Cattle genomics only one factor in boosting profit

Many still focus on the basics | ‘Don’t go all the way off the cliff thinking you are going to get all the answers with genomics’

EDMONTON — Genomics can objectively screen animals at a feedlot, but that knowledge is not going to change what the feeder has to work with.


“We are not changing the genetics at the feedlot,” said William Torres of Cattleland Feedyards in Strathmore, Alta.


“Cattle come in from all different sources from commercial herds.”


Cattleland has a capacity of 33,000 animals on two sites with a large private research component. As many as 5,000 bulls go on test each year, and the results should help the animals’ owners make improvements in their breeding plans the following year. 


A big focus for the company is studying residual feed intake (RFI) and genomics, Torres told the annual Livestock Gentec conference held in Edmonton. 


Residual feed intake is a highly heritable trait.


Cattle that eat less will have a negative RFI and those that eat more than what they were expected to consume have a positive RFI. Steers that eat less and gain the same amount are considered more efficient and are more valuable. They cost less to feed and produce lower greenhouse gas emissions. 


“When you start showing to producers the difference in pounds of feed consumed and translate it over to dollars, that’s when you can get people’s attention,” he said. 


The company works with Quantum Genetics in Saskatoon to run genetic tests to find the leptin gene that controls some of the proportion of fat and lean formation in cattle.


This helps predict which cattle will put on weight faster and go to market sooner. 


Producers who select sires that express the leptin trait may also see an impact in calves’ weaning weight, backfat and yield.


Those are worthwhile qualities, but beef producers such as Steve Whitmore of North Carolina don’t want to stray too far from the basics. 


He has a seed stock operation, a commercial cow-calf farm and a branded premium beef company where the meat is sold to Whole Foods. He is also chair of the Beef Improvement Federation, which tries to improve the industry through performance evaluation. 


In efforts to increase profit and leave a sound business to his family he is looking to cut costs because other species such as pork and chicken have emerged as good feed converters. 


“If you make your living in the cattle business, you have to look at every way to cut costs,” he said.


Every other animal protein sector has been able to improve their feed-to-gain ratios, he added, which results in rapid growth and less time in the feeding environment. 


The cow-calf producer stands to make the most money by identifying the cattle that produce more beef with less feed. It can be achieved with genomic selection, but breeders should not forget that animals still need good feet and legs. 


The top two or three most feed efficient animals may not look good phenotypically. 


Demand for beef has dropped off, partly because it is costly to produce a consistently good result every time. 


Changes are needed if beef wants to be the king of meats again. 


“It better be good and it better be consistently good and it better be palatable,” he said. 


Whitmore supports genomically enhanced expected progeny differences, but he said scientists will eventually reach a point where they cannot get any closer in their predictions. 


“Don’t go all the way off the cliff thinking you are going to get all the answers with genomics and DNA. It ain’t going to happen,” he said. 


The final outcome of an individual’s performance also depends on what happened in the womb and the calf’s environment. Those actions can also affect future generations.


Cudlobe Angus at Claresholm, Alta., has included genomic information in its bull sale catalogue for three years. 


Genomically enhanced EPDs are offered on 120 sale bulls and rank qualities such as birth weight, weaning weight, beef tenderness, rib eye size, carcass weight and marbling potential. They also include data on residual feed intake. 


More bull buyers have come to understand what the information means since the family started to offer it, said David Buldoc, who owns the operation with his family. He is also chair of the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, an umbrella group that represents purebred associations, most of which are starting to collect more genomic information. 


He said there are shortcomings with some of the information, but more of the variation that occurs can be explained as the science develops. He predicted an explosion of producers who will adopt it once they see the benefits. 


“I think we have to accumulate enough early adopters, and the other people will realize if they want to keep pace, they have to join in and use the technology or they will be left behind.”