Let’s get down to brass tacks: genetics sell cattle. But will the numbers on paper materialize into the next great herd sire, or will you find years later that the bull didn’t live up to its promise?
Many cattlemen rely on EPD information to select bulls and heifers to improve their herd genetics. In just the last year, several cattle breed associations announced 50K genomic tests to help producers with animal selection. A 50K test uses more than 50,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms along the DNA strand to measure a variety of production, efficiency, yield and quality traits. The test can help explain genetic variation for traits, validate numbers, improve prediction accuracy and ultimately expand selection opportunities. And it’s evident that producers want more information about their cattle before they invest in an animal’s lineage.
No one appreciates the early information more than Mark Gardiner of Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan. Almost 10 years ago, the Gardiners started working with the American Angus Association, Pfizer Animal Health and Jerry Taylor, an animal scientist at the University of Missouri–Columbia, using DNA samples to develop a genetic information tool. In 2009, with a prototype in hand, the Gardiners chose to validate their elite population on the bull side.
"At that time, we did about 75 bulls and a couple hundred heifers," Gardiner says. "Now, we continue to DNA sample the top 15% of our elite young bull prospects to search for the bulls we believe should be validated, based on EPDs and ultrasound data and the top 40% of our females based upon all of the other data, in an effort to select the top 10% of our females and
multiply the best genetics via embryo transfer. All told, that makes 600 to 700 samples a year."
There is real value behind the numbers, he adds. The trick is to understand that genetic information is in addition to, not a replacement of, production data. At $75 per test, the Angus profile measures 18 traits.
"The 50K gives us a more accurate portrayal of the genotype of a trait," Gardiner says. "The reduced panel that we originally used was good for high-accuracy traits like carcass and growth. But it’s my belief that the less heritable traits are going to be much more important and accurate through the 50K."
In their own way. The American Hereford Association (AHA) released its first set of genomically enhanced EPDs this past summer with enhanced profiles on about 1,200 animals. "We are now working with GeneSeek to do all of our parentage testing as well as our genetic abnormality testing. They are also doing the runs for our 50K information that we use in the genomic-enhanced EPDs," says Jack Ward, chief operating officer.
Through the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium, multiple breed associations have been working to develop an across-breed genetic panel. "We’ve participated in all the early projects, like most of the other breeds, and were able to collect a lot of samples from our genetic abnormality studies," Ward says. "However, the scientists found that today it was not going to work to make a panel that would work across breeds. These panels work in the populations they are developed in, but don’t work well across multiple breeds."
At about $85 per head, the Hereford test uses a 50K panel so the process of implementation will be easier as the industry moves to higher-density panels. "Even though the cost is a bit more, we feel that we are benefiting in the long run," he says.
"In fiscal year 2011, we doubled the number of cattle that had been DNA-tested, so I think our membership is very comfortable with the technology to make the genetic advancements in their cattle that they want," he adds. "That will be the main benefit to both our seedstock larger producers as well as smaller breeders."
"Genetic testing adds information to genetic evaluation for all of the production traits we measure," adds Wade Shafer, chief operating officer and director of performance programs for the American Simmental Association (ASA).
The $90 test, however, offers different amounts of information for traits and animals. "For example, on average, ASA’s test provides the equivalent of nine daughters to our prediction of stayability, while being comparable to only a single measure of backfat on an animal’s offspring. Further, for some animals our test will provide more than nine daughters’ worth of information for stayability, while providing less than nine for others," Shafer explains.
"The difference in the value of the test between animals is largely contingent on how closely related the animal is to the population used to develop the test. Just as with phenotypes, the amount of information added by the test is gauged via EPD accuracy," he says. "Though it certainly allows us to gain valuable insight on lower accuracy animals, DNA testing is not a silver bullet. To achieve high accuracy levels and maintain effective evaluation systems, we still need to collect phenotypes just like we always have—in fact, you could make an argument that the
collection of phenotypes may be more important than ever."
Red Angus breeders can currently use a 50K test through Pfizer, which runs about $75, but the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA) is in the final stages of delivering its own 50K-based test.
"Due to a spirited collaboration between RAAA and Pfizer, genomic data from Pfizer is being incorporated into Red Angus genetic predictions," says Larry Keenan, RAAA director of breed improvement. "At the same time, we’ve developed our own 50K product, which is undergoing secondary evaluation to ensure that its effectiveness in predicting genetic merit is as robust as the preliminary data suggests. We project that the test will be commercially available at the end of January.
"The most significant difference producers will notice when comparing the Pfizer- and RAAA-developed tests will be the inclusion of heifer pregnancy, maintenance energy and stayability in the RAAA product. Pfizer’s current test doesn’t include these significant ERTs [economically relevant traits]," Keenan says. Other uses of genomic information. Breed associations are not the only ones jumping into the genomic arena—beef marketing programs are also finding value. Certified Angus Beef’s GeneMax is a DNA tool for commercial cattlemen who use registered Angus sires and have a high percentage of Angus genetics in their cowherd.
"This is a very focused test, not a full high-density test like for a seedstock producer," says Mark McCully of CAB. "While not delivered as an EPD, the GeneMax results give commercial producers insight into the gain and marbling potential of their cattle. At $17 per test, it gives commercial cattlemen the opportunity to test possibly all of their heifer calves, decide which animals they want to retain with their herd and move them forward genetically.
"It has been interesting to see how different producers are using the information," he adds. "Some Angus breeders are working with their bull customers on getting more information from bull progeny and helping them market the documented value in Angus influenced heifer sales.
"Other commercial cattlemen are using GeneMax to test feeder cattle—maybe they are interested in seeing their cattle’s performance in the feedlot. This can help producers decide if they want to retain ownership at the feedyard or feed the cattle at the farm." Later, as those progeny go to the feedyard, the genetic information can translate into more valuable feeder cattle as well, McCully adds. "With higher calf prices, GeneMax allows feedlot operators to purchase cattle with a higher level of predictability in their performance and mitigate some risk in investing in those animals," he says.
More tools in the toolbox. Genetic EPDs are just another part of the arsenal, adds AHA’s Ward. "Collecting data is still, over time, the most effective way to find the good genetics in the breed. The genetic enhanced EPD information will give us some tools to identify animals earlier in life.
THE VALUE OF COW GENOMICS
There is no question that there is added value in incorporating genetic information with traditional data collection methods. But if animals have similar genetics, is there really a need to test every animal?
Kansas rancher Mark Gardiner says genetic testing has been invaluable to his operation. "Scientists have explained that the 50K genomics are worth about 10 to 20 progeny (depending on the trait) for most of the traits that we measure.That’s a good start on a proof for a young bull. With a cow, even an ET cow, you don’t get that type of information very quick, but with the 50K we can know everything—from calving ease to growth, carcass weight and muscling. To know what a cow is going to do that soon, it ensures we are breeding and multiplying the right cattle," he says.
Gardiner likes to tell a story about two sisters of a fairly famous Angus cow. Based on the old system, the sisters had done everything right. Their performance and ultrasound were outstanding—every piece of data that was collected suggested they should be donors—and they remained so up until the genomic testing.
One of the sisters of the highly proven cow was very much in the same league and deserved to be a donor, Gardiner says. The other sister’s genomic test proved her carcass weight trait was much lower than expected, which took her $Beef EPD value from $80 to $40.
"She was later sold as a bred commercial cow because she did not have the genetic merit to be a donor, or even to be sold as a registered bred cow," Gardiner says. "I use that example for two reasons: EPD predictions said the sisters’ genetics were the exact same, and the genomics told us they weren’t. Life is too short to be breeding cattle that have half the genetic merit that you expected."