For decades, the cattle industry has worked to become more efficient, which usually means knowing information about each individual animal's ability to perform. This information revolution has brought about expected progeny differences (EPDs), ultrasound technology and now DNA analysis. Today, producers get more inside information on their cattle than ever before — all from a single DNA sample.
The process of applying the inside information from DNA analysis, to make better breeding decisions, has been coined as marker-assisted selection. John Pollak, the executive director of the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC), an organization committed to research related to the genetic evaluation of beef cattle, says making marker-assisted selection decisions can be an easy transition for producers.
“It wouldn't take much for producers to become involved with DNA technology and make some significant advances in their operation,” Pollak says. “If they can do testing now, they will be ahead of the curve.”
It has been recommended that producers start with marker-assisted selection among herd sires and donor prospects. A natural extension of doing analysis on herd sires and donor prospects would be to involve replacement heifers. It also may be beneficial for purchasers of breeding animals to request a comprehensive DNA profile so they are using every opportunity to align their production system with the optimal market for their end product.
Comprehensive profile adds confidence
Pollak says that as more DNA tests are identified for traits such as carcass characteristics, female durability, fertility, disease resistance and feed efficiency, it will be important for producers to start early with a comprehensive approach to profiling cattle. In his opinion, the idea of analyzing several traits from one sample, and coupling that with other known performance information, is the right direction for the industry.
“I like the profile approach that has come about with the addition of new tests,” Pollak says. “Producers need to be presented the information in one package that is easy to understand and includes information on as many economically important traits as possible.”
As more information is available, producers who use this comprehensive profile approach now will be in a position to be the first to benefit from future changes in value-based marketing. The comprehensive profile approach of DNA analysis is available through the IGENITY® profile. One sample can be collected to get results from several analyses, which means savings in money and time for producers.
“Our goal is to give producers the tools to improve the efficiency and profitability of their operations,” says Jim Tate, market development manager, IGENITY. “We don't want them to have to worry about what markers are involved, or how to make sense of many possible genotype combinations, so we give them simple scores for the economically relevant traits that are associated with the markers. Higher scores mean more of a given trait, and lower scores mean less of that trait.”
Currently, the IGENITY profile consists of analyses for genetic tenderness potential; lean and fat yield; hot-carcass weight; parentage identification that is effective in multiple-sire situations; and an analysis for red or black coat color. As the profile expands to include other important traits, current customers can apply more comprehensive information on the archived samples.
Making more confident decisions
One operation currently utilizing the comprehensive IGENITY profile is Bell Ranch in northeast New Mexico. The ranch is working with IGENITY, Pollak and Cornell University on a commercial ranch genetic evaluation project. The project is designed to demonstrate genetic evaluations in commercial herds by genotyping calves with a comprehensive profile of DNA analysis in multiple-sire settings.
Bell Ranch runs about 3,500 cows under drought conditions, about 250 of which are designated to a seedstock herd. Bell Ranch had been using DNA for parentage in multiple-sire pastures in its seedstock division since 1996. The ranch needed a way to maintain pedigree integrity in multiple-sire pasture grazing rotations. This experience with DNA testing was the main reason Cornell approached Bell Ranch about becoming involved in the project. The commercial division of Bell Ranch now genotypes all progeny of yearling bulls each year, records performance information, and makes better informed bull selection and management decisions based on their progeny's performance.
“After the progeny are tested, our commercial division can make culling and grouping decisions on bulls based on information such as the number of calves they sire and weaning weights in time for use in the fall calving herd,” says Bonnie Long of Bell Ranch. “As we follow the progeny through, we seek opportunities to get additional information such as daughters' breeding, feedlot, carcass and tenderness data. When we find our superstar sires, whose progeny excel in balancing all of our demands, we bring them back to our seedstock herd.”
Long says this is a practice that can apply to seedstock producers who are looking to follow bulls that go to commercial producers. They can look at parent identification in a commercial setting as an opportunity to continue to track bulls and expand their customer service.
“If a seedstock producer were to work with his commercial customers to track the performance of a bull's progeny, he could more readily identify the superior sires to retain semen interest in, plus use the information to tailor his offerings for his customers' needs,” Long says.
Along with parentage identification, Bell Ranch has used the information from the DNA analysis to measure tenderness potential in the herd. Long said this was an added advantage that came with using a comprehensive profile of analysis. Tenderness scores have been used to manage a select group of bulls in an effort to increase the frequency of that desired genotype in the herd.
“We identified a bull that was very favorable for tenderness, so we adjusted our management a little to help increase the frequency of the genotype within the herd,” Long says. “In the seedstock division, we turned those bulls out ahead of the rest of the bull battery to do all the early breeding. Also, our commercial division sorted a group of favorable genotyped bulls into one breeding group.
The ranch has opened doors to great opportunities by making selection and management decisions based on the comprehensive information gained. It will continue to use DNA profiling as an additional tool to provide calves with the information behind them to meet buyers' needs. Long says it is important for the ranch to understand what the genetic profile is of the herd to take the next steps toward more efficient management.
“In every population, there is genetic variation, but it can't be managed until it is known,” she says. “The best management decisions cannot be made without looking at all the information available. The beauty of this progeny test program is that we can get results from just a little management tweaking. It's genetic improvement with minimal management intrusion.”