Genetic Selection for Healthier Cattle

July 24, 2014 05:52 AM
Genetic Selection for Healthier Cattle

Selecting for disease resistance could increase your bottom line in the future.
By: Warren Rusche, Cow/Calf Field Specialist, SDSU Extension

The adoption of advanced genetic selection tools such as Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) has been one of the greatest success stories in improving productivity in the beef industry. The ability to select and find cattle that excel in growth while still delivering acceptable calving ease and improved carcass merit has had a tremendous impact on the increases in productivity per cow that has occurred in the last thirty years. Given the success that the use of genetic selection principles have had in increasing output, are there other aspects of beef production that could be improved as well?

Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC) is one of the leading causes of death and sickness in feedlot cattle and is estimated to cost the U.S. beef industry more than $800 million dollars annually. The cost of one sick animal has been estimated to be over $250 per head when the effects of death losses, treatment costs, lowered performance, and reduced carcass merit are combined. The economic impact of BRDC is compounded by the increased scrutiny from consumers regarding antibiotic usage and the importance of maintaining consumer confidence. What would happen if cattle that were less likely to get sick in the first place could be selected?

At the Beef Improvement Federation conference held recently in Lincoln, Neb, Holly Neibergs from Washington State University presented data on the potential and economic benefits of using genetic selection to reduce the incidence of bovine respiratory disease complex (BRDC) in feedlot cattle. These researchers are using the power of DNA and genomics to screen for and select cattle that are less likely to develop respiratory disease in the feedlot.

Their study, now entering its fourth year, has found that heritability estimates for BRDC susceptibility are between 17 and 29%, similar to heritability estimates for other production traits. These researchers estimate that through genetic change it would be possible to reduce the incidence of BRDC by 1 to 2% per year. That may not seem like a great deal of progress, but 1 or 2% over time adds-up to significant differences. According to these researchers the economic impact on the feedyard sector of just using one year’s-worth of genetic improvement using 2013 prices could be $13 to $21.5 million.

One of the longer-term aims of this research is to make available to breed associations and cattle breeders the information regarding genomic regions that help predict cattle more resistant to BRDC. That information could then be incorporated into EPDs or selection indexes that could be used to increase BRDC resistance in the nation’s calf crop.

The industry and research community are just beginning to scratch the surface of the potential genomics has to offer to improve genetic selection and progress. These technologies could change much of the ways cattle are bred and managed in the future compared to today. For more information about this topic please visit the Beef Improvement Federation website.

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