THE incorporation of frontier DNA technologies into evaluations of how an animal will breed is not only allowing for earlier and more accurate decisions but delivering genetic progress, for the first time, in certain traits in United States beef herds.
Prominent US geneticist Dr Dan Moser says genetic advances are finally being made in traits like dry matter intake and residual average daily gain as a measure of feed efficiency courtesy of the widespread adoption of genomics in Angus herds in his country.
“Traits that have been declining because they are so difficult to measure are now moving forward,” Dr Moser said.
Genomics was “transformative technology” in many ways - it was facilitating testing deeper into herds, allowing far more confidence in commercial genetics purchasing decisions and giving seedstock producers information on genetic merits in areas never thought possible, according to Dr Moser.
It was the tool of choice in the beef breeding game right now.
Still, he reiterated it was important to keep in perspective that genomics was just another piece in the jigsaw of estimated breeding values, known as expected progeny differences (EPDs) in the US.
It worked alongside pedigree, performance and progeny testing data.
The importance of phenotypes would never diminish, he said.
Dr Moser, president of Angus Genetics Inc (AGI) and director of performance programs for the American Angus Association, headquartered in Missouri, was a keynote speaker at this year’s Angus National Conference in Ballarat.
He oversees genetic evaluation programs, genomic testing services, business activities and member education efforts for AGI and the US Angus association.
AGI provides genetic evaluation services to other breeds as well, plus Canadian Angus breeders, and has four geneticists on the team.
In 2010 the American Angus Association was the first to incorporate genomics into their national cattle evaluation for production traits.
Genomics testing was the next in a long line of technologies and tools and would not be the end of the line, Dr Moser said.
“Angus breeders have adopted this technology more than other breeds in the US,” he said.
“Angus does about four to five times the amount of genotyping that all the other breeds do together.”
It was a big advantage to breeders, enabling the understanding of the value of young animals much earlier.
It meant seedstock producers were providing more accurate predictions to the commercial industry so they can be more confident in their purchasing decisions and how best to utilise genetics in their herd, Dr Moser said.
“It has also allowed us to make some predictions on traits that are difficult to characterise until animals are much older,” he said.
“We’d love to know what a sire’s genetic merit is for mature cow size because that is a big production cost but by the time a bull is old enough to have mature daughters those bulls are past their prime.
“So to make a genetic evaluation of a trait like that has real value.”
Genomics enhance EPDs, he said.
“What we are doing is taking all that information that breeders capture and making knowledge out of it in order to create the best tools possible to make decisions,” he said.
“It greatly accelerates the rate of genetic change by allowing us to evaluate more animals for more traits at early ages.”
Genomic-tested animals have similar accuracies to older animals with seven to 24 progeny born and measured, depending on the trait, according to Dr Moser.
Testing deeper into herds
As the cost of using the technology has come down and acceptance gone up, one development was breeders testing deeper into herds - all the bull offering, rather than just the top end, he explained.
“If you only test what you think is your top quarter, you will have some fallout,” he said.
“There will be bulls in what you perceive to be the bottom end that are actually better.
“This gives them the chance to move up in the sale order.”
With replacement heifers, it allows breeders to find donor cows earlier and use the information to make more complementary mating decisions.
One word of caution he issued: “Because genomics is new and exciting and you’ve spent money on it, there is a temptation to focus solely on the genomics result.
“Keep in mind the EPD that combines everything is the best tool,” he said.
The current use of genomically-enhanced EPDs in the US is a two-step process, whereby molecular breeding values are developed from archived test results and association data and then incorporated into an EPD calculation.
From next month, the US industry will shift to a single step methodology, which has been in the making for the past three years.
It will incorporate all the arms of the EPD simultaneously and is the path several Australian breeds are also taking.
Single step was even more accurate and had proven itself in the dairy Holstein sector and in poultry, he said.