REGINA — Sean McGrath had what he thought was a pretty good bull a few years ago.
He was going to collect and market semen until a DNA test revealed the bull was not what the pedigree said it was.
“If you sold me a bull, that son of a bitch will not be down the chute, off the back of your trailer, unless I have hair in an envelope, end of discussion,” he told a genomics conference held in Regina during Canadian Western Agribition Nov. 12.
DNA samples are collected from hair for every animal on McGrath’s Round Rock Ranching southeast of Vermilion, Alta., even though it is a commercial cow-calf operation.
He has an extensive artificial insemination program to ensure every cow is bred as soon as possible. He also sells a lot of Simmental-Angus cross replacement heifers, which are all sire verified.
“Every replacement female we bring into our cow herd gets DNAed at the lab and they all get parentage verified,” he said.
Operations like his that use multiple sires can check parentage easily with DNA tests. It is especially useful when someone wants to know which bulls are doing the best job and throwing calves that produce high quality beef.
He has started a grass fed beef program and wants to use DNA information to correlate beef quality back to the parents.
“Parentage has been a huge benefit for us,” he said. “Our old strategy was if they look good, they are good.”
For McGrath, genomics testing makes it easier to sort cattle and find those that make him the most money.
“I can spend money on all kinds of things, but the flip side is how do you market that back and get value out of it,” he said.
“All my neighbours think I am insane. I think it pays now and it will pay in the future.”
Genomics has not won over many in the beef industry, but scientists promise that predictions will be more accurate and more practical on the farm as more work is done.
The Angus, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Red Angus and Simmental breed associations are developing genetic information and releasing customized data.
Producer skepticism needs to change, said John Basarab, a beef research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Livestock Gentec.
“It will pay big dividends, just like investing in computer technologies did 20 to 30 years ago,” he said in an interview.
“It will occur because it is occurring in dairy and pigs and poultry. The beef industry needs to get on side very rapidly or they will be left be-hind. There are innovative, very, very smart managers and owners of beef cattle throughout the world that are using this technology and adopting it right now. Those that don’t adapt will often get left behind. They just won’t be able to compete.”
Some breeds could lose out, but the beef industry is diverse because cows have to survive on marginal land and challenging climates.
“Because of those environmental differences, the fact that these cows have to exist out in these different environments, we have much more room for different breeds and breed complementarity than in the dairy or the swine or poultry industry,” he said.
It’s a challenge to gather good information on crossbreds, but Basarab said that should change. Cattle in feedlots can be better sorted for growth, marbling potential and other economically valuable traits.
“Crossbreeding is what our industry is about. The purebreds produce the foundation stock but the actual beef industry is all about the production of red meat,” he said.
“We went through that in 1970 and essentially the North American system went from a purebred system to a crossbreeding system because we got a 25 to 35 percent improvement in the production efficiency. We can’t give that up.”