Genetics: Today and Tomorrow

By Scott P. Greiner, Ph.D., Extension Animal Scientist, Livestock Update, VA Tech -At the current time, the beef cattle industry is equipped with more science-based tools for animal selection than ever before.
calendar icon 18 April 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

New tools such as DNA genotyping, coupled with enhancement of existing tools such as EPDs, allow cattle breeders to make informed decisions about the direction of their genetics. Most importantly, these tools create an opportunity to design genetics customized to meet the diverse needs of both producers and consumers. At no other time in the history of beef cattle breeding has there been as much information at our disposal to enhance our position among consumers, and at the same time produce cattle which are functional and profitable across many diverse production systems.

Modern Tools

Science has had a profound impact on cattle breeding. We have witnessed an evolution from adjusted weights and ratios to calculation of expected progeny differences, and now application of selection indexes and DNA genotyping. The principles established in collecting performance records many years ago continue to serve as the foundation of our current tools, and therefore we must not forget that the collection of performance records will continue to be vital to our success in this new age of science.

The ability to make dollar and sense decisions utilizing EPDs has been dramatically improved through the implementation of selection indexes. These tools enhance our ability to simultaneously select for favorable responses in multiple traits, and provide a systematic way to combine EPDs related to a common selection goal, and do so in a manner designed to capture the economic influence of each component trait. Additionally, they assist us in striking a logical balance among traits which may be antagonistic, yet important in reaching our goals. As an example, many breed associations provide a carcass value index EPD. These indexes provide a tool for striking a balance between carcass quality grade and yield grade component EPDs. The future will bring more tools such as these, as well as more advanced decision-making and support systems to compliment them.

The mapping of the bovine genome as well as that of other species holds tremendous promise for the future of cattle selection. The ability to select animals for specific gene combinations is a reality today for traits such as marbling and tenderness. The most exciting opportunities in this area are in the works, with scientists mining the genome for genetic clues which will enhance cattle health, measures of efficiency, reproduction, and other economically relevant traits. Most importantly perhaps, efforts are ongoing to incorporate the results of DNA tests into breed databases and include these results in calculation of EPDs. DNA tests hold tremendous promise when they can be used to enhance our current selection tools, and provide selection opportunities for traits that are difficult and/or very expensive to measure.

Opportunities for Producers

The large number of tools at our disposal to make educated decisions is perhaps both our biggest opportunity as well as challenge. New innovations add to the complexity of the decision-making process. Therefore, great opportunity is at hand for producers who communicate with other partners in the supply chain regarding their product offering, and use this communication to effectively enhance the profitability and sustainability of their customers and partners.

We have all been asked- “which is the best bull?” The response to this seemingly simple question cannot be painted with a broad brush, or in a manner which fits all needs. If we consider the question in the context “which is the right bull for my situation?” we are prompted to define the important parameters that warrant consideration. The collective focus should be on effective strategies that allow the right bull to be designed and identified.

Our industry is characterized by diversity in production environment, herd size, and consumer needs. Working to understand herd goals and needs, and designing genetics to fit these needs today and in the future are key. At the same time, one must keep abreast of changes coming in the dynamic, ever-changing global economy influencing agriculture.

Herd goals and objectives serve as the foundation for sire selection and provide guidance as to traits with the most economic relevance. A basic definition of the production and marketing system, along with management strategies and environment are key factors that warrant consideration. Within each of these considerations, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses will provide more details, with solid record-keeping strategies providing the necessary information from which to build decisions both today and for the future. Priorities should be established based on those factors which stand to have the largest impact on profitability. Performance is a function of both genetics and environment, and therefore compatibility of genetics to forage resources, feed quality and quantity, and management is key.

Our success as an industry is dependent on providing safe, nutritious, consistent products to consumers which are increasingly interested in the processes of the supply chain delivering the product to their plate (production practices, environment, animal care, animal nutrition and health, and others). Beef is a flexible product, with numerous attributes desired in the marketplace. Therefore, not all beef needs to be the same, yet must be produced with a viable target market driven by consumer expectations.

The Future and Beyond

In many ways we are in the midst of the most exciting times in the beef business. Never before has there been more opportunity to derive added value for producing a superior product throughout the supply chain. This is true for the seedstock supplier, cow-calf producer, stocker operator and backgrounder, feedyard operator, and processor. The opportunity to create value by communicating and working together has never been greater.

April 2008

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