The sale barn in Creston, IA, drew a few more spectators than usual in late November for Nichols Farms 10th annual genetic source-verified feeder-calf sale. The first of two sales consisted of 800 feeder calves sired by Nichols bulls, all certified through the Merial® SureHealth® Calf Preconditioning Program, and combined in 50,000-lb. load lots. Oh yeah, they were USDA process-verified for source and age with electronic ID tags, too.

But that's not what drew the extra crowd. Having every calf in the ring individually DNA-tested was what sparked the interest of producers and feeders alike.

Conducted through the Igenity® profile and Nichols Farms, each consignor individually collected DNA samples on their calves and herd bulls. Consignors then sent samples and birthdates of calves to Nichols Farms' marketing coordinator Ross Havens.

“It's the next step in technology, and nobody knows for sure how to use this information,” says Havens, who adds cattle buyers probably weren't aware of the program or the extra analysis the calves underwent.

Nichols Farms made history 10 years ago when they were the first to offer a genetic source-verified feeder-calf sale; this sale represented a continuation in service to their customers.

“It's an infallible way to make sure progress is being made in every facet,” explains Jim Tate, Igenity national sales manager, in his sale-opening comments.

For Nichols Farms, DNA testing all boils down to giving consumers a better eating experience.

Seven years ago, Nichols Farms began using DNA analysis on their herd bulls, but in 2006 began testing all of their calves to identify genes such as hide color, calpain and calpastain — the latter two of which are indicators of tenderness, or lack of it, respectively (see “Research Roundup,” p. 68, January 2007, BEEF). Igenity broke the groundwork in 2003 with a single-trait test, which compared to today's technology was not as efficient or cost effective. Now, one sample yields nearly 150 markers and costs $35/head.

With the calves sold at the November sale, Nichols has record of birthdates and weaning weights, and will determine carcass weight, yield and quality grades, ultimately calculating a carcass value per day of age.

“We're going to know one heck of a lot about that herd, and one heck of a lot about that sire,” Nichols Farms' owner Dave Nichols says, as he envisions working closer with customers on bull selection.

“It opens up a whole level of discussion we haven't been able to have before with customers,” Tate adds.

“A bull that's not doing a good job is still a Nichols bull,” Nichols explains, pointing out that tenderness is the number-one reason for a bad eating experience. “We want to get him out of the population and replace him with a better one.”

Real-time benefits

While Nichols Farms is setting its sights on the grandiose opportunities for DNA testing, its consigner-customers want real-time benefits. For the extra effort of pulling DNA samples, participants receive parentage on each calf sold.

Mike Barr, a 65-head consignor from Clarinda, IA, wants to identify highly fertile bulls, and is happy to get the data back.

“I'm real interested in how it compares to real-life numbers,” says Barr, who will use the data to sort replacement heifers.

Barr isn't alone. Another consignor told Nichols he was running four bulls in a multiple-sire group pasture. DNA testing alerted him to the fact that one bull sired only 13 calves while the others sired 30 each.

Another pair of consignors, Mary and Loren Long of Greenfield, IA, feels DNA testing keeps the marketing doors open.

“It's a little high-tech for me,” Mary says, “but if down the road they aren't going to let us sell calves without it, I don't want that to happen.” The Longs have sold calves through Nichols genetic source-verified feeder-calf sales for the past 10 years, consigning 30 this year.

“It was a little tricky at first,” Mary recalls of the experience of taking ear notches for the DNA samples, “but it's routine now.”

Unsure and unseen

Mount Ayr, IA, cattle buyer Tom Larson didn't see much of a need for DNA testing, but says he might try to pass the data on. He sees the data as particularly reassuring on purchases of out-of-state cattle rather than local cattle.

Scott Steele, whose family has purchased calves from the genetic-source verified sale for the past 10 years, is one producer and cattle buyer who is weighing the costs and benefits of DNA testing.

“With DNA, I can see a premium coming down the road,” Steele says, “but I'm still wondering how to get the information to every Joe farmer.” He's the first to admit he wants to see this technology work, anticipating the potential to grade fat cattle and select breeding females.

Ultimately, these cattle buyers are hoping to see a premium for fed cattle come harvest time, but they're unsure at this point of their ability to get paid for added value. At the sale, the steers brought $8-$10/cwt. above commodity black calves and $10-20/cwt. above for heifers.

“I don't think the opportunity was realized at market value today,” Nichols says, though he believes future sales will become more dependent upon DNA-analyzed calves fitting niche markets.