Capturing added value – and being paid for it – are options available to all producers, said Greg Gardiner, whose family operates Gardiner Angus Ranch in Clark County.
Genomic testing is one tool in the toolbox to help producers in the marketplace, he said.
“In today’s rapid genetic evolution, you can’t afford to be making mistakes,” the seedstock producer said.
Testing for genetic abnormalities such as curly calf is more widespread today. But testing for merit traits, while relatively new, is gaining ground, said Michael Gonda, an animal science professor at South Dakota State University who specializes in animal genetics. He added that the most notable growth of genomic testing is with seedstock producers.
And for those in the commercial cattle business who are shopping for bulls, genomic testing enables a better prediction of the animal’s genetic merit by adding to the accuracy of its expected progeny differences, or EPDs, he said.
A number of companies offer genomic testing. The available tests include marker panels of varying densities. One commonly reported panel is the 50K test that contains more than 50,000 DNA markers.
Subsets of genotypes from this panel are used to compute genetic predictions or molecular breeding values for a wide range of economically important traits, said Bob Weaber, Kansas State University Research and Extension cow/calf specialist.
An animal genotyped with a 50K assay means its genomic snapshot includes DNA markers at 50,000 locations across all of an animal’s chromosomes.
The use of lower-density tests with fewer markers is often more economically feasible for some seedstock and commercial producers, said Weaber. He noted the lower-density tests still can be used to predict the genotypes of a larger panel via a process called imputation.
In essence, said Weaber, “we use knowledge of the genotypes of other animals in the population and pedigree to fill in the gaps of a lower-density panel to produce a 50K equivalent genotype.”
Use of a low-density panel can still provide 96 to 97 percent of the genetic information of a full 50K genotype, but at a reduced cost.
Weaber estimated use of genomic testing by seedstock breeders has probably doubled in the past few years, especially by Angus breeders.
Documenting genetic merit is a common goal among seedstock breeders adopting genomics technology. As commercial producers delve into genomics, though, they need to carefully define the goals of the testing scheme and their operation, he said.
“The attributes that commercial producers sell in the marketing channel are a function of both genetics and management or environment,” Weaber said. “So understanding what the results of the genomic test will be used for help guide which test to use.”
For instance, if a commercial producer is documenting the carcass attributes and genetic potential of animals being sold into feedyards for beef production as a way to document and capture added value, then using a marker panel that focuses on those traits makes sense, Weaber said.
However, if the producer is trying to make a selection decision among replacement heifer candidates for retention in the herd, then a panel that includes predictions for differences in genetic potential for maternal traits makes more sense.
“At the end of the day, producers need to align their selection with their production goals and marketing endpoints,” he said.
Weaber encourages producers to write down their immediate and long-term goals. Focusing on herd rebuilding, resource limitations and retaining replacement heifers might need to be thought out.
Weaber noted that genomic testing to determine paternity could help commercial producers cull out problems in their herds, such as identifying bulls that don’t fit their needs. For example, if a producer is seeing more calving problems, paternity-testing calves to identify what bull sired the calf can determine what bull needs to be removed from the breeding pasture or from the operation altogether.
For commercial producers, the greatest value from genomic testing of seedstock is improvement in EPD accuracy, said Weaber. Commercial bull buyers can make more confident and reliable decisions based on the data.
However, he added, while genomics makes EPD data more reliable, it does not replace phenotypic record collection for commonly measured traits.
“The good news is, the genomic tools work pretty well and a lot of seedstock producers are embracing the technology,” he said, adding K-State even genotyped bulls and replacement heifers recently as part of the college’s selection criteria. “In the long run, commercial producers have more accurate predictions for genetic merit.”
And there are those who are taking advantage of premium brand programs, such as National Beef’s Certified Angus Beef or Cargill’s Sterling Silver – getting paid for quality meat, said Gonda.
For ranchers who sell their calves at weaning, it might not pencil to DNA-test their cattle because the ranchers wouldn’t necessarily see the end premium, he said, “but if you retain ownership from the feedlot, it makes sense to genetically select for your carcass.”
“There is a market for it,” he said.