Genomics takes bull selection to the next level

Select Sires collects semen from each bull and uses genomic information to determine high quality performers

PLAIN CITY, Ohio — Genomic analysis has changed the genetics business so that top animals are now selected on the basis of statistics rather than eye appeal.

“One of the things that has happened in our industry is genomics. It has taken off in the Holstein breed. It has changed our world greatly,” Tony Good, chief staff veterinarian of Select Sires at Plain City, Ohio, told a tour group from the National Institute of Animal Agriculture.

“Genomics has changed the game in lots of different ways. They are now selecting animals off a spreadsheet.”

Formed more than 50 years ago as a farmer owned co-operative, Select Sires sells beef and dairy bull semen to more than 90 countries.

Less than 10 years ago, producers collected semen from a bull and results on its progeny started to become available about four years later. Now, a hair sample can be collected at birth and decisions made on whether to keep the bull based on DNA merit.

“With genomics, as soon as you pluck some DNA from hair follicles, you know when the calf is still wet where he ranks,” Good said.

This company brings in bull calves at around 45 days and raises them in animal friendly barns with a strict feeding and health program.

They are tested to see if they have what it takes to be a top sire, and semen collection can start at around a year of age.

The company owns some females, and genomic information can be used to collect oocytes before they reach puberty.

“The idea of genomics is to speed up the generation intervals,” he said.

A big part of the business is dairy sires, particularly from the Holstein breed. The company either owns the cattle or leases them and shares the profits with the owners.

“Out of the top 50 (dairy bulls), we have 38,” he said.

The company made its name when it bought a Holstein bull named Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation born in 1965. The Holstein International Association named Elevation bull of the century in 1999.

“A bull like Elevation would live as long as we could get him to live and produce,” he said.

“The number one bull in the world a few years ago didn’t make it to seven years of age.”

A bull’s statistics and worth is based on information from the performance of daughters, sisters and cousins. Genomic information is added and a formula is calculated to give the best data possible on what can be expected of a sire.

About 20 percent of bulls are culled because they are not good enough.

The company has been in expansion mode since it was incorporated in 1965.

In Canada, the company works under the name Select Sires GenerVations. Semen can be purchased around the world through Select Sires distributors in Latin America, World Wide Sires and international GenerVations Inc. distributors.

There are about 1,900 bulls at 13 facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Six dairy and 10 beef breeds are maintained.

Sexed semen, enhanced heat detection aids and synchronization tools are available.

Each bull is regularly tested for a long list of potential diseases to meet domestic and international regulations. Semen from a bull that qualifies for trade with the European Union is likely to be accepted anywhere.

“We are always looking to expand markets and market share in the U.S. and internationally. Internationally is probably our best spot to grow,” Good said.

The company collected 15.1 million units of semen last year, up from six million units in 2000.

It is collected using teaser steers rather than electro-ejaculators because the amount and quality ejaculated into an artificial vagina is better, said Good.

About 40 steers, often bought from county fairs, are used for the bulls to mount. The oldest steer at the Ohio site is 14.

Each bull is expected to produce two ejaculates every other day.

The sample is tagged, and an onsite laboratory analyzes it for volume and the number of cells in each collection. Bar codes are placed on every straw of semen to identify the sire.

The bulls on the Select Sires roster are often worth more than six figures and can earn substantial incomes. A single Holstein bull named Headliner generates about $4 million a year in sales.

Animal welfare is audited twice a year, and the company helped set care standards for stud stations.

Back pain is the biggest problem for mature sires, which is treated using NSAIDs, pain medications and acupuncture.

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