Use beef genomics to improve or lose out to ‘other protein’

Cattle producers not listening | DNA information can be used 
to breed better quality meat without hormones or antibiotics

A DNA train is coming down the track, and scientists are urging beef producers to get on board or be left behind.

Information on strands of DNA can offer better than average predictions as to whether a beef animal will have valuable production traits such as improved weight gain, feed efficiency, calving ease or better meat quality.

David Chalack, chair of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, said the dairy, pork and chicken industries have already grasped the concept and are producing superior animals.

The agency has invested millions of dollars into genomic research and its benefits to the livestock sector.

“Eventually there has to be greater uptake by the beef industry, and that to me is the frustrating part of what is, or is not, happening today,” he said at Beef Innovations, a conference that the Canadian Simmental Association held in Calgary July 15-16 to focus on genomics and research.

“You have to listen to the consumer,” Chalack said.

“There are other protein sources, so how are you going to position your beef product to get those consumer dollars. It had better be around things like health traits and longevity.”

He said more work is needed on enhancing health and growth traits because consumers do not want added growth hormones and antibiotics.

The dairy industry has adopted genomics to make improvements sooner. The beef industry has the potential to make the same kind of gains.

“Genomics is going to change every part of your life,” Chalack said.

Genomics studies an organism’s entire DNA sequence. Scientists look for SNPs, which are among the smallest possible differences in DNA between two organisms. Computer software can then match the pattern of the animal’s SNPs with specific traits.

Wade Shafer, chief executive officer of the American Simmental Association, said sequencing the genome is not difficult, but evaluating it is.

The predictions made by early commercial tests were not as good as companies boasted.

“In the past, the genomic companies would roll out reports, they would put the reports in stars or levels from one to five, but one thing they never did was provide any estimates of accuracy,” said Shafer.

However, more collaborative research among governments, universities and breed associations has helped build larger databases.

Shafer said the predictions are becoming more accurate as more DNA samples are entered. Genetic change should accelerate when combined with expected progeny differences, he added.

The tests are also becoming cheaper. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has collected DNA from 2,000 bulls from various breeds. Each test previously cost about $200 but now costs $70 to $80.

Evaluations have also improved because of a new statistical methodology that allows scientists to derive more information than what was possible five years ago.

It can predict genetic potential of young animals faster than waiting for them to produce offspring.

The Beef Improvement Federation says information from DNA tests is valuable only when used with all other forms of performance information such as expected progeny differences.

However, Shafer said too much information causes confusion, so the EPDs and genetic information have been blended to make them useful to breeders.

“This technology is useless unless we use it right,” he said.

“We have to dramatically ratchet up our use of EPDs and economic indexes.”

An economic index is a collection of EPDs weighted by their economic value.

However some purebred breeders don’t use EPDs or economic indexes.

“We aren’t using the technology because our customers aren’t de-manding the technology,” he said.

Breeders used to release EPDs along with pedigree information during cattle sales, but the information didn’t always make sense to the average bull customer. Consequently, buyers rolled up the catalogues and bought the prettiest bull.

Bruce Holmquist, manager of the Canadian Simmental Association, said commercial producers may not have to know the technology be-cause selection decisions can be made before the bulls are turned out.

“It may not be about identifying the top five percent but eliminating the bottom 50 percent of what we have out there. That might be more important,” he said.

Tim Oleksyn, a commercial producer and vice-chair of the Beef Cattle Research Council, is a believer in using genomics.

Better selection tools to produce better breeding bulls will benefit the entire industry rather than just a single herd, he said in an interview.

The tool could become an industry standard for finding valuable qualities as more people adopt it, he added.

Oleksyn said studying the physical types to ensure cattle have good conformation and stamina will continue to be important, but breeders who are not using DNA technology may be history.

“There are people who continue to support them, but if you start using some of these traits, they will be left behind.”

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