Genomic Gains: Bringing value to seedstock and commercial herds

Using genomics technologies can help guide a balanced genetic game plan.

You look across the way and she catches your eye immediately. You've had your eye on her for a while now, but with the decision imminent, you can't help but notice – she's got "that look." She's structurally sound. She's calm in the pen and pasture. She's grown rapidly and early and has the body type you like in a cow. Decision made – she made the cut and is headed to the pen of replacements instead of the feedyard with the steers.

While the use of "eyeball selection" for replacement females has worked for generations and continues to be used on a majority of cow-calf operations across the country, the advancement of genomics technology is offering both seedstock and commercial producers new options when it comes to replacement heifer selection. New options that, according to Dr. Jared Decker, Assistant Professor and Beef Genetics Extension Specialist at the University of Missouri, allow commercial cattlemen to take less risk when making purchasing, selection and breeding decisions and have more confidence in that purchase. These technologies allow producers to put selection pressure on both the female and sire side of the pedigree as they strive to improve economically important traits.

In the following pages, we'll showcase how these tools can help guide selection strategies, improve cattle herds, and ultimately, enhance profitability.

It starts with the seedstock

Our first story begins near Kimball, Minn., at Schiefelbein Farms, a seedstock operation that not only sells bulls each year but also purchases approximately 25,000 head of their customers" calves annually to feed in their feedyard. "When genomics came along, we said we can't afford not to make the investment. If we can get the improvement of genetic predictions by making animals with accuracy levels of having 10, 15 or even 20 calves, we've got to do that service for our customers and for ourselves," Don Schiefelbein explains.

Beginning with replacement heifer candidates, Schiefelbein says their first goal was to make sure every mating counted. Schiefelbein's used the HD 50K, offered by Zoetis and Angus Genetics, Inc., to test all of the replacement females, which enabled them to zero in on the true genetic merit of their females and make informed breeding decisions for that female's entire lifetime.

The next step for Schiefelbein's was to use the HD 50K test on their bulls – a step that not only help them decide which bulls would go to their annual bull sale or to the feedyard but also provides additional assurances to their customers. "As we saw how powerful the genomic prediction was, we decided it made a lot of sense for our customers to have the best prediction possible for the bulls they're buying to ensure that when they decide they're going to buy a heifer bull, a cow bull or some categorical bull for some value proposal, that they've picked the right bull."

While it takes years, hundreds of offspring and an enormous amount of data to generate a traditional high accuracy EPD, DNA testing allows genomically-enhanced EPD's to be calculated more accurately for young, unproven sires. While the genomic-enhanced EPD will move higher or lower, genomics always improves the reliability of the EPD and can be used as a risk management tool for commercial producers when making bull or replacement female purchase decisions. "On the bull side, commercial producers like the idea of buying a bull with the rough equivalent of 14 daughters with information contributing to maternal traits, with 17 offspring with growth and feed efficiency data contributing to all the feedyard performance and mature size traits, and having roughly 10 offspring that already have carcass data. HD 50K enables seedstock producers to more dependably characterize their bulls," explains Kent Andersen, Zoetis associate director of animal genetics.

Some may call the $75 investment in the HD 50K test a leap of faith for seedstock producers since it's ultimately their customers who will benefit from the high-accuracy genomic information, but Schiefelbein says it's the opposite. "We have some of the best commercial cattlemen in the world who come to our place and purchase our genetics. If I can do anything to help them get a better prediction for that genetics package they're buying in our seedstock, that's a trade-off we'd make every day."

Commercial tools

The next chapter takes us to South Dakota and the ranch of Kevin Keckler, a commercial producer with about 325 Angus cows who has purchased bulls from Schiefelbein Farms since 2008. In 2014, Keckler decided to make use of a new strategy to help guide his replacement heifer selection decisions and help determine future bull needs.

Enter GeneMax Advantage, a new DNA test created by Angus Genetics Inc., Certified Angus Beef and Zoetis, for commercial Angus replacement females (75 percent and higher). Introduced to the market in 2014, the $44 per head GeneMax Advantage test was designed to provide commercial producers with an easy-to-use tool based on three comprehensive economic index scores, including Cow Advantage (based on heifer pregnancy, calving ease, weaning weight, milk, and cow size), Feeder Advantage (based on post-weaning gain, dry matter intake, carcass weight, yield grade and quality grade), and Total Advantage (a conception to CAB carcass value). The index scores range from 1 to 100, based on the economic impact of the underlying genetic predictions.

"We married up genomic predictions for individual traits with their economic impact to produce the index scores. Rather than bombard a commercial producer with information on 18 different traits and require a whole lot of work to figure out which animals were most likely to deliver the most net return, GeneMax Advantage can boil it down to just a few numbers that predict differences in profit due to genetic merit," Andersen explains.

In addition to the index scores, the test also provides commercial producers with "SMART Outliers" that identify heifers with genetic merit to be high cost (with regard to size and milk potential), to be difficult to handle relative to temperament and docility, and/or predisposed to tenderness or marbling issues. When producers receive the GeneMax Advantage results via a link to the AGI customer website, they can use a  dropdown menu to flag the outliers at varying levels to help further customized and guide their replacement selection decisions.

When Keckler pregnancy checked heifers, he also took tissue samples of 128 replacement candidates with a goal of keeping 50 to 55 of the top heifers. His goal was to keep heifers with a Total Advantage score of 65 and above.

"The results came back very good. The heifers were very good in the cow traits and better in the feeder traits than I expected. In selecting bulls, I thought I was picking an ‘all-around bull," and upon testing the heifers, it looked like everything was very good in the areas I was concentrating. It was a confirmation of the decisions I've been making for years," Keckler explains.

While the results were good and helped him better understand the quality of his cattle, they also provided him information about how to continually improve his herd. "The other thing the test did was show some of the cows that I thought would be the best, based on looks, were actually really low. Some that I kept were really high in the Cow Advantage but a little lower in the Feeder Advantage, but I can fix that with future bull selection decisions. There were probably 20 based on eye appeal and looks that I thought I would keep, but I've sold them because their numbers showed they're low in the traits I want to focus," he says.

Keckler will be DNA testing heifer replacements when he vaccinates them this year and says he intends to continue using the technology on his operation.

Bringing it full circle

This story ends where it started. As previously mentioned, Schiefelbein Farms buys back more than 25,000 calves from their customers each year. Genomics have not only driven the seedstock side of the operation, but now genomics are playing a bigger role in the cattle feeding operation. Not only can they help guide bull-buying decisions based on the needs of their customers (who have DNA-tested their females), but the genomics information also informs Schiefelbeins about the calves; then they buy them back in terms of feedyard and carcass performance predictions.

"Every bull we sell, we buy back those genetics times 20 or 25. It's incumbent upon us to make sure we do everything possible to make sure the genetics we're selling to our customers are packaged the right way because eventually those genetics come full circle back to us. And they've got to perform for us at a premium level," Schiefelbein explains. He says the one-two punch of using genomics information to guide both seedstock selection and heifer retention decision-making allows their customers to compete in the top of the industry.

Genomics today and beyond

While the Schiefelbein tale focuses on Angus-specific commercial DNA testing products, the use of genomics reaches far beyond the Angus herd (see sidebar). Decker says the price points for DNA tests, which range from about $17 to $85 based on the depth of the data, are getting to a point that commercial cattlemen can rapidly change the genetics of their operation or keep their genetics at an optimum level of production for their environment.

And with any new technology, as additional research is completed, new capabilities are made possible. For example, Decker says in the next year or two, we'll have genomic predictions for feed efficiency and tenderness. A little further down the road, he says predictions will be made available for pregnancy and embryonic loss (See The tale of the missing homozygotes on page 6), and possibly for disease resistance.

One thing Decker says he's watching for are predictions that would work in multiple breeds or crossbred animals. Current commercially-available tests require the breed to be included in the design and Decker says it's difficult to tell breeds apart at specific marker effects. He says as the technology advances it could be done so to better tell breeds apart at each of the individual gene effects.

Finally, regardless of the genetic merit, genetics are only half the equation and cow-calf producers, regardless of side or type of operation, have to take care of the basics. Schiefelbein says the fastest way to destroy genetic value is to mismanage the animals. Schiefelbeins have specific animal health protocols customers in the buy-back program must follow. Decker agrees, and says producers in Missouri's Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer program focus on keeping traits balanced, and getting the basics right as they adopt new technologies.

At the end of the day, genomic technologies are providing the beef industry with new tools to manage risk and ensure genetic merit of the animals in their herds. Keckler says the technology can enable commercial producers to better position themselves for the future in terms of what cattle buyers want. "I wouldn't hesitate to do it, and I'm not. I'm going to do it every year."