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Just a drop of blood

In the past, genetic DNA markers to pinpoint cattle that are good in high yearling weights and other valuable traits have been mostly for purebred producers. The $100-per-head or higher cost to get a DNA analysis meant that this emerging technology was reserved for elite breeders.

That will change with the introduction of a genetic marker program for the masses. It comes from Certified Angus Beef (CAB), and it is called GeneMax. For $17 per animal, you can have young heifers and steers of pure or high Angus percentage tested for the two most important economic traits: marbling score (which mostly determines carcass-quality grade) and yearling weight (the best fast-growth indicator).

To use the program, you order sample cards from CAB. You must have an American Angus Association customer code to order. When they arrive, you collect a blood sample (usually from the ear) on each animal you want to test. You send those samples back to CAB, where they are evaluated by the Pfizer Animal Health DNA marker program.

What the score means

What you will get back is a GeneMax index score for every animal tested, and it will be a number from 1 to 100. The higher the score, the better that animal's DNA marker for a combination of the two traits (marbling and yearling weight). A 90 or higher index, for instance, will tell you that animal is in the top 10% for those two traits combined.

You will also get a breakdown for those two traits individually, on a scale of 1 to 5.

Unless they retain ownership beyond weaning, commercial cow-calf producers don't normally get paid for marbling – that happens for feedlots when the cattle are harvested and evaluated for carcass quality. Still, technology like GeneMax could let a commercial producer market calves at premium prices with predictable marbling scores, based on the DNA tests. Or, it could encourage cow-calf producers to retain ownership of calves through the feedlot phase.

Finding good heifers

Paul Dykstra, a beef cattle specialist for CAB, thinks commercial producers may first use GeneMax when selecting replacement heifers. They wouldn't use it for every heifer.

“You may cull the poor doers first. Then of the potential replacements left, you could use GeneMax to help you make the final decisions on the ones to keep,” he says.

GeneMax might also be used to benchmark your herd to better monitor progress of some animal lines or to identify steers of known marbling and growth potential, say CAB officials.

“It brings DNA marker technology data into an economically viable range for commercial beef producers,” says Dykstra.

He emphasizes that the data used to create the index score is for Angus genetics and works well for animals with three-fourths Angus blood or higher. Below that amount, he says, it won't be accurate. 

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