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Feeding By The Genes

Cattleland Feedyards, a 30,000-head feedlot near Strathmore, Alta., is pulling out all stops to find top-quality calves with a specifigenetic trait through its Genetic Breeder Alliance. The concept evolved from studies by Quantum Genetix of Saskatoon exploring the value of the obese (leptin) gene.

Calves from Cattleland’s 1,200-cow breeding herd and 5,000 cows in three provinces enrolled in the Genetic Breeder Alliance are screened for the leptin gene and fed accordingly. The result is lower feeding costs and higher returns that are shared by the feedlot and the producers in the alliance.

Cattleland assistant research manager Mick Taylor, who co-ordinates the program, has set a short-term goal of signing up 10,000 cows. Long term there is no limit.

The offer is open to any commercial cattle herd regardless of the breed and coat colour. What’s important is the genes under the coat.

Leptin is a protein hormone produced by fat cells. It regulates feed intake, energy expenditure and whole-body energy balance. It also has an influence on how the obese gene expresses itself in individual animals. There are two alleles of the obese gene —candt— resulting in three possible genotypes in offspring:cc, ctandtt.Thecallele is the normal copy and thetallele is a natural mutation associated with increased fat deposition. And that’s the one Cattleland is after. Whether the fat accumulates as backfat or marbling depends on the stage of the calf’s development.

“From research we know that acccalf will on average take another 40 days to finish to the same end point as attanimal— at a cost of up to $120 per calf,” Taylor explains. “The simplest way to ensure that thetallele is present in a calf crop is to usettbulls orttfemales. Attanimal crossed with accanimal will still yield actcalf.”

Quantum Genetix research on western Canadian herds showedctandttcows have more backfat as a percentage of total body weight thancccows. This has positive implications for body condition and reproduction in thatttcows have higher rebreeding rates, greater longevity and wean calves up to 31 pounds heavier thancccows.

The alliance

Under Cattleland’s alliance, producers retain ownership of their cows and Cattleland suppliesttbulls at no cost up front. “This way, producers get something straight up and we expand our cattle supply without buying cows,” says Taylor.

Producers can select sires with desired traits from a battery ofttpurebred and hybrid bulls purchased by Cattleland, or genotype their own sires.

The producer must collect and pay for tissue tests from every calf born in the herd to confirm they are eitherctorttcalves at a cost of $10 per sample.

The basic agreement gives Cattleland first dibs on purchasing or pricing the calves, generally by October 31. The calves are usually transported to the feedlot directly off the cow. But some producers count on backgrounding their calves through the winter and others want to carry them through the summer to utilize available forage and that can be arranged as well. In these cases Cattleland buys the calves and pays a backgrounding fee.

The delivered-Alberta price can be based on the futures up to 12 months out. Or the calves can be priced at the time of the sale based on the Canfax Alberta average the week prior to the sale, less two cents a pound if Cattleland supplies the bulls. A premium of three cents per pound over the Canfax average is paid onctandttcalves. They try not to buycccalves because of the extra time and cost required to finish them.

Health program

Of course, the calves must be healthy to maximize that genetic potential for growth and carcass quality, points out Dr. Craig Dorin of Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie, Alta., the consulting veterinarian for the Genetic Breeder Alliance.

He developed and oversees the vaccination program for the cows, bulls and calves.

The producers cover the cost and labour for everyday herd health and breeding management. If their management allows, cows and heifers receive a pre-breeding vaccination with the modified-live vaccine, STARVAC 4 Plus, to protect against BVD (types 1 and 2), IBR, PI3 and BRSV. Alternatively, Vira Shield 6+VL5 can be given at fall pregnancy testing. It protects against the same primary viral diseases as well as vibrio and leptospirosis. Scour Bos is a bacterin-type vaccine administered prior to calving to boost maternal antibodies to prevent calf scours caused byE. coli,rotavirus and coronavirus. The bulls receive STARVAC 4 Plus and Fusogard to protect against footrot. At four to six weeks of age, or branding, the calves receive STARVAC 4 Plus, SOMNU-STAR Ph to protect against respiratory disease, and the colostridial bacterin, Covexin Plus.

Record-keeping

All of the calving, genotyping, herd health, performance and carcass data is entered over time into the Cattleland database and shared with alliance members. Cows can be ranked within their own herd according to a number of calf traits.

“Not only does this provide complete information for individual animal traceability,” says Taylor, “but it closes an information gap that has existed in the industry for a long time. Producers will get to see how their animals perform in the feedlot as well as how their animals’ carcasses yield and grade. This is another invaluable selection tool in making real genetic improvement in their herds.”

The benefits of information tracking, heavier calves at weaning, the option to lock in calf prices for financial planning, and the opportunity to improve herd genetics with little capital outlay come on top of immediate savings, says Taylor. Even with the cost of genotyping, Taylor calculates a benefit of about $50 per calf coming largely from saving at least $35 per calf for genetically superior bulls, eliminating selling commissions and minimizing the cost of shrink by selling calves directly to the feedlot.

The obese gene advantage

The advantage for Cattleland in this alliance is a secure supply ofctandttcalves. Western Canadian research clearly shows sorting and managing cattle according to obese genotypes improves feed efficiency, optimizes days on feed and adds consistency in carcass quality across every group.

Cattle of thettgenotype tend to produce more high-quality Canada AAA grade carcasses, however, that comes at the expense of significantly more carcasses with lower yield grade (YG3) if they aren’t managed properly. Likewise,cccattle, tend to show a significant increase in YG1 carcasses and a decrease in quality grade if they aren’t managed properly. Managingttcattle in a program with fewer days-on-feed, andcccattle in a program with longer days on feed to target optimal finished weights will maximize the number of YG1, AAA carcasses in both groups.

Cattleland ultrasounds all calves when they are receiving a terminal implant and sorts them into different marketing groups for the final 100 days on feed. The sorting is based on a number of criteria developed by Quantum Genetix and its research partners. With the ultrasound Taylor says they can predict the final grade on each pen with 89 per cent accuracy.

At the same time as the volumes from the Genetic Breeder Alliance are picking up steam, Taylor is investigating various marketing alternatives. His ultimate goal is a branded beef program for a supermarket chain. The program has already caught the attention of beef processors and retailers.

Going forward, Taylor says research is uncovering additional genetic markers for other economically-important traits that will be advantageous to their alliance partners. “This really is just the beginning,” he says. “Developing an alliance like ours has led to benefits that are felt across the entire beef industry.”

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Even with the cost of genotyping, Taylor calculates a benefit of about $50 per calf

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