 bill at these heifers, it seems like a lot up front, but if you pick the wrong heifer to stay in the herd, it will cost you much more in the long run," said Ulmer. "What our customers and myself have discovered is DNA doesn't lie, and even if we perceive one cow as being the best in our herd, when compared to her contemporary group, she may be one of the poorer producing cows you own. With a score from 1-10 on the index, we can evaluate how well each cow scores compared to everything else in the group. Very rarely does a cow score 9, and it's encouraged to cull anything under 2.5. We decided to cull at anything below a 4, and within just a few years, we have improved our average to 6.8 (the industry average is 4.8-5.1)."
Ulmer says one of the most important traits — stayability — has also remarkably improved in his operation.
"Not only are we seeing weaning weights go up 20-30 pounds/calf, but our breed back rates have been exceptional," said Ulmer, who guarantees heifers breed back in his sales. "We have improved breed backs to 98.6 percent on every heifer sold, and the national average is 92%. I attribute this to both nutrition and breed testing. One of the biggest challenges for cattlemen is getting young females to breed back, so being able to improve this trait is major dollars saved for our customers."
Priced at just $27/test, plus $3 for the tissue sampler, Ulmer says the cost is nominal up front to pay back big rewards.
"Of course, everything is profit driven, and I know many commercial cattlemen have doubts about the value this can add to their herds," said Ulmer. "However, I would encourage producers to look into this even if it's just in the beginning to be able to identify the type of cattle they have. This will give a basis to work from and make better breeding and culling decisions moving forward."
Just like any advancement in the beef industry, genomic testing isn't perfect. Ulmer would like to see a few important traits added to these profiles to really add value to DNA testing.
"I'm hoping to see this in the next year or two, but we would like to see the Johne's test added to the profiles," said Ulmer. "Many times a cow or heifer may carry the disease but never express it. Sometimes it shows up in the first five years or so. With this test, we would be able to know right away and eliminate the problem more quickly."
Two other common problems — soundness and udder quality — would be ideal tests to add to the DNA profiles.
"We work with a lot of cattle, and problems with feet and udders often directly correlate to specific sires," said Ulmer. "We try to communicate with these breeders to let them know of these issues, but having a DNA test where we could more effectively cull out these bloodlines and make improvements in these traits could be one of the biggest improvements the industry has accomplished in the last 20 years. I anticipate we are still five years down the road from this being a reality, but we want good udders and good feet, and this would be a major thing to add to a profile."
Zoetis and Neogen are the two major companies currently offering DNA testing on beef cattle, and South Dakota State University (SDSU) researchers recently evaluated the effectiveness of these profiles in predicting best performing steers in a feedlot setting.
"Over a two-year period, we pulled samples on 340 crossbred steers and using both Neogen and Zoetis profiles, we wanted to see how well the genetic scores corresponded to what we saw in terms of actual carcass data," said Warren Rusche, SDSU beef feedlot management associate. "Looking at marbling, the tests performed pretty well, and in terms of the lower performing cattle, the genetics showed that very few of these low-scoring steers reached a premium Choice or higher grade. It was very effective at finding the cattle that didn't have the marbling potential compared to the others in the group. We also saw accurate scores on ribeye area, fat thickness and yield grade."
Rusche says where the profiles lacked in accuracy was in predicting Average Daily Gains.
"The weaker predictions in ADGs make sense because there are other factors like environment and sickness that determine performance and intake along the way," said Rusche. "Ultimately, for just $17-25 per test, it gave us some context in a real world setting that there are some predictive merits for determine carcass traits and potential in feedlot cattle."
Based on the results, Rusche said the information was valuable; however, in a commercial feedlot setting, the costs may be too high to improve profits.
"At this price, it would be pretty challenging to increase profits in feedlot cattle and managing them differently based on their scores," said Rusche. "In order for this to make sense, a producer should have a marketing plan and a way to capture value on superior genetics. You can't just plan to sell slaughter cattle on a live or simple hot carcass basis as you won't capture any premium. Producers need to develop relationships with buyers or be a part of a value-added program where the upfront costs of these tests would help them qualify more cattle into a premium market."
However, Rusche sees real value for the DNA tests in a commercial cow-calf operation.
"If testing replacement heifers going into the herd, we can spread out the initial cost by selecting females that have the longevity to stick around for many calf crops," said Rusche. "Yet, even with this data and its ability to predict maternal and performance traits, nothing replaces common sense. We still need to look at functional traits that aren't capture on the tests — disposition, udder quality, feet and legs, and those factors need to be part of the decision making process."
For a relatively small investment, Rusche says commercial cattlemen can go from making culling decisions based on color, horns, wildness or size and focus on profitability traits that could improve future calf crops.
"Today, we can gather more information a cow than ever before, and it has the potential to really drive value in our replacement heifers and feedlot steers," said Rusche. "We used hair cards in our study, but I would recommend using ear tissue samples for being the most user-friendly. Collect anytime you have the heifer in the chute and use the results as a resource when deciding who gets kept, who doesn't, which bulls to use and how to manage the cattle to get the most out of their genetic potential. I think we'll continue to see advancements in DNA tests in the years to come, but today, I can really see commercial cattlemen using these scores as a way to reduce their risk and select bulls and females that are going to do what they are supposed to do in the breeding program."