Cattle producers know the value of using proper genetic selection to boost profits. But what if in the process of using genetic technology to improve herd efficiency and health, we could also address consumer worries about sustainably raised beef?
That’s where the latest genetic technology is leading, according to John Basarab, beef research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-food Canada research centre in Lacombe, Alta.
“Many of these genetic, genomic improvement technologies; not only do they improve things like feed efficiency and growth rate and fertility, but in doing that, you reduce the carbon footprint of your product,” he said.
Consumers today want to know that animals are raised in an environmentally friendly and animal-friendly way.
But for producers, it also has to be profitable. “If you put thought into it, and you bring some technology to the table, then you can do both,” said Basarab.
He cited an example: If a producer spends 1½ years producing a replacement heifer and goes through all the work of raising it, breeding it and then carries out pregnancy checks and finds it’s open, the animal has produced 1½ years of manure, methane, CO2 for nothing.
He said when producers formulate their breeding programs, they should keep fertility traits at the top of the list of desirable genetics.
He encouraged producers to stick to the tried-and-true 10-2-1 rule, with fertility rated at 10, growth traits at 2 and carcass traits as 1.
That means fertility should be considered 10 times more important than carcass traits and five times more important than growth traits, said Basarab.
“If you’re a cow-calf producer, you don’t want to start over-selecting for marbling, for example.”
START WITH SIRE SELECTION
Producers looking to improve their herds must start with sire selection because that determines 80 per cent of the genetic improvement to any herd due to the sheer number of calves produced per year.
Basarab said producers must look for bulls that suit the environment, the management strategies and the overall herd objectives.
A sire matched to breed with a replacement heifer, for example, requires different traits than a bull mated to an older cow. Producers working with replacement heifers should look for smaller bulls, while a bull bred to cows to produce feeder calves should be passing along fast growth rates and feed efficiency traits.
Finding those traits has been made easier and more accurate today with the introduction of DNA technology.
DNA testing supplements the traditional breeding value data, which was based on animal performance and pedigrees.
These genomically enhanced Expected Progeny Differences, or EPDs, have made the data more accurate and provide producers with more information when selecting for desirable traits in their herds.
DNA testing can be used to determine parentage to help assign a sire its offspring and identify the most prolific breeders.
“Of course, that has a large amount of value because there are some sires that produce 40 progenies, and then there are some sires in the same group that produce one or two or none,” said Basarab.
DNA testing can also help better identify sought-after growth rates, carcass traits or fertility characteristics.
Genomic services, such as EnVigour HX™, offer another tool for producers.
“It’s like Ancestry.com for cattle,” said Basarab.
KNOWING PRECISE BREED COMPETITION
EnVigour measures the breed composition and through that, measures the degree of hybrid vigour of an animal.
The exact breed composition of the herd in Canada is largely unknown, said Basarab because of extensive cross-breeding over the years. Producers who know the precise breed composition of their animals can select a better mate to achieve more hybrid vigour, along with other traits that match what they want to accomplish in their herds.
“There are choices there and that’s one of the reasons I like to talk in terms of biological types rather than breeds because breed politics can sometimes be the main point of the discussion rather than the breeding objective that you’re trying to achieve.”
Hybrid vigour is critical because it has major impacts on fertility. Herds with low hybrid vigour are likely to have low fertility and productivity.
Producers can manage their herds more rigorously and spend more time on feed rations, nutrition and vaccination programs to counter low hybrid vigour, or they can introduce new genetics and get animals with greater hybrid vigour, said Basarab.
“They’re just more resilient. They’re just more fit,” he said.
Those fitter, more robust animals are also better for the environment and are more likely to be better for animal welfare, said Jennifer Stewart-Smith, chief executive officer of Beefbooster.
She said hybrid vigour is “the big thing” in the beef industry and Beefbooster will eventually have hybrid vigour or heterosis scores on all of its bulls.
Beefbooster has been building its DNA data bank since 2000.
“It (breeding) will go on the score rather than on the breed. So, you look for not necessarily Angus, you look for the bull with the most hybrid vigour,” she said.
She said at the same time, a successful breeding program will help ensure producers are in line with socially acceptable practices.
Beefbooster’s genetic programs are designed to produce animals that perform well in their intended environments. That includes genetics for easy birthing, fast growing and efficient feed use, as well as traits that reduce the need for rancher intervention. These traits address many animal welfare and sustainability issues raised by consumers.
“We want a cow herd that doesn’t require a lot of labour, that’s able to take advantage of the natural resources that the rancher has, and to maximize the resource,” said Stewart-Smith.