Genomics and DNA – Yes We Test
Every year, about the 2nd week-end in June, we vaccinate the cow herd. The timing usually matches two weeks since they were put to grass, which allows them to ‘get a little more solid’ when working behind them. For the last two years, we have also taken the opportunity to collect DNA hair samples for genomic testing. In 2010 we profiled our entire cow herd and a portion of our calf crop; leaving just our top 2011 calves (and any purchaseslast fall) to be done this year. Our testing is all done through Merial’s Igenity Profile.
We got started in genomic testing in large part due to my parents operation. Dad has been an advocate of DNA profiling for a number of years, and we have debated the merits of this new technology many times. The introduction of Igenity’s RFI test for feed efficiency in late 2008 was the tipping point. We always thought that Fleckvieh’s were highly efficient cattle, but outside of a complicated and expensive research trial, there was no way to quantify how much feed each animal consumed. Pasture is pasture, bunk space is bunk space – does a bossy cow who gets there first, eats her fill and goes and lays down eat more than another cow that might get there last, but eat all day? Which one needs less feed? Thanks to genomics, those animals with a genetic pre-disposition to be efficient, can
be readily identified.
In today’s world of volatile markets and razor thin margins, the best agricultural producers aren’t maximizing their revenue stream, they know their costs in order to maximize their efficiency: it isn’t the top line gross sales figure that matters – it is the cash left over at the end of the day that is important. This is an important distinction. (And a discussion topic that should merit a future post all to itself). That is why I think the RFI test has the most value when used in conjunction with Average Daily Gain. A highly efficient animal that doesn’t gain, may not be any better off than one who both eats and gains. The best of both worlds, are the animals that eat less but still put on the pounds.
From an industry supply chain perspective, in my mind, our business works like this: Purebred breeders supply genetically superior bulls to cow-calf operators, who in-turn multiply those genetics into calves that go to backgrounders or direct to the feedlot. If feed represents 85-90% of all expenses to feedlot operators, then they should be prepared to pay a premium for calves that can be documented to be highly feed efficient. This translates into higher returns for the cow-calf producer, and in theory higher bull prices. Even if revenues aren’t consistently higher, the efficiency gains on feed for each stakeholder should bump net returns.
I think the long term potential of being able to genetically reproduce more feed efficient cattle is tremendous – but at the same time, I don’t discount the importance of physical traits. It is often said that a beef cow doesn’t generate profit for her owner until she is 5 or 6 – the thought being, that with thin profit margins, the first several calves just make up for the costs of developing the cow in the first place. So if you aren’t going to make a profit off the first few calves, then the cow has to last long enough – that means sound feet and legs, a balanced udder, the ability to breed back every year, and a decent disposition – all traits that are difficult to evaluate from a DNA spreadsheet.
So, at the end of day, I think it is a balance between the two – recognize the importance and value of genomics and DNA testing, and utilize it in addition to the traditional methods of evaluating cattle. In a perfect world selecting for a combination of low feed requirements, high gain, while still maintaining a balance of strong maternal and physical traits will lead to superior breeding stock, an improved animal, and more money in everyone’s pocket. Genomic technology is new enough that it will certainly evolve over the years (and we are really pleased with the recent CSA research announcement), but we already feel it is an important part of our evaluation tool kit, and one we look forward to utilizing on an expanded basis in the future.