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The growth in DNA usage for commerical cattle herds has come from the ability to predict performance traits.
So it is with almost any new technology: There is a period of development, working out the kinks. Then come tweaks in application and the early-adopters begin to test it out. In the years that follow, as more and more people tend to pick it up, advances are made and it becomes a mainstream tool.
Where is DNA technology in that continuum and in relation to the cattle business?
Tonya Amen, with Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI), says uptake of genomic testing has nearly doubled in the last year, but it’s still used on less than 10 percent of the animals in the breed’s registry.
Yet comparing today to five years ago shows a broader range of commercial tools now and dramatic differences in the types of usage, she says.
“We all started using it for parentage verification,” says Richard Kirkman, DVM, owner of Carolina Equine and Food Animal Mobile Veterinary Service and purebred Angus breeder from Siler City, NC. “It’s really amazing the number of animals that we were unsure of who their parents were. When we have animals that excel, either on a registered or commercial basis, we don’t always know who their ancestors are and that’s critically important.”
Amen says the second use of DNA is to test for “simply inherited” traits, such as coat color or specific genetic defects.
But more recently, the growth in usage has come from the ability to predict performance traits.
“In the Angus breed, that genomic information is incorporated directly into the EPD with no need to look at the genomics separately,” she says. It’s the same with other breeds using the National Cattle Evaluations standards. That is a boon to both commercial and registered producers.
“There is one number to look at instead of trying to look at two sources of information and figure out how to properly weight them,” Amen says. “EPDs really are the selection tool of choice because they take into account all the information we have about an animal—their pedigree, any performance and progeny information and the genomics.
“It’s all there boiled down in one number,” she says.
DNA also adds certainty to that measure.
“When a commercial breeder buys a bull that has genomic information in the EPDs, they’re buying with the same level of confidence in that animal as one that has already sired between eight and 20 calves,” Amen says, referring to the increased reliability that DNA data adds. “It really increases the accuracy on those animals much, much earlier in their lives.”
Of course the tests have gotten better, but also less expensive, over the course of their lifetime, too.
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“In the early days, one of the first tests that came out only had a few markers on it for marbling and tenderness and there were a lot of skeptics, for good reason,” she says. Many genes determine how an animal actually performs so that means there were several hundred markers not accounted for in those earliest versions.
The American Angus Association currently uses a 50K platform, or a test that has 50,000 markers.
“We have come a long way in a pretty short period of time,” Amen says, noting that there is a 750K test available but it’s primarily used in research.
Advances have also allowed for “reduced panel” tests geared toward getting commercial breeders a subset of that data.
Any rancher who is purchasing bulls with genomic information is essentially using the technology already, but an increasing number of cattlemen are also starting to test their own herds.
GeneMax™ (GMX), marketed by AGI and Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB), is one example of a reduced panel product that is designed to help predict gain and grade.
Producers can use the test to sort feeder cattle, as it was in a trial at Pratt (KS) Feeders last fall. One-source steers from a commercial Angus ranch in Kansas were divided into two groups based on their average GMX score. The high scoring group averaged 89.5 (on a 100 point scale) compared to the low half at 50.7.
When 40 head of the highest scoring GMX cattle were harvested after 126 days on feed, they averaged 50 percent CAB brand acceptance, compared to just 32 percent for the lower group.
“It’s nice to see proof of how well this test is working in the field,” Amen says.
Dr. Kirkman is using GMX to scan commercial heifers for their ability to add high quality genetics.
The reason is simple: A research article years ago showed cow weights within the same herd spanned as much as 900 lbs. top to bottom. Although it might not be that dramatic, Dr. Kirkman notices variation in every herd he works with.
“It really doesn’t say much for our ability to just walk up and visually appraise the animals and try to make determinations about genetics and then bargain our futures against that,” he says.
Instead, Dr. Kirkman and a growing number of others are looking to technology to take some of the gamble out of the equation.