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Genomics fine-tunes replacements for crossbred, commercial herds

emholk/Getty Images Hereford cow in the pasture with calves laying in the grass
BEST COW, BEST REPLACEMENTS: Genomic testing, when done on young heifer replacements, can help crossbred commercial beef producers zero in on genetic goals in their herds.
Once available only to purebred herds, multispecies genetic tests are now available to commercial producers.

Genomic testing, once only available to purebred beef producers, is now an option for use in crossbred and commercial herds.

“We’ve used genomics in seedstock for quite some time,” says Eric Mousel, University of Minnesota Extension cow-calf educator. “In the last five to 10 years, enough genomic information on a wide range of animals has been gathered so that we have a greater data base.” This offers the opportunity to develop genetic tests that are reasonably accurate to use on cattle that are crossbreds, he says.

Basically, genomics is an analysis of the DNA of an animal to predict the progeny outcome from that animal. It is more data-specific than expected progeny differences (EPDs). When heifers are tested, the data generated provide insight to heifer performance and maternal genetics before any progeny are on the ground.

Bottom-line, heifers can be genetically tested by weaning and either raised or sold, based on selection criteria. That saves replacement heifer costs on the front end, rather than at the end of a cow’s productive life.

“A lot of people don’t consider the cost of replacement females,” says Tom Short, a registered Black Angus producer from Portland, Tenn. But with higher feed prices, more producers will be paying attention. Overall, USDA estimates that life expectancy of a beef cow is about six calvings on average. Research suggests it takes three calves for a cow to pay for herself.

“With higher feeding costs now, it’s probably between three to four calves before she starts breaking even,” Short adds. “So, with genomic technology, if you can identify calves, you can bend the profitability curve back in your favor.”

Short also works as associate director of outcome research for Zoetis. His research group is tasked with reviewing and demonstrating value of company products. He has been working with Zoetis’ multispecies genomic test, Inherit Select, that was developed in collaboration with Leachman Cattle, Fort Collins, Colo., and released in 2020. The test provides predictions for 19 traits, and those data then are summarized into three indexes — an overall conception to carcass index, a maternal index and a post-weaning index. Data were gathered from more than 1.3 million straightbred and crossbred animal records.

“The test can be used on any defined bos taurus breed — British or continental,” Short says. Genomic approximation of breed composition is also available by taking the marker information and returning a percentage of combined Angus and Red Angus, British (Angus, South Devon and Hereford), or continental (Simmental, Gelbvieh, Limousin and Charolais) breeds. Other breeds that would show as unknown breed composition include indicus, dairy and wagyu.

Short says taking an animal DNA sample for testing can happen as early as the day a calf is born. Many producers get test results by weaning. Test samples can be gathered as hair follicles from the tail switch, blood or tissue. Zoetis recommends using an Allflex tissue sampling unit for its ease of use.

Using a 100-cow herd as an example, Short estimates that 40 heifers could be candidates for DNA testing. Testing would help a producer determine the top 20 heifers to keep, allowing for a 20% herd replacement rate.

Short sees producers using genomic test information in various ways in terms of herd management. If a heifer’s genetic profile doesn’t fit in with herd performance goals, she is sold as a value-added animal, with genetic information to pass along. Or some use the genomic data as herd benchmarks to see where strengths and weaknesses are in cattle. Accordingly, bulls can then be selected to make trait improvements.

Visual versus genetic selection

At a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattlemen’s College event last August, Short participated in a demonstration that featured live heifers that had been genetically tested. Audience members were asked to visually select what they considered the best animals. Short then shared the genomic data.

“Almost inevitably, people gravitated to the larger heifers,” he says. “But the data showed it is not that simple.” Rather, the genomic data were a mirror image of bull EPDs, showing which heifers were inheriting good maternal attributes.

To further validate genomic testing, Short says he has been involved with evaluating tested cattle from post-weaning to slaughter, and results of genomic predicted carcass performance were aligned with expressed carcass merit and value.

Return on investment is one question Short often hears from producers. Based on company and independent research, and at a cost of $28 per test per animal, the return on investment over the life of a tested heifer is roughly $200 to $300 net profit, he says, adding that Zoetis advises roughly twice as many heifers be tested versus the number that are selected.

Sample when young

Neogen is another company that offers genomic testing for crossbred commercial replacement heifer selection. Its test, Igenity Beef, provides genetic merit data on 16 maternal, performance and carcass traits plus parentage, and summarizes them into three selection indexes.

Jamie Courter, Neogen beef product manager, says predictions for Igenity Beef, developed in partnership with International Genetic Solutions, are founded on 14 million phenotypes and more than 350,000 genotypes of eight different breeds of cattle across North America. If a producer’s sires have DNA on file with Neogen, the company will provide parentage results at no additional charge. Igenity Beef was launched in 2018 and updated in 2020.

Courter says genomic testing helps producers identify replacement heifers who inherit the best DNA from both parents.

“We know that commercial producers put a lot of time, energy and dollars into selecting the right bulls for their operation. However, in two full-sibling calves, there are over one quintillion different combinations of DNA that could have been inherited,” Courter says. Genomic tests help commercial cattle producers select replacement heifers who not only look the part, but also genetically fit their operation’s goals and objectives.

Neogen also recommends using a tissue sampling unit — essentially a sampling plier loaded with a small tube — to take the DNA sample.

Courter also suggests taking a sample early on.

“The sooner you can take a sample on an animal, the better,” she says. “I typically recommend ordering tissue sampling units before calving season starts. If you tag at birth, then once the calf is born and is dry, take a sample from the ear.” Sampling will leave a small hole in the ear where you can then place the calf tag.

If a producer doesn’t tag animals at birth, sampling can be done whenever they first process calves or at branding.

The sooner a producer has data in hand, the sooner selection decisions can be made. Courter says it take three to four weeks to receive results.

“I recommend submitting samples at least two months prior to weaning, or whenever it is you have to make your decisions,” she adds. “This gives you ample time to sort through the numbers, look at the calves, ask questions and take the most advantage of the investment you’ve made in the technology.”

Mousel says he can see benefit to commercial cow-calf operators using genomic testing on heifers. Getting some insight into the genomic capacity of heifers to be good cows will save replacement costs in the long term.

“Before, we just selected bulls based on visual observation and emotion,” he adds. “With expanded trait markers, you can see how much they will transmit to offspring.”

To learn more about genomic testing, visit Zoetis' website.

Here’s where to learn more about the Neogen test.


TAGS: Genetics
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