Raising quality replacement heifers is Tim Haines’ bread and butter. For this Oklahoma rancher, having as much genetic information as possible for both himself and his customers is important, so he takes advantage of the genetic evaluation profiles offered through DNA testing from Igenity.
He combines that with other selection tools, visual appraisal and EPDs to make breeding decisions. And he shares that information with customers so they can select replacement females with the traits they desire.
But with all the technology, applying DNA testing can seem overwhelming as more traits and profile analyses are offered by various companies. With so many options, producers have been reluctant to jump in.
Dave Korbelik, global marketing manager at Pfizer Animal Genetics, says that many producers are still taking a wait-and-see approach. But now there are more opportunities to look at sire and female selection beyond progeny data and EPDs.
In addition to providing data, some companies offer management software tools to help sort through the data and rank animals.
"We have a couple of management software tools where the DNA results come to customers and they can run custom sorts and rank animals," says Kevin DeHaan of Igenity. "Benchmarking tools also help producers compare themselves to peers in their industry."
Who’s your daddy? Probably the most common use for DNA testing is to identify sires. For producers using multiple sire pastures during breeding season, it can be a guessing game to know which sire produced which calf. A simple DNA test can identify the sire.
Haines has collected DNA samples on all of his bulls and used parentage testing for the past five years. With an 800-head cowherd split into spring and fall calving groups on multi-sire pastures during breeding season, parentage testing helps determine which sire produced a potential replacement female. Without that basic information, it would be difficult to provide heifer buyers with good genetic information.
Testing DNA samples is also one way to look "under the hide" and get a sneak peek at how an animal is wired to perform without having to slaughter that animal or gather years of progeny data. With DNA testing, you can find information on carcass traits (tenderness, marbling, quality and yield grades); feedyard performance (average daily gain, feed efficiency); genetic abnormalities; maternal traits; and more.
Dan Layman, a commercial Angus producer from Virginia, just started using DNA testing for his replacement heifers. "The replacement heifer profile from Igenity was attractive because selecting replacement heifers can still be hit-or-miss," he says.
The testing process is simple, he says. At $20 per head, he considers it an inexpensive investment to identify females with genetic potential to be long-term producers in the herd. He keeps only the top heifers for replacements and sells the rest with the steers through a local marketing group.
Special traits. Calvin Sandmeier of Sandmeier Charolais in Bowdle, S.D., says carcass traits are important to his customers. He’s been using Pfizer Animal Genetics for the past five years to test for tenderness and feed efficiency. He shares the results with potential customers and uses them for his own bull selection process.
He cautions that DNA tools are not a silver bullet, but just one more tool to help producers.
"We may find a favorite calf one year that is superior in most criteria, but may not have the right genetic road map. Or we’ll find bulls that have superior DNA traits, but lack the muscle structure that we like to see in the bulls," he explains. It’s a matter of balancing the old-school selection tools with the new-age tools.
This year, Sandmeier plans to start DNA-sampling cows through Pfizer’s high-density whole genome scan 50K screening. His goal is to speed up the process of making genetic improvements since half the genetics come from the dam. On the DNA side, the tenderness trait is something he feels will be beneficial for Charolais producers. Since the breed tends to produce lower marbling but higher-yielding carcasses, there may come a time when producers who can prove tenderness will be paid a premium.
Until then, Sandmeier still sees value in genetic screening. "Producers are curious about how this technology can help identify superior genetics, and as the cost comes down, more people will start using it."
Genetic Evaluation Priorities
On the commercial cattle side, there are a number of DNA tools that can boost production. But what should your priorities be for genetic evaluation? Igenity’s Kevin DeHaan suggests that commercial cattle producers start with the following areas.
- Embryo transfer donor dams
- Replacement heifers: "They are the future cowherd, so testing helps identify and keep the right heifers for a particular operation."
- Younger cows (two to three years old): "There’s really no need to test older cows, since you already know the types of calves they produce."
- Embryo calves