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Genomics: How the beef industry can learn from dairy

Progressive Cattleman Staff Writer Jaclyn Krymowski Published on 24 August 2017
Tom Lawlor

Genomics is a technological wonder, not yet 10 years old and already influencing almost every single sire selection the dairy industry makes.

Not only has it improved animal dollar value and type traits, but it’s happened faster than generations past could have imagined.

The story of its success and impact is a mutual lesson for all breeders across the vast spectrum of livestock industries.

Dr. Tom Lawlor of Holstein USA addressed this idea in his seminar entitled “What the Beef Industry Can Learn about Genomics Use from Other Industries” at the 2017 Beef Improvement Federation Research Symposium and Convention June 1.

“I do want to emphasise how happy we are to have genomic information,” he said, “and to encourage the beef industry to go full steam ahead.”

Creating an industry of winners

The adoption of genomics moved almost as quickly as its impact – right from the get-go. “You can do some planning, but really … once genomics has come about, we’re adjusting, we’re adapting, we’re competing,” Lawlor said. “Some have won very, very well, and some have won just a little bit. There are no losers. What we have done is improved breeds and improved the dairy industry very fast.”

Lawlor noted the Net Merit Dollar per stud bull increases each year. For example, before genomics selections, the value steadily went up about $19 per year, every year. After utilizing genomics, the average young bull freshly coming into the field is substantially better than his predecessor. The daughters of these new sires are daily living proof of this with increased longevity, bulk tank value and milk output to their foredams.

Beyond the economic effect, genomics has extremely practical breeding applications. One USDA statistic Lawlor referenced is: One in five animals are expected to be a carrier of a genetic defect that will result in early embryonic loss.

“We’re (now) able to identify them quickly,” he said. “The key is if they’re at that type of (genotypic) frequency, we need to abandon our old way of thinking that if an animal is identified with an undesirable genetic condition, then you shouldn’t use them.”

Such animals no longer need to be culled; instead, their breeding is managed differently. Testing the offspring and selective breeding will decrease the gene frequency over time and enable breeders to keep desired traits while weeding out what’s harmful.

Traditionally low-heritable traits, such as health traits, saw very little change over time and weren’t major players in sire selection. “It’s these low-heritable traits we always found more challenging to improve,” Lawlor said. “Now if you look at those traits, they’re really improved.

Fertility is up, productive life is longer, dramatic improvement (on these traits).” He noted how quickly companies had enough confidence to specifically market sires for farms wanting this type of selection.

Genomics has also opened doors to certain profitability concepts becoming more commonplace in the dairy world. “Breed composition has become an important part of our (dairy) industry,” Lawlor stated. He compared genomics information as being similar to for people, noting how this tool can be extremely helpful to beef operations heavily crossbreeding.

In some cases, this has sparked debates on breed purity versus profitability. In an example, Lawlor noted the majority of top Net Merit Jersey sires for 2016 carried Holstein genetics. On the other hand, others encourage this practice for more profitable animals. Lawlor made an example of how many dairies are increasingly mating Angus sires to lower-end replacements for higher-market-valued calves.

The business and competition of genomics

How genomics puts money in the pockets of producers is what other industries really want to know. “We want to improve your farm, your company, your country,” Lawlor said. “That’s done in having something that’s better than your contemporaries.” Already, there’s a significant competitive and profitable difference growing between herds using genomics in their selection and those that do not. A point he advised the beef industry is: When genomics are adopted, things will change in competition.

In only eight years of existence, the genomics flipped A.I. and breeding practice and market. Formerly, seedstock producers provided the industry’s bulls. Genomics entered the scene, and the sire companies had the means to selectively breed their own animals and to use young unproven sires with great accuracy.

Lawlor referenced a Select Sires Holstein bull who, in less than eight years, is four generations company-bred. “We were looking all over the world looking for the best genetics, and everybody was doing something similar,” he said. “Now it really has changed.” A.I. companies compete against each other very closely and created a domestic market while pushing most dairies out of seedstock sales.

Lawlor advises genomics does create a lot of direct breed-to-breed competition.

The Holstein breed has especially set itself on top and is a leading genomics example. “It’s not that we’ve done a lot. It’s that we continue to do more and more and more. That’s what’s amazing,” he said, pointing to how Holsteins are currently worth $200 more profit per animal than Jerseys this year alone.

As each year goes by, the competitive gap grows. He highlighted this importance to cattlemen, as the spectrum of breeds used for beef is significantly broader than dairy. “(For this reason) I really do encourage all breeds to really get on genomics as fast as you can,” he said. “Because if you don’t, and the other guys do, it’s only a short time before the gap between your breed and their breed expands. So, by all means, raise that competence level from zero to one.”

A future in dairy and beef

As data is growing, the amount of data influences the accuracy of genomics and much more. Likewise, the spectrum of application to utilize this improvement is only growing. As more embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization work becomes more common, companies are working to identify traits for ovulation.

Other specific genotypes, such as milk protein types like A2A2, are also being heavily researched. Lawlor noted this same research could easily be applied to beef breeding, such as for genotypes that increase value-added products.

The widespread love of genomics, with all its challenges and rewards, has pretty much secured its place in the future. The beef industry has a unique advantage of being able to learn from another’s success and build upon an already established database of expected progeny differences, predicted transmitting abilities and more.

Lawlor does recommend to watch for bias, much of which genomics has already helped eliminate. Phenotypic data alone tends to underestimate an animal, and genotypic itself tends to overestimate; for this reason the single-step method is in favor. This method of genomic pre-selection uses both genotypic and genomic evaluations. “It’s recommended that’s the route you go in beef,” Lawlor said. “No question it has my endorsement.”  end mark

Jaclyn Krymowski
  • Jaclyn Krymowski

  • Editorial Intern
  • Progressive Cattleman