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Genetic Testing Is Changing Cattle of All Stripes

To understand where the beef industry is going, take a look at where the dairy industry has been. That’s what the Beef Improvement Federation, a group that advances the science of beef genetics, did when it invited Tom Lawlor, a genomics expert for Holstein USA, to share his industry’s experience with DNA testing.

The dairy industry, particularly the Holstein breed, has been on a DNA quest for more than 10 years, ever since better and cheaper genetic evaluation techniques became available, Lawlor says. “It is having a huge impact on dairy. Not only have we dramatically reduced our generation interval and increased our rate of genetic progress by two to four times, but also there have been some important structural changes to our industry.”

Here are seven of those changes.

  1. Most of the dairy animals with high genomic potential now come from the U.S. While we used to go to other countries for the world’s best Holsteins, for instance, that’s completely flipped, Lawlor notes, as the breeders and breeding companies have adopted genomics technologies.
  2. The artificial insemination (AI) companies have established their own MOET (multiple ovulation embryo transfer) breeding programs to enhance genetics. “For sellers of elite dairy genetics, the use of advanced reproductive tools requires easy access to embryo-recipient cows,” Lawlor says. “Larger herds have an added advantage because they can utilize more of the elite embryos.” 
  3. Many commercial dairy farmers now see themselves in the seed stock business. Their genomic program – either MOET or as recipient cows to other breeders – is a profit line for their dairy, Lawlor says.
  4. It is not necessarily one breakthrough that is causing large gains in dairy productivity. “It’s more of a coupling of technologies such as genomic testing, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and sexed semen,” he says. “An improvement in any one of those has multiplicative effects.”
  5. Genomics are still evolving, and accuracy of DNA tests continues to improve. “More and more breeders will utilize this technology by breeding specific cattle genotypes for specific environments and by producing more specialized genetics for different markets,” Lawlor says. “Genomics will allow farmers to be able to say, ‘Tell me what you want, and we will produce it.’ ”
  6. Productivity of dairy herds is growing two to four times faster as a result of genomics testing. Lawlor compares two good New York state dairy herds. One is using advanced genomics testing, embryo transfer and other technologies to maximize genetic gains. The other is using older bulls and little genomic testing. After 10 years, the progressive herd makes over $1,000 more in lifetime profit per cow. 
  7. There are a lot of similarities between the dairy and beef industries in genomics potential. “We have one advantage in that we work with our animals on a daily basis,” Lawlor says. “This allows us to deliver the genetics to our herd population quickly and easily. This hurdle will become less and less in the beef industry with improvements in adoption of reproductive tools and as the benefits of using more elite genetics grows.”

“It’s a matter of competition,” Lawlor says. “If you’re to remain in an industry, you have to keep up genetically with your neighbors, as well as other competitors farther away.”

The beef application

Jerry Taylor, professor of animal genomics at the University of Missouri and a leading proponent of genomics applications to the beef industry, marvels at the dairy experience and sees several take-home messages for beef producers over the next few years.

“The beef industry has been slow to adopt genomics selection, primarily because of the lower utilization of AI, embryo transfer, sexed semen, and other advanced reproductive technologies,” he says. That needs to change, and it will.

The American Angus Association is now up to more than 300,000 genotyped animals (compared with 1.5 million Holsteins). All the other beef breed associations combined have fewer than 100,000 animals genotyped. Those numbers will definitely grow, giving beef producers more genomic choices. As in dairy, the winners will be the early adopters, Taylor thinks.

He adds that it is not rash to predict that Angus will continue to increase its dominance over the next 10 years. 

There will be an acceleration in rates of genetic improvement for the currently measured beef cattle phenotypes, such as growth rate and the “supermom” cow traits, Taylor predicts. It will also include the deployment of new genomics tools for traits like daily feed intake (the best real measure of cost of production) and perhaps overall feed efficiency. 

He believes there will soon be data to allow expected progeny differences (EPD) for one breed to be translated to generate EPDs for another breed. “In particular, this will enable feed intake data on nearly 10,000 feedlot animals to be deployed across breeds,” Taylor says.

Disease susceptibility may also be part of a DNA test, but he says that issue is complex. “For instance, bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is caused by several pathogens. An animal’s resistance to disease is really resistance to a specific pathogen. It may be susceptible to one BRD organism but not another. The pathogens can change in time and in different regions.” 

The bottom line: “The technology has been truly transformative for the dairy industry in the last eight years,” Taylor says. “Eight years! What other technology in livestock history has had that rapid and dramatic impact?”

Where early adopters see this going

Dave Nichols, Nichols Farms, Bridgewater, Iowa, believes in a systems approach. “Much of the genomic emphasis will be in so-called novel traits that are difficult to quantify, discover, or validate. High on the list are resistance to BRD, pink eye, metabolic efficiency, stayability of cows, and embryonic death. These traits affect profitability and total production as much as our current EPDs for growth and marbling,” he says. “It won’t all be genetics that change the beef industry. It will be a systems approach by managing our pastures as crops, total herd health protocols, improved nutrition, and genetics.”

Mark Gardiner, Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, Kansas, values the accuracy of selections. “Genomics data is allowing us to be much more accurate in our selection of breeding cattle. We improve our batting average with genomically enhanced EPDs. For the big traits, they have the predictive power of acquiring data on progeny records of 10 head of calves. It means progress will be continual and more anticipated than in the past. For traits like calving ease, growth rate, and end-product merit – all highly heritable – the changes will be significant if we make wise selections.”

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