Our Genomics Program

Our Genomics Program

2019 is the year that Black Star Angus fully embraces genomics. This year:

  • Every bull offered for sale on October 15th will have genomic enhanced EBVs and Sire Verified by DNA
  • Every female in our artificial breeding program will have genomic enhanced EBVs
  • Every calf born will be DNA sampled at birth and have genomic enhanced EBVs by the time they are weaned

What is Genomics?

Genomics is actually a pretty broad term referring to a range of technologies that provide information about an animal’s genetics by analysing and interpreting the animal’s DNA. In the seedstock industry, the term genomics is frequently used as shorthand for Genomic Prediction.

If you’d like more detail on DNA, genes and SNPs (written for cattle producers) then check out this Angus Australia article.

Genomic predictions are essentially a technology that:

  1. Analyses the DNA of an animal,
  2. Identifies genetic markers that we associate with various production traits,
  3. Uses the presence of those markers to predict of the genetic merit of the animal.

These predictions are then incorporated with any pedigree and performance information that has been recorded with Breedplan for an animal or its relatives to calculate EBVs of higher accuracy.

Selection Pressure

We started Black Star Angus in 2011. In the years that followed we had plenty of selection pressure that chose our replacement progeny for us. As a young establishing seedstock herd, getting type and structure right was the first priority. Then, like the rest of Angus breeders world-wide, there was the slow eradication of carriers of undesirable genetic conditions.

Eight years (of consistent breeding objective and discipline) later, selection pressure is more and more about Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). As such, we need our EBVs to be as accurate as possible to help us evaluate each new crop.

In previous years we’ve been more selective in our genotyping and typically only tested donors and standing sires. These animals were genotyped because the rules at Angus Australia stipulate that any donor and stud sire needs their DNA on file for parent verification. It was logical to pay a little extra for genotyping to enhance those animals EBV’s. While this approach was of some benefit, it meant we’d already made key selection decisions to multiply the genetics of particular animals without the benefit of comparing them thoroughly with the rest of their cohort.

What are the benefits of Genomic Enhanced EBVs?

Accuracy. Genomics increases accuracy and brings accuracy forward in time by giving us data to inform EBVs before the animal is able to give that data. Let me explain… When a calf is born and has data submitted to Breedplan, it gains a full set of EBV’s. Most of those EBVs are simply the average of the two parents. Gestation Length (if bred by AI), Birthweight and Calving Ease are the only EBV’s with performance data available from the animal at this time. Adding Genomic predictions to the mix at this time gives us more data specific to that calf for traits that won’t have performance data until much later in life. Genomic predictions collected at birth enable us to make timely decisions such as selling surplus breeders with calves at foot or castrating males.

Genomics also increases accuracy for hard to measure traits. For example Net Feed Intake generally only happens is specialist research feedlots for a very small subset of the Angus population.

Animals in Breedplan have high accuracy when they have lots of progeny data informing their EBVs. The extra accuracy that genomics gives us can be described in progeny equivalents.

Calving Ease Direct 14
Birth Weight 21
Milk 33
Docility 10
Scrotal Circumference 13
200 Day Weight 26
400 Day Weight 21
Mature Cow Weight 11
EMA 12

That means you can buy a (genotyped) yearling bull with EBV accuracy for birthweight that is equivalent to that bull having 21 calves already recorded in Breedplan.

Genomics is also a great way to increase accuracy in the absence of large contemporary groups. This is particularly important for those small cohorts of twins and ET calves – neither of which are ever evaluated with the rest of the animals in their mob.

Will Genomics replace Performance Recording?

If they want to, seedstock herds could choose to stop performance recording and rely only genomic predictions and pedigree. However, I think this approach is unlikely to be adopted at any significant level. Genomics needs performance data. It is underpinned by a reference population of performance recorded animals. In other words, we need performance data from previously genotyped animals so the analysis knows which markers (associated with specific production traits) to look for.

In the seedstock sector, genomics will simply establish itself as the third leg of data underpinning EBVs – the other two being performance data (of the individual), and pedigree (performance data of its relations).

Interestingly, there is now the opportunity for commercial Angus producers – who for the most part don’t performance record in Breedplan – to leverage genomics (without performance data and pedigree) to evaluate their cattle. Instead of selecting replacement heifers on visible attribute like weight, genomics can provide insight to commercial producers on invisible or hard to collect traits like calving ease, growth and carcase quality. I’ve written more about this opportunity previously here.

Genomics in 2030?

Dr Kent Anderson, noted US animal geneticist, spoke at this years Angus Australia conference and provided a few clues as to what the future might look like.

  • Even greater accuracy – expect to see the ‘progeny equivalents’ (see above) increase.
  • Reduction in generational interval as a result of a high level of accuracy available for unproven young bulls. This is happening already in the dairy industry.
  • An exciting bunch of new predictions for otherwise invisible and very hard to measure traits:
    • Health
    • Maternal Fitness/Adaptability
    • Bull Durability

Some of this stuff is closer than you think. There is already trial work underway by CSIRO in the sire benchmarking project to establish ImmuneDEX – an EBV that predicts Immune Competency in Angus cattle.

There’s a Beef Central summary of Kent’s talk available or if you’ve got a spare half hour, here’s the video.

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