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The most fundamental part of a cowherd is its DNA. Now is the time for DVMs to get involved with genomic information to help producers manage defects and improve herd performance.
Veterinarians can play a role in helping manage genetic decisions even when producers aren’t searching for a specific genetic abnormality. Deciding to add such an offering to a clinic’s services should be natural for the practice and its clients, Dr. Steffen recommends.
“Now, there’s a need for education of breeders, and vets can play a key role in that,” Dr. Steffen says. “There’s a big opportunity for confusion between genetic testing specific for a phenotype in a breed, where you test free and not worry about it, and the larger microarray. Genomic enhanced EPDs are a good way to enhance the accuracy of the EPD early in an animal’s life to aid in selection.”
Dr. Steffen says veterinarians can help producers use genomic enhanced EPDs to determine which animals to keep for breeding. The appropriateness of the tool depends on how many animals are retained and the selection intensity.
The veterinarian is often present during the times best suited for DNA sample collection. Helping collect samples and acting as consultant after the results arrive represents an area of opportunity for practitioners, says Kent Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Director of Global Technical Services in Animal Genetics at Zoetis.
“There are some veterinarians that are doing it now, and it’s gaining traction,” Andersen says. “It’s a natural fit in many regards because the vet is often present while the cattle are handled, so they can assist with sample collection, be it bangs vaccination of heifers or breeding soundness exams.”
A team approach doesn’t have to end after sample collection. After results arrive, producers and veterinarians can collaborate on culling, mating or even marketing decisions. This may not be an easy fit, but solution-oriented practices that include consulting on animal health, reproduction, genetics and nutrition can help producers across these quickly advancing fronts.
“I don’t know what the secret recipe is for those practitioners that are good candidates for this next step,” Andersen says. “There’s opportunity for practitioners to think about providing more holistic management where you have a number of different tools in your tool kit. One of those tools is a year round herd health program, as well as an animal health strategy for respiratory disease. Then you have your repro management tools—estrus sync and the like—and on the genetics front, help with replacement selection and tests for genetic conditions as well. The tool kit is being added and refreshed and improved to help the producer across the various fronts.”
The first step in helping producers is to determine which mating matches are viable based on test results for genetic abnormalities like DD. However, animals don’t have to be eliminated from the herd even if they are a carrier. The investment in performance traits can still be retained if smart decisions are made.
“With simple recessives, like DD for example, just because an animal is a carrier doesn’t necessarily mean the animal should be culled,” Andersen advises. “As long as you breed the carrier parent to non-carrier mates, you’ll never produce a diseased calf. Genetic conditions like DD are really a fact of life. They even say that, on average, every human being is carrying six to eight deleterious recessives in their DNA. It shouldn’t be a cause for undue worry or alarm. It’s something else we manage around. We should keep focus and attention on performance traits.”
Focusing on performance means genomic enhanced EPDs, which can provide information on important traits such as: average daily gain, marbling, calving ease and more. Genomic enhanced EPDs look into an animal’s DNA to provide greater accuracy where traditional EPDs need the benefit of time and progeny to be more accurate.
In addition to data on performance traits, DNA testing can also provide information on parentage. These tests can help measure individual bull performance in a multi-sire commercial environment, for example.
“If you ever have a calving problem, take a sample and compare it to the genotype of sires, which will tell you which sire is contributing to calving problems,” notes Stewart Bauck, DVM, General Manager, Agrigenomics, with Igenity and GeneSeek. “Veterinarians can play a very important role, and once a parentage is done, it’s easy to investigate those sires that are producing calving difficulties, those that produce the heaviest calves at weaning and those that do best post weaning. It’s a great herd management tool for progressive commercial producers.”
In a multi-sire environment, it can be costly to keep bulls around that aren’t contributing to the bottom line of a herd, Dr. Bauck says. The veterinarian can use parentage and genomic enhanced EPDs to help producers make decisions. However, veterinarians shouldn’t feel they must become geneticists.
“Having been trained as a veterinarian and spent time in practice, I have empathy for trying to ensure the veterinarian is aware of, trained on, knowledgeable about and able to assist producers in the effective use of these new technologies,” he says. “Practitioners may not consider themselves a geneticist, but very often they’re intimately involved in herd management decisions.”
In his experience, Dr. Bauck says practitioners often assume other experts are taking on the role of consulting with producers on matters related to genetics, which is not always true. To assist in getting veterinarians engaged with providing DNA testing and consultation, Igenity recently partnered with Animal Health International, Inc. (AHI).
“I honestly believe all practices have the ability to participate in this new science of genomics,” Dr. Bauck says. “AHI is working with us in distribution of our Igenity DNA testing. They have been helping inform veterinarians of the technology and assisting them in implementing it among their client base.”
In his experience, practices that make a natural fit for adding DNA testing and consultation to their offerings are often those with close connection to the beef industry and progressive clients.
“If the clinic has a reputation for being engaged in the beef industry, working proactively in herd health and has an interest in improving the overall production of the herd, naturally these technologies are tools their customers need to be successful,” Dr. Bauck says. “The clinics are progressive and successful because they are focused on the success of their clients.”
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