Progress can be defined in many ways. With every successful invention, there have been some that failed. The transitions made in the livestock industry may not all have been profitable, but most taught valuable lessons. Taking a step forward always is better that taking one back. It is the ability to look into the future and find alternatives that make a difference.
Not every new idea makes economic sense, but producers are usually willing to try. For some reason, something new either intrigues the beef business so much that many ranchers are all in to see if increased dollars can be achieved, while some wily veterans do not let curiosity get the best of them and sit on the sidelines until there is some proof more profit is actually there.
This blend of cagy businessmen is always looking for the edge, but careful to protect the nest egg called tradition. How success is achieved is sometimes to “each his own”, but the achievements of the industry depend on always improving the end-product, moving closer to a standardized raw material.
There are a variety of tools available today that are proven moneymakers in the beef industry. New technology has come to the forefront which shows promise in making an impact for a variety of traits that are hard and expensive to identify. The modern age DNA markers have been getting a lot of attention. Many questions have been asked; answers come from individuals that have been tested and identified by these markers to carry profit-making genes.
“DNA markers are simply an additional tool for cattlemen to use that can be very valuable when combined with current tools used for selection. These tests identify traits that are hard and expensive to measure,” says Jim Tate, Global Marketing Manager for Igenity.
“There is some hesitancy about using the markers now or waiting until the industry's learning curve catches matches the new technology. Producers, who gain value through DNA testing, aren't hesitating because they realize it will be five years before current mating decisions impact an eating experience,” says Calvin Gunter, Director of Corporate Development, Bovigen, Harahan, Louisiana.
The promise shown by this technology has intrigued many producers. Several have taken the step to go make this a part of their breeding and selection process. These difficult decisions are often made to enhance the information base cattlemen use to more accurately mate individuals to improve their next calf crop.
“DNA is the most sophisticated test we have. This is very useful information when it comes to artificial insemination and embryo work,” says Floyd Wheeler, Wheeler Ranch, Cleveland, Texas. Wheeler, a Beefmaster breeder, identified the first 4 Star Tenderness bull for his breed.
“Technology makes it easier to manage the cow herd. We cull for a variety of reasons. DNA testing helps find out things earlier and we don't have to wait two years to find out the worth of the animal,” says Jeff Smith, Smith Brahmans, Maringouin, Louisiana. Smith has used both the Igenity and GeneStar tests to identify marbling and tenderness in his herd.
Within herd comparisons are at the root of many breeding decisions and ideas to incorporate new philosophies into the program. Breeders have used this information in the early stages with the idea to help enhance their genetic base. Cattlemen are beginning to realize value in DNA testing because seedstock producers are taking the lead with hopes of passing value to their commercial customers.
“Brahman cattle have been knocked for toughness for so long. DNA gives us a tool to combat these criticisms. We can use gene markers to show the commercial side we do have marbling and tenderness in our cattle. Hopefully, this technology can help improve tenderness within the Brahman breed and we are currently seeing similar results when we compare DNA to actual carcass tests,” Smith says. “DNA technology has helped open up some new markets, especially with commercial cattlemen. I have a lot of customers who are striving to create F1 females with tenderness and marbling genes in them. Knowing I have these genes in my cattle has given me a market edge over breeders that aren't using it.”
“When the tests came out, I knew from the criteria, we could improve the tenderness in our cattle,” Wheeler says. “It is a tool I can use to get information back. The more you know about an animal the better you can mate her and you can pass this information on to other breeders or the end-user.”
The purebred breeders have jumped at the opportunity to test individuals. Adding marker technology to the current mix has created increased value for seedstock bulls. By creating the start of the information chain, hopefully, commercial cattlemen can benefit by adding bulls with a known genetic background to their breeding programs.
“We have to make this information more readily available to the commercial cattleman to make market opportunities that weren't there,” Tate says. “When we change the paradigm and spread information across all segments of the industry, not just the original producer, it will provide greater value. Right now, the elite seedstock producers are using the technology to create market advantages.”
“You can pay more for cattle that you know are going to be profitable,” Smith says. “You have to be willing to use the tools available that will help improve marketability. I have to use this technology to help build my commercial market, because I am in this to produce better beef.”
“Progressive operations are taking advantage of DNA technology and they are getting paid for it,” Gunter says. “At this point in time, we have to decide which information we want to trade. There is only so much we can do with management and this technology allows producers to baseline their product.”
For cattlemen, information is valuable when it comes to enhancing the end-product. Tools that have been developed are there to configure an easily recognized set of known variables which help make buying and selling decisions easier. In today's market, where source verified and process verified are rapidly becoming part of the marketing scheme, following up a well managed set of cattle with sound practical statistics will add value.
“Our business is sort of information based. We can create an information system for value-based marketing that will add profit,” Tate says. “Producers involved in some form of vertically aligned system, who are better equipped to recognize value and share risks, will see quicker returns on their investment. We are building a powerful information base that will follow the cattle through the system.”
“We can trade information, with animals, based on value-added programs,” Gunter says. “Producers who can track groups of cattle, identify management and genetics will see a greater price differentiation between value-added and commodity cattle.”
Cost has been a big deterrent for most producers to take advantage of the technology. Initial investment in the technology may seem large; however, the benefits of getting on board could quickly outweigh the cost. With the tests rapidly becoming more accurate and more markers being identified the future of DNA could be endless.
“We are focused to make the technology more affordable. We offer collectors for free and then store the DNA sample for our customers,” Gunter says. “The real value comes when more markers are identified. As new genes become identified we can run tests on a stored sample.”
“We have worked hard to develop a MultiMark collector, where we can perform all of our Igenity tests from one sample,” Tate says. “The small tissue sample standardizes our lab work and allows a producer to purchase all of our tests at one time.”
“As this technology grows it will become more affordable. I have some farm stores, when the seed companies came out with different varieties that had been genetically modified, most of my customers shied because of cost. Now, we don't plant conventional crops anymore,” Smith says. “This is all value-added information. By identifying these traits, one bull has more than paid for the rest of the testing I have done.”
This concept fits favorably with producers who have taken the opportunity to make DNA testing part of their protocol. The never-ending possibilities the tests allow for the future are a big part of the reasoning used to justify the costs. This will also allow producers to take advantage of genetics that may have been lost due to injury or could solidify the value of an older sire that was better than breeders realized.
“There is a lot to be learned with this technology and you have to start somewhere. As more markers are identified we have to use the technology to stay on top,” Smith says. “We have to be ready for change. The seed business is always making changes and I learned from their thinking. To stay in the driver's seat, as new markers come out, we have to be prepared to test for them.”
“Cattlemen who don't use DNA technology are going to be like a farmer plowing a field with a horse instead of a tractor. Cattle that don't have these markers aren't necessarily bad cattle, but we have to know so we can better manage and mate them,” Wheeler says. “If a bull that I have a large semen bank on dies, having a stored sample makes that semen more valuable if he carries the new markers as they are identified.”
Utilizing the tools that have been developed by the research community then commercially marketed to the industry should mean progress. Just like every other change the industry has gone through, the market will dictate criteria used by cattlemen to improve their product.
Time is always the most limiting factor for new technology. As a rule, cattlemen are not very patient when it comes to identifying processes that will make them more profitable. Identifying profitable genes will shed light on whether incorporating DNA technology into the production mix will be a monumental decision or just another piece of information that works in some operations. With the amount of information DNA is capable of generating, the nation's proving ground will provide the necessary numbers to identify valuable traits.
“There is literally nothing genetics don't touch in animal production. The barriers we have to knock down will be identified by the most economically relevant traits. The most valuable traits are the ones that are the most difficult to measure,” Gunter says. “Producers have to identify the economic drivers and then address them. Once problems are fixed, then we can move on as an industry and address other traits.”
“This process is not something where you can wave a magic wand and all the problems are fixed. It takes time to build momentum and demonstrate value to commercial cattlemen,” Tate says. “We have to extend the knowledge base out into the commercial sector and make information readily accessible across all segments of the industry.”
“Number one, we have to make sure the information we are exchanging is accurate,” Wheeler says. “People want to buy cattle that have been accurately represented. A DNA test that is published says an individual either has those markers or it doesn't. The market will dictate DNA testing in the future because people will have to have information.”
“It really excites me as markers are continually identified that make me more profitable,” Smith says. “In the future, buyers are going to want a piece of inventory they know is tender and tasty. This makes this animal superior and really helps as we select animals that have a combination of traits built in.”