Making genomics work for commercial cattle herds

DNA testing and genomic-enhanced EPDs could contribute to more profitable selection, management and marketing decisions for commercial producers

Although the use of genomics is frequently geared toward the seedstock industry, there are options that could lead to improved profits for commercial beef producers.

The use of simple DNA tests and genomic profiles enhancing the accuracy of expected progeny differences (EPDs) can have selection, management and marketing benefits for commercial operations, says Sean McGrath. McGrath, who runs Round Rock Ranching at Vermillion, Alta., and consults on genetic selection tools, presented an overview of these options at this summer’s Ag in Motion Discovery Plus.

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“Even if you’re not directly, say for example, pulling DNA on animals and testing, you may become a secondary user simply through something like your seedstock supplier and how you’re sourcing bulls,” says McGrath.

“We either buy or manage DNA in our operations. That sets the potential for our cow herd and our calves that we sell. We can use it to sort feeders or to put feeders into a program that optimizes our expenses and optimizes our return.”

For commercial producers, McGrath sees parentage testing as the easiest DNA test option with the most potential value for investment. Parentage can be useful for selecting replacement females based on what genetics you want to keep in the herd. For example, if you ran three bulls together and only wanted to retain heifers by a certain bull, a parentage test can identify those females.

Parentage testing can also be used as a marketing tool. “One that we don’t do a lot in Canada that I think has some implications as well would be to look at packaging feeder cattle genetics; identifying sires and grouping calves by sire or sire groups, and then marketing those calves based on the attributes they should receive from their sires,” he says.

Other DNA tests available can detect whether an animal is a carrier of a genetic defect or of a single trait, such as the horned gene. A test for leptin can be used on feeder cattle to see which animals are leaner and which have more fat deposition, allowing for adjusted rations and time on feed.

“If we can shave 30 days off a calf to the time we finish it and put it into the marketplace, at $3 a day to put that calf on feed it doesn’t take long to pay for that simple DNA test.”

A more in-depth option is to create an animal’s genomic profile. This uses the DNA sample to examine how the different DNA markers “are related to specific genes and sort your cattle based on what genes we think are present from the marker data,” says McGrath. “From a commercial industry perspective, probably the biggest place they would be useful directly would be for sorting replacement cattle.”

For example, a genomic profile could include the genetic markers for maternal calving ease, birth weight, docility, heifer pregnancy rate, longevity and several carcass traits. As the science advances, more traits can be added to these profiles.

Genomics can then be used to increase the accuracy of another genetic selection tool. While seedstock producers are more often the target audience for EPDs, commercial producers can also potentially improve their sire selection with predictions enhanced by genomics.

Each EPD includes an accuracy number, which refers to the amount of information available to accurately calculate these predictions. On its own an EPD is less accurate for a younger animal, as it has fewer progeny and therefore less information. For example, a yearling may have an accuracy of 0.2 to 0.35 on its EPDs, but with its genomic profile added, those accuracies could be boosted to 0.3 to 0.45.

A benefit of genomic-enhanced EPDs is the progeny equivalence. “This could be on a three-month-old heifer calf — if you’ve done a 50K genomic test on her, that’s the same as if we already had 25 progeny from that animal in terms of calving ease.”

Having this information available early in an animal’s life can help producers make selection decisions that can potentially improve profits. “Whether you know it or not, your two biggest costs are actually cow depreciation and cow herd maintenance,” says McGrath.

“If we want to think about where genomics might fit in terms of these costs, does a cow that’s two have better or worse genetics for longevity than a cow that’s 15? And she may have better genetics, but she hasn’t proven herself yet… We can use genomics to jumpstart that process, reducing cow depreciation and picking replacements.”

Investing in these tools is only valuable if you’re planning to use them to make changes to your program, such as reducing maintenance costs, choosing females that will stay in the cow herd longer or finding new marketing options.

“If I’m testing feeders for leptin or I’m buying bulls that sire better carcasses, am I still selling my calves in a pre-sort with a bunch of other calves I don’t know anything about? If you’re not going to change any of those aspects of your operation, then you’re likely not going to receive the full benefits of some of the investments in genomics.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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