It won't be today, but the emerging science of genomics will eventually come to a feedyard near you.

There was a day when a “marker” was an old roan cow thrown into a white-faced herd, or maybe a brindle steer that carried more brands than a country napkin.

Now, it takes a busload of gene jockeys and a supercomputer just to explain what markers are and how they fit into the cattle business. Simply speaking, it all starts with DNA and an evaluation of computerized panels that reveal an animal's unique genetic code.

These DNA “fingerprints” can be segmented into traits and used to evaluate an animal's performance and production capabilities. One day, this “gene marker” technology will compete with your eyeball, the feedyard scale and even ultrasound for selecting and sorting feeder cattle.

Luke Lind, Boulder, CO, vice president of sales and marketing for Austin, TX-based, GenomicFX, says his interest in this new tool comes from being frustrated with sorting feedyard cattle for today's marketplace. Lind came to GenomicFX from ContiBeef where he was responsible for coordinating fed cattle sales and new market development.

Working with researchers at Texas A&M University, Lind began looking into the emerging science of DNA-assisted selection.

“We were specifically looking at niche marketing areas and the ability to segregate cattle into populations for added-value opportunities,” says Lind. “Ultimately, there's a lot of difference in looking at cattle versus understanding their genetic make-up.”

In procuring cattle for ContiBeef's feedyards, he saw some cattle with high EPDs for certain traits end up relatively average at finish, while some poorer cattle finished extremely well.

“We spent a lot of time looking at different management processes to create cattle that were Choice or better,” he says. “We tried every product and system before realizing we had to get down to the genetic level to make the proper selection decisions.”

It's likely the first commercial feedyard use of DNA marker-assisted management will focus on end-product traits like marbling and tenderness,” says Daniel Pomp, animal scientist at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“These technologies will enable producers to economically identify superior animals resulting in lower costs, improved food safety and enhanced food quality.”

“Practically speaking, genetic testing for carcass quality could be an efficient tool in feedlots,” he explains. “Cattle with different genetic potential for marbling and tenderness can quickly be identified and managed to maximize their value.”

In addition, other DNA tests may be developed to help feedyard managers with implant strategies, nutrition and health management.

Down the road, feedyards might either buy sets of cattle that have been pre-sorted using some type of DNA evaluation (and weight). Or, they'll have their own DNA labs and do their own testing.

Pomp predicts a feedyard employee will one day routinely take a root hair sample from a steer, swish it in a buffer and smear the solution on a glass slide. This “DNA-management chip” will then be analyzed via personal computer. Out will come programmed information on how the steer should be managed.

Lind says DNA-assisted management will provide a payback to the beef consumer.

“The biggest area we see is brand enablement,” says Lind. “We can build DNA profiles and design our management practices around what the consumer wants. And we can go out and select the cattle that fit those needs.”

Delivering Products Today

GenomicFX is now selling a DNA-based marbling test. The product called GeneSTAR is targeted to customers in the seedstock industry. GenomicFX is also selling a traceback system for meat quality called SureTrak.

“We'll be adding to our product offerings to enable predictive assessments for feedlots,” adds Lind. “We anticipate sometime between now and this fall that our labs will be delivering on multiple gene product development.”

GenomicFX plans to conduct feedlot testing for such a tool this year. “We'll be doing a thorough job of validation in the real world — product quality assurance is very important to us,” Lind points out.

The technology boils down to gene discovery. Pomp says in addition to GenomicFX, at least two other companies are working to identify the appropriate genes and commercialize DNA-assisted cattle management.

Celera AgGen, a division of Celera Genomics, Rockville, MD, is working to bring a full line of genetic products and services to the livestock marketplace.

Under the direction of Tom Holm, Davis, CA, Celera is offering programs to improve multi-sire breeding, traceability for production alliances, marker-assisted selection and forensic investigation.

Veterinarian Steven Niemi is president and CEO of AniGenics Inc. He envisions marker-assisted selection working to helping producers identify patterns of performance across a wide variety of genes — as opposed to single-gene identification.

“These technologies will enable producers to economically identify superior animals resulting in lower costs, improved food safety and enhanced food quality,” says Niemi.

AniGenics plans to work with corporate collaborators — feeders, packers, seedstock producers — to use genomics products as components in genetic management and animal procurement.

Feedyard Applications

Mike Thoren, Boulder, CO, ContiBeef's vice-president for operations, foresees some practical applications of DNA technology in the feedyard. While ContiBeef is not testing DNA marker-assisted selection technology in any feedlots today, they've invested heavily in GenomicFX and will be plugged into the technology when it comes on line.

People seem to be more willing to accept the idea of genomics versus transgenics, according to Thoren. “They've been able to separate the two and become comfortable with genomics.”

There's no question DNA marker technology has a place in today's cattle industry, says Mark Tracy, staff veterinarian for Power Genetics, a Holbrook, NE, cattle seedstock operation. He agrees end-product traits, like tenderness, red meat yields and muscle indexes are the most likely targets for gene markers.

But, he feels the technology has a long way to go before feedyard applications become a reality.

“What we'll need are high-volume, low-cost systems that you can use on arrival and maybe at re-implanting to test animals and sort them according to their genetic makeup,” explains Tracy. “It would be nice if we had something else besides ultrasound to help sort cattle in feedyards.”

Tracy says animal identification systems will have to be devised in order to make optimum use of DNA marker-assisted management.

The feedyard industry has been data rich for many years, Thoren says. “It's been challenging for managers to take enough time to distill that information into meaningful information to improve their operation.”

Those challenges won't go away with DNA technology.

“In fact they will be compounded and more complex with genomics,” says Thoren. “It will take a take a different level of analysis, insight and skill to bring the full power of gene markers to the market through improved performance.”

For more information on genomics and a glossary of terms, see page 22.