Genetic progress in self-replacing beef herds generally moves quite slowly. Genomic products have the potential to speed up genetic gain by providing insight to the traits of future breeders that are otherwise invisible.
What is genomics?
Genomics is the study of the entire set of genes found in living things. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, all the information needed to build that organism. The main difference between genomics and genetics is that genetics may look at a single gene, but genomics looks at all genes and how they interact to influence growth and development of an organism.
Genomics has been used in the seedstock industry for many years. In the Angus world, it has been predominantly used to support Estimated Breeding Value (EBVs) by increasing the accuracy of trait predictions. It has historically relied on other data, namely the performance recording of the animals known relatives (pedigree).
How can genomics be used by commercial producers?
In late 2017, Angus Australia and Zoetis Animal Genetics launched a new product called HeiferSELECT. Previously, an Angus breeder would need to be performance recording their herd in Breedplan to utilise genomics. With HeiferSELECT, commercial breeders can now use genomics to learn more about their heifer progeny. Specifically, HeiferSELECT provides insight into 8 key traits that would otherwise be invisible to the producer. The eight traits are:
- Calving Ease Direct (CED)
- 200 Day Growth (200D)
- Milk (Milk)
- Mature Cow Weight (MCW)
- Carcase Weight (CW)
- Eye Muscle Area (EMA)
- Rib Fat (Rib fat)
- Intramuscular Fat (IMF)
In practice, the producer collects a DNA sample from his entire heifer drop. This can be a tail hair sample (the follicles are a good source of material) or with a tissue sample via an ear punch tissue sampling unit (TSU). Samples are sent to Zoetis via Angus Australia (other breeds will presumably adopt the technology in the future) along with tissue samples from the sires of the heifers. The sires must be registered Angus bulls so that their trait profile can increase the accuracy of the genomic predictions for the heifers. The producer also needs to be a member of Angus Australia.
Turnaround time will be 2-3 months so sampling at calf marking is a good option as DNA sampling tag sets (pre-labelled hair or TSU’s combined with matching management tag and NLIS tag) are available to decrease transcription errors.
Producers can then use the genomic predictions in combination with their other selection criteria such as weight, temperament and structure.
Impact on producers and the industry
The use of genomics to assist in selection decisions about future breeders has the potential to have a significant impact on the profitability of individual producers and more broadly maintain Australia’s position as a producer of premium beef products. At the individual producer level, improved profitability can be achieved by:
- Increased rate of genetic gain. In most commercial herds heifer selection (and the culling of old cows) is informed through subjective measurement only. This is likely to result in the premature culling of genetically superior females and the retention of inferior heifers.
- Lower rates of dystocia. Dystocia is the 4th most costly disease for Australian cattle producers at $97.8 million per year.
- Better performing animals. Efficient cattle that have good early weight gain are more profitable than poor doers.
- Higher value carcass traits. Producers have the potential to unlock new marketing avenues by being able to demonstrate the desirable carcass attributes of their herd. Producers also have the opportunity to be well positioned for the advent of value based marketing (VBM).
At an industry level, Australian product is under increasing pressure from competitors with lower processing costs and lower valued currencies. Given Australia exports more of its beef than we consume domestically, it is essential that we maintain our market position as a premium product. While competitors make inroads on traceability and quality assurance, eating quality provides our best opportunity to differentiate Australian product.
What about the bottom line?
The message producers most often hear is to minimise our cost of production. At $48.50 per test, most producers I talk to tend to balk at the cost. I’m hoping to get some validation work going to evaluate the return on investment in a number of different production systems, analysing the economic benefits described above. Watch this space.
I expect different producers will generate different returns from an investment into genomics. A producer who has minimal dystocia and has been investing in high IMF genetics for many years may not gain much. A producer with a particular problem to solve may achieve huge gains by being able to rapidly correct a particular trait in their herd whether that be calving ease, performance or carcass quality.
I’m really looking forward to finding out!