Genomics coming to a cow near you

Cattle breeding | Better technology will allow industry to test animals with greater accuracy

SASKATOON — The beef industry will eventually use genomics, says an extension specialist, even though the first version of the science gave way to what she called the “trough of disillusionment.”

Alison Van Eenennaam, a researcher with the University of California, Davis, said genomics was oversold in the beginning.

“When genomics first came out, I think the researchers and producers both thought it was going to be a silver bullet and we would have a (single) test for marbling or whatever the trait is, and it’s more complicated than that,” she said after a presentation at the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference.

“At first we thought one marker might do it, and now we realize it’s probably more like 50,000 markers.”

Genomics has been more successful in the dairy and hog industries, but Van Eenennaam said she expects adoption in the beef industry within the next decade.

Darren Bevans, general manager of Deseret Ranches of Alberta Ltd., knows all about the trough of disillusionment.

He told the conference that the biggest wake-up call was realizing genomic tests didn’t apply across breeds.

The Alberta ranch is part of the large Ag Reserves Inc. company, which includes ranches in several states and a feedlot in Kansas. The cow herd totals more than 50,000, and the Alberta operation has 6,800 cows of Angus, Gelbvieh and Hereford genetics.

“Five years ago I really believed that genomics was going to be the magic bullet,” Bevans said.

“That we’d be able to take that calf that was born in one of our herds, anywhere in North America, pull a hair sample and within a couple weeks of getting that sample back we’d know the potential for weaning weight, yearling weight, birth weight, fertility, udder suspension, frame score, marbling, tenderness, on and on. Honestly, that hasn’t come true at this point.”

He said the ranch’s managers took a step back to figure out where genomics could actually work.

They use basic parentage tests at the multiplier herd level and can produce solid expected progeny differences from those tests.

“We backed it back to the elite herd level, where we’re measuring actual genetic relationships,” he said.

“So we’re using the 50,000 (marker) test on those cattle, or an intermediate test of between 20,000 and 30,000, to determine actual genetic relationship of the progeny to the grandsires and to siblings.”

This enables managers to increase the accuracy of EPDs and better predict the future.

Bevans said it works pretty well for the company’s crossbred cattle, and it hopes the data it has collected will eventually help develop a marker panel for its own animals.

He said a simple test of 100 or 200 markers could be cost effective at $10 to $15 and could help the company get back on the path on which it started.

“What we’re developing is really patterned after the hog model,” Bevans said.

“We start with the genetics and do intense selection, leverage the investment in those genetics on our cow-calf ranches, carry that through, right through the feed yard, until the day the cattle die.”

The company wants to eventually offer packers a large volume of cattle each week that will bring a significant premium because of the traits they carry.

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