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Got my cattle DNA data report … now what?

John Paterson for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2017
DNA data report

You just got your DNA data back from the lab and now you’re wondering: How do I effectively use the report?

As a commercial producer, the main use of the information is to identify the best heifers and place selection pressure on the traits of fertility, stayability and calving ease.

However, if you’re selling feeders, your customers are more interested in average daily gain (ADG), feed intake, marbling, fat, tenderness and ribeye area.

The point is, after running DNA tests on a calf crop, management and marketing goals guide how to use the data to make present and future production decisions.

Steve Miller reports that using genomics creates many opportunities for beef cattle production. Miller, now with Angus Genetics Inc., went on to say that the benefits are faster genetic progress, increased selection accuracy, decreased generation interval and increased selection intensity.

Using DNA to predict progeny performance of a 9-month-old heifer saves a year or more in learning about her value as a replacement heifer. This saves a couple thousand dollars worth of time, energy and risk capital. This is even more true for a trait like stayability, which is a measure of six productive calving seasons.

Another productivity tool is parentage. Many producers use DNA parentage testing on their operations to measure bull performance when using multiple sires during the breeding season.

They may want to identify a “problem bull,” such as sires producing high birthweight or low weaning weight calves. It may help identify superior sires (bulls siring high weaning weight calves or calves with a high ADG) or to identify sires not breeding many cows (low number of cows settled).

To obtain these basic but important benefits in bull battery economics, it’s important to get DNA samples from all possible sires.

For typical production settings, genomic testing of replacement heifers provides key data on which heifers will be productive mother cows that raise quality calves. For commercial cattle producers, a common goal is selecting cows that breed back consistently while also producing docile, fast-gaining feeder calves.

Tom Brink, formerly with JBS in Greeley, Colorado, says if you are contemplating increasing the size of your cow herd, then “expand with marbling.”

Genomic testing allows you to identify heifers whose offspring have a greater chance of marbling in the feedlot. Brink, now with Red Angus, recommends making genetic decisions that will improve carcass quality while not sacrificing other traits to advance the cow herd.

Brink developed Top Dollar Angus with this idea in mind. This program uses a simple terminal index of DNA scores to recognize the value of feeders with high marbling potential, ribeye and strong ADG performance. Top Dollar then connects buyers and sellers of these cattle. As an interesting twist, the program uses DNA scores of sister heifers to qualify untested male sibling steers into the marketing grid.

In combination with selection indexes

The Top Dollar index is one example of how to make progress using selection indexes that score and rank cattle for ADG, ribeye and marbling.

Other examples show how these indexes can simplify selection. For example, a production index might include the traits of residual feed intake, ADG and marbling. A maternal index might focus on calving ease, stayability, docility and milk production. A balanced index would include a selection of both categories of traits.

So an index in this case would emphasize high conception and pregnancy success, combined with calf gain and docility scores. Additional advantages would include a short calving season, which enhances labor efficiency and marketing of uniform calf crops.

Each index can be tweaked to a herd’s specific situation and your marketing goals. Thus, the DNA report can help you make informed decisions about the optimum cow herd for your environmental conditions, as well as defining both sire and dam improvements to drive progress in a targeted market.

Using indexes can also overcome unanticipated outcomes. For example, many producers focus on birthweight EPD when buying a replacement bull. However, low birthweight calves tend to be smaller at weaning.

Instead, an index involving calving ease (a trait that includes birthweight) can be matched up with growth profiles can enhance heifer selection. This same data can be used to make a business case for buying a heifer bull that has genomic-enhanced EPDs for calving ease scores and feed conversion.

Putting selection pressure on feed efficiency, ADG and carcass composition will help you help your cattle-feeder customers. Or if you retain ownership of your cattle, you too could sort into more uniform feeding groups.

While reproductive performance of the cow herd is the highest priority, extra value and risk management can be realized by increasing selection pressure on traits affecting feed conversion and carcass quality. This practice can enhance profitability across production segments.

Genetic improvement results from selection of above-average candidates as parents of the next generation.

In a competitive market, above-average candidates would be those that improve consumer satisfaction through improved tenderness and marbling, purchase cost of high-quality animals, care of the environment in the production and welfare of the animals.

Using trait predictions for marbling, tenderness and ribeye area can contribute to the industry’s overall goal to improve the quality and consistency of the beef eating experience.

There are many ways to use DNA testing in cow-calf operations, and they are guided by the goals, management and breeding aims of the producer.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

John Paterson is also a professor emeritus from Montana State University with a Ph.D. in beef cattle nutrition.

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