Genetics of beef cattle vary by region across the United States. Those differences develop over time as beef herds evolve in local environments.
Jared Decker, University of Missouri Extension geneticist, will explore those DNA differences. From that, he says, better performances can be predicted.
Missouri herd owners who purchased heifers from the prairies of Montana saw that herd replacements didn't adapt to fescue pastures in the Ozarks.
By developing local profiles, Decker will predict performance challenges of moving cattle. That's a small part of his new research.
Decker and colleagues won a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find genetic differences among regions.
Cow herds selected over time in a region develop their own localized genetic adaptations. Those in Pacific states differ from cattle in Gulf states. Also, cattle of northern and southern Missouri differ genetically. The north is part of the Corn Belt. The Ozarks are part of the South, which stretches from Oklahoma to the Atlantic.
Cattle not adapted to their environment lose revenue for farmers. With new genomic data, producers can avoid producing animals that won't thrive in their environment, Decker said in his grant request.
Co-workers are Christopher Seabury, Texas A&M; Kristi Cammack, South Dakota State University; and Anna Ball, MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Columbia.
The USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) provides funding enacted in the 2008 farm bill. USDA calls AFRI its premier peer-review grant program.
The local adaptations go beyond heat stress, Decker said. Other trait differences include response to cold, humidity, altitude, parasites, water and feed intake.
Decker expects to find other local adaptations in the study. Of prime interest to Missouri and nearby states is tolerance to toxic tall fescue grass. A 1993 study showed fescue toxicosis cost U.S. producers $609 million yearly.
Producers in the Fescue Belt, where cattle are grazed on toxic tall fescue, see differences in hair shedding. That will be part of the study. Producers and extension specialists will help in that part of the research.
If an animal adapts to a region, it performs well. If not, the animal underperforms and is culled. That brings a loss of offspring.
Decker will start with genomic data available from eight cattle breed associations. The team will analyze the data in new ways.
Researchers bring new tools of statistical analysis to the problem. Decker, with a minor in statistics, provides leadership in this area.
The researchers anticipate looking at more than 10 million DNA variants.
Added computer assistance is required since the first cow genome was sequenced in 2009. Cost of genome sequencing dropped from $95 million per head to near $1,500 today.
New USDA integrated grants require scientists to not just discover but to extend their knowledge to farmers. The team will develop lesson plans for that.
Without that translation, beef producers lag in adopting technology now proven and available, Decker said.
Many Missouri producers learned through the Missouri Show-Me-Select Heifer program about EPDs (expected progeny differences). That improved calving ease and carcass quality. Both added value at replacement heifer sales and in USDA prime-grade carcass prices at packing plants.
Missouri leads the nation in use of timed artificial insemination. That allows breeding with the best sires from each breed. Now, EPDs are used in selecting sires. Bulls are bought for genetics, not just looks.
Next to come: regional EPDs to help breeders match genetics to environment.
Initial basic research on improved breeding came from the MU Thompson Farm, Spickard, Mo. That's a part of the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station. Work continues there by David Patterson, MU beef specialist. But he expanded his research to large ranches in the northern Great Plains and to Florida.
That stretches environmental difference on cattle breeding.