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The growth in DNA usage for commerical cattle herds has come from the ability to predict performance traits.
The Veterinary Connection
It doesn’t matter if they’re steers or heifers, groups of ten or 100, destined for sale or retained ownership. When producers think about testing them with genomic tools, it’s because they want more information.
And when they want to know more about the ins and outs of DNA applications, many turn to their veterinarian for help or advice.
For some, it’s about the ability to identify sires.
“Working with some of our commercial producers we’re seeing some of those bulls used in multi-sire pastures are siring way above their average share,” says Dr. Kirkman.
A five year California study noted this phenomenon, along with up to a $50,000 difference in progeny value from one bull to another based on the number and quality of calves sired.
“If we can identify who those sires are and determine whether they’ve got the quality of genetics to be doing what they’re doing, that’s obviously a big win for commercial breeders,” Dr. Kirkman says.
Others approach it from the female side, especially through replacement heifers, says Kara Lee, with CAB, which markets the GMX test. “Some producers with many heifers and not much individual data have started by testing all replacement candidates and sorting based on those scores.”
Dr. Kirkman helps his customers develop heifers using another strategy.
“We take all these phenotypic measures—body weight, body height, size and dimension, reproductive tract evaluation and all that—and then as a final selection criteria,” he asks, “which of these we’ve selected has a better genomic test score?”
DNA tests for commercial cattle typically cost from $17 to $20 per head.
“You’re talking about maybe less than 1 percent of an animal’s ten-year maintenance costs,” Dr. Kirkman says. “When you look at it from that perspective, it’s not an expensive venture.”
Fellow veterinarian Randall Spare, President of Ashland (KS) Veterinary Center, says it’s an insurance policy for many of his customers.
“In the drought situation we’re in where people have depopulated herds, if we’re going to go back, we’re going to go back with known quality genetics in their commercial heifers,” he says. “Many people understand it’s all about minimizing risks. When we use good health programs and nutrition programs, we can minimize our risks by knowing what’s out there in the pasture.”
Other cattlemen might use genomics as less of a culling tool and more of a management aid, says Lee. They may test all the replacements they’re certain they are keeping and then use gain and grade information to make strategic matings.
Regardless of program or test, she says demand for the new technology will likely grow.
“We are in an age when selling commodity beef at the grocery store is no longer profitable,” Lee says. “We are also seeing that the days of selling commodity cattle and being profitable are dwindling.”
Dr. Kirkman uses GeneMax on some of his own animals.
“We’re testing a lot of the females we’re considering using in assisted reproduction programs,” he says. “We’d like to get a better handle on some of these traits that are difficult to measure.”
It might change which bull those heifers are bred to and helps Dr. Kirkman “understand where their true strengths and true weaknesses are.”