The dream of running a heifer up a crush somewhere in the Gulf country, pulling out some tail hair and within minutes, getting an accurate prediction on her fertility, is one that could soon be realised.
Developing a DNA test to predict the value of an animal’s genetics for fertility is the subject of research being undertaken by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, funded by MLA Donor Company, with investment matched by the federal government, and the University of Queensland.
McKinlay Brahman breeders, Rodger and Lorena Jefferis, based at Elrose, are among the producers supplying cattle for the Northern Genomics Project and say they’re excited by its prospects.
“Being able to get a prediction on which heifers we should keep and which ones we shouldn’t – I think that’s something,” Rodger said. “That guarantees our future, because there's suddenly a sort on the cattle, you're not running blindly and running extras.”
Rodger, a former president of the Australian Brahman Breeders Association, has been a long-time advocate of using modern techniques to advance the breed, citing the research into gene markers undertaken by the Beef CRC.
“We learnt a lot of world-beating stuff for cattle in general – it was in the days when MSA grading came in, and there was work on feed efficiency – the light was starting to come on as far as the advances that could be made in science,” he said.
UQ leading research
The current project is led by UQ Professor Ben Hayes.
He said 52 herds had so far contributed data, the majority of them in Queensland, ranging from the NSW border, through to central Queensland, up to the Gulf and the Cape, and over to the Northern Territory border.
“There are a couple of herds in the NT and one in Western Australia,” he said. “We’d like to broaden that but the challenge is that participants need to be control mating.”
He was confident of reaching the target of 30,000 heifers scanned “no trouble at all”, saying more than 12,000 had been ovary scanned in the year the project has been running to date.
The process involves having a vet do ovary scans to record whether heifers have cycled and gone through puberty.
“The ones who go through earlier are more likely to get a calf on the ground and be more profitable over their lifetime,” Dr Hayes said.
“Each of those heifers had 10 tail hairs taken – we extract the DNA from that and run it across a machine that takes a snapshot across the DNA.
“We use that and the ovary scan information to find the genes associated with early puberty.”
As to its reliability, Dr Hayes said that depended on the data set collected, adding that the project was the biggest study ever done in beef cattle for fertility.
It incorporates all breeds used in northern Australia, both pure Bos taurus and Bos indicus and composites.
Dr Hayes said making sure they captured all breeds represented in the north had been one of the selection criteria.
The project has a five-year life, three years of collecting data and another two crunching it.
“It’s fantastic how enthusiastic people are,” Dr Hayes said. “They’re going out of their way to muster their cattle in – I guess they feel the tools to address fertility issues are finally nearly there.”
Fertile ground for producers
The traditional practice for getting non-productive females out of cattle herds has been to identify them when they missed out on calving, which could take many months to realise.
Rodger Jefferis said it was chopping the tail off.
“I liken it a bit to – you're having a marathon from Blackall to Barcy and you wait to the last 50 and say, you're all too slow, instead of going to the first 10 and saying, we're going to breed from you.”
What he says the Northern Genomics Project is doing is finding the lead rather than waiting years to find the tail.
“You can get the non-productive cows out way early, when they've got milk teeth so they're good feeder prospects and they're not eating your grass for another couple of years,” he said.
He was part of a group of 25 or so producers, corporations and small private breeders alike, representing a variety of breeds, that took part in an update at the Jefferis’ McKinlay property, Elrose, in early October.
The project, which wants to test 30,000 females, is still looking for northern beef herds to participate in the research.
Herds can represent a range of breed compositions, including crossbred cattle, but producers need to: have a history of herd-recording using National Livestock Identification System tags; practise controlled mating; and be able to provide lines of about 100 heifers/cows that are consistently managed.
Collaborating producers will receive information about when heifers cycle, the fertility performance of their herd compared to other herds in their region and a head start into genomics-assisted breeding.
Mr Jefferis said it was extremely pleasing to see where the industry was going, after the kick in the guts that everyone got from the live export trade suspension.
“Anything that makes people more efficient and more productive and help us all stay ahead in the industry has got to be good,” he said.
“Fertility is critical in this part of the world where we all struggle.
“People up north are crying out for more calves – that's their livelihood.”
He expected the amount of relativity data generated by the genomics project would eventually provide other benefits in growth and carcase attributes.
“I said to the room full of people, all giving their time to do this extra recording, ovary scanning and rating for temperament, the industry is very indebted to people like yourselves because we're all going to benefit.
“It's not that long ago that people were sitting back and saying to hell with all that stuff.
“Now they're starting to say, what about us, we want to be in it. The light's really starting to come on.”