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Latest Cattle DNA Tests Are Better, More Affordable

Imagine, says Jimmy Taylor, that you are buying a new pickup and all you know is the color. There’s nothing about the engine, the cab, or the towing capacity.

You wouldn’t buy, would you? Yet, until recently, that’s how ranchers selected bulls and heifers. They would look at the outside and hope for the best.

Taylor, who operates Taylor Ranch at Elk City, Oklahoma, with wife Tracy, says there’s a better way. Look under the hood, so to speak. New genomics testing technologies tell him if a heifer calf has high odds of growing into a cow that is docile and efficient, has a calf every year for several years, and raises calves that earn carcass premiums. 

The price for this under-the-hood cattle information is getting more affordable, as scientists unravel the DNA codes and fine-tune their analysis of it. It’s not just for purebred breeders anymore.

maximizing genes

There are two suppliers of genomics technology for commercial producers: Zoetis GeneMax and PredicGen products and GeneSeek’s Igenity products. Both require you to submit a few hair follicles, blood drops, or an ear tissue plug to their labs. 

Taylor uses Zoetis GeneMax Advantage for Angus-based commercial herds. All of his crossbred cows and heifers are bred to Angus bulls on a timed artificial insemination program.

“We retain ownership through the feedlot, then we sell finished cattle on the grid to take advantage of our genetics,” explains Taylor. “We select heavily for marbling and meat tenderness, plus maternal traits, too.”

At $39 per test, GeneMax Advantage is less expensive than the comprehensive DNA analysis that purebred breeders use.

“We test all of our heifer calves,” says Taylor. “GeneMax Advantage has several index scores and trait predictions, and I can set parameters that I want to emphasize. 

“If I want to select the top 35% on marbling, I can do that. If I want to avoid the lower 35% on predicted input expense, I can do that, too. Marbling ranks high for us because of the way we sell the finished cattle.

“We also sell some local beef, and I like to see the meat tenderness analysis. There is no EPD [expected progeny difference] for it,” he says.

Taylor uses bulls that have been DNA-tested, too. That genomics test is called the i50K test (based on 50,000 DNA sites). When combined with EPD scores, it gives a genomically enhanced EPD, which can add the same level of confidence to a young bull’s breeding ability as if he had already measured the performance of 15 to 20 of his calves. 

“I’m data driven,” says Taylor. “I like to see the numbers.”

He really values the genomics scores at mating time. If a good heifer is a little weak in one trait, he will mate her to a bull that complements her.

Taylor is convinced the genomics tests are significantly improving his cowherd and feedlot results. “We want heifers in the top 50% of the GeneMax total score. When we started this in 2012, about two thirds of them didn’t meet that goal. In a group of 78 heifers we tested in fall 2015, they all scored in the top 50%. In fact, only two of them were not in the top 40%,” says Taylor. 

“The last group of steers we harvested went 55% prime grade, and that number is increasing,” he says. “It’s a great new tool to select better cattle. We aren’t guessing anymore.”

igenity genomics program

In eastern Missouri, commercial producer Charlie Chapuis uses a different program to go after similar results.

Chapuis and his family calve 300 cows of Balancer/Angus/Gelbvieh breeding. “We started using the Igenity genomics program in 2008 on replacement heifers,” he says. “I had used genomics for herd sires before that, and it got me interested in testing heifers.” 

Chapuis uses similar genomics parameters for selecting both bulls and heifers. “We’re building cow numbers and selecting for maternal performance. The Igenity stayability and heifer pregnancy numbers reinforce decisions on certain cow lines,” he says. 

Igenity’s stayability score predicts the odds that a heifer will stay in the herd as a productive cow until she is at least 6 years old. “As time goes on and we get the cow side right, we will add selection pressure on the terminal sire side,” says Chapuis.

He thinks genomics merit a close look by all beef producers. “Genomically enhanced EPDs are adding validity to low-accuracy EPD numbers,” he says. 

“If I could have only one Igenity score, I would pick docility. I won’t go below a 5 [on a scale of 1 to 10], and most of our bulls have been a 6 or above on docility. When handling cattle with inexperienced help, cooperation from cows is a huge issue, and this helps us,” he says.

Chapuis says the cost of the Igenity tests has varied between $25 and $40 per animal. If the cows are with multiple clean-up bulls, the test also includes parentage verification.

“I’m not looking at a fast payback on this; I’m interested in the longer term. Genomics can be used to cull off the bottom outliers on certain traits of a group of heifers that I might otherwise miss. When I add up that advantage over several generations, it can spell significant progress," he says. 

“Down the road, I wonder if cattle buyers – and maybe even packers – will ask for genomics data,” he says.

Q&A with specialist

SF: Can genomics information increase performance as much as progeny data?

Jared Decker: Yes, it can mean as much as 20 progeny records on young animals. A typical cow in a herd will never be around long enough to have 20 calves, so genomics information helps identify the superior animals.

SF: Where do you start?

Decker: Start with your bulls because of their impact on the whole calf crop. Then test your replacement heifers. It doesn’t make as much sense to test your mature cows, because you’re probably going to keep a productive cow anyway, regardless of her genomics.

Better cows

Did cattle breeding just get easier or more difficult? 

“Cattle breeding is easy,” says Jared Decker, a University of Missouri genomics specialist and expert on the new technology. “It’s our explanations that make it sound difficult.

“You can look at an index, such as those provided with the GeneMax test, to rank animals for all the available economically important traits. Then, you can make selection decisions using a single number. Genomics tests provide more confidence in those rankings,” he says. 

Genomics technology has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. In 2001, scientists could sequence the entire genome of a cow for about $95 million. It’s declined to about $1,300 now, due to technology breakthroughs.

“For one animal, $1,300 is still too much,” says Decker. “That’s where genotyping comes in; we look at DNA variants, not the entire genome. Genotyping an animal is between $15 and $85, depending on the variants.

“Now the question is how to get value from it,” he says. “The simplest way is to buy bulls with genomically enhanced EPDs. Your precision of predicting the performance of the offspring improves. It’s like having the actual performance of 15 to 20 calves measured from a bull.”

In Missouri’s popular Show-Me Select Heifer development program, females with genomics analysis got a premium of more than $200 per head at last year’s auction sales. 

Read more from Decker (and other experts) at his blog site, blog.steakgenomics.org/.

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