Genetic technology’s next hurdle: commercial producers

Efforts are being made to make genomic technology practical for producers of commercial beef herds, such as this one that the Froshaug family of Minton, Sask., trailed home Oct. 16 from its summer pasture in the Big Beaver Grazing Co-op.  Pictured are 11-year-old Colter Froshaug on his black horse, Deets, his father, Ryan Froshaug, on his buckskin Quarter Horse, Eor, and older sister, Shyla Froshaug, on her young mare, Lola, in the background.  |  Carla Froshaug photo

EDMONTON — Purebred cattle breeders have adopted genomic technology as a fast and effective way to improve their animals.

The next step is making the technology practical for commercial beef producers, so they can make more money with more productive cattle.

Looking at the DNA strands of cattle has been a transformative technology in the last five years, said geneticist Steve Miller of Angus Genetics, a subsidiary of the American Angus Association.

“One reason for the uptake in genotyping is we’ve got tools that are more accurate so breeders are using them and they are also cheaper,” he said at the Livestock Gentec annual meeting held in Edmonton Oct. 18-19.

The Angus association has thousands of DNA samples from Canadian and American breeds at its facility in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Genomic technology can provide more accurate predictions on birth weights, weaning weights, post weaning gain, heifer calving ease, carcass records, docility scores, mature cow weights and individual feed intake records. The more records producers provide, the more accurate predictions become.

Commercial producers could benefit from those predictions but they need easy and affordable access to the information.

“By putting genetic values on groups of calves, we could really drive demand for better genetics,” Miller said.

Genetic research is an international collaboration.

John Basarab of Alberta Agriculture is part of a team working on genomic expected progeny difference (gEPD) predictions for commercial beef cattle.

Commercial bull buyers may use EPDs to select new sires that are bred to crossbred cows of various backgrounds. This makes predictions more difficult.

“If we have a comprehensive genetic selection program and we improve the accuracy of our gEPDs that perform well in commercial crossbreeding situations, we could have quite an impact on the profitability of cow-calf situations,” said Barsarab.

Gene sequencing of bulls from a number of breeds is complete. The next step is to work on commercial genotypes. Now it can take years to prove a breeding program works, but genomic information could speed the rate of improvement or reveal inconsistencies in cattle quality.

Alison Van Eenennaam from the University of California at Davis, said developing more productive animals also carries an environmental benefit. More productive animals require less feed and less land. As well, they produce less methane gas and manure.

“We have been spectacularly successful, ” she said.

For example, in 1957 an average broiler chicken took 85 days to reach market weight compared to a modern chicken that is ready to go at 41 days.

Meanwhile, the dairy sector has used DNA markers in correlation with pedigrees to select animals with the most desirable qualities like genetic disease resistance, product quality and stayability.

The beef industry has not adopted the new science as quickly.

Part of the problem is linked to extensive crossbreeding and the smaller number of bulls across all breeds that have been genotyped when compared to the Holstein business.

“A lot has been accomplished and within breeds we are getting some accurate estimates. Data limitation is our main hindrance,” Van Eenennaam said.

Part of her research involves collecting information for three years from feedlot cattle sired by Charolais bulls. The resulting information included gender, polled or horned status, post weaning average daily gains, hot carcass weights, marbling, rib eye area and backfat thickness as well as treatment records for bovine respiratory disease.

Commercial producers want this kind of information, particularly when it comes to predicting marbling in beef.

However, the commercial sector should appreciate genetics can explain marbling 30 percent of the time, but the effects of management and the environment account for the remainder.

Producers are also interested in selecting animals that are feed efficient and fertile. These can be harder to assess and they are currently expensive to monitor.

In addition, collaboration and sharing of information across breeds and countries needs to be improved, she said.

In some countries, genetic information is treated as proprietary, while others share it publicly without qualms.

“We will need millions of records to give us accurate predictions in crossbred cattle,” she said.

Van Eenennaam said breed organizations that take advantage of the declining costs in genotyping and use that information to improve their herd characteristics will be best situated to reap the benefits.

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