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Genetic tools can help with breeding decisions

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When thinking about replacement heifers, producers should start with the bulls that are going to produce the replacements. Genomic EPDs can help make more efficent choices when picking bulls for a set of cows. Genomic results are a way to enhance predictability of current selection tools, to achieve more accuracy on EPDs for younger animals, and to characterize genetics for traits where it's difficult to measure the animal’s own performance for the trait, such as carcass traits in breeding stock or maternal traits in bulls. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

In an ideal world, all cattle would be perfect. In the real world, most cattle are far from it. Farmers and ranchers do their best to pick the best bulls and cows to have the most ideal offspring to meet their needs.

Breed associations are working to give their members tools to make the most of their matings. Genomic EPDs are one such tool. According to the American Angus Association, with investment in genomic technology, this means that in addition to the pedigree, performance and progeny information that are used in the calculation and reporting of Angus EPDs, genomic test results have also been incorporated into the expected progeny difference.

Kent Andersen, associate director for global services with Zoetis, said work between Zoetis, the American Angus Association and Certified Angus Beef has resulted in several programs to help with genetic selection. For example, when thinking about replacement heifers, producers should start with the bulls that are going to produce the replacements.

The Angus Association said genomic results are a way to enhance predictability of current selection tools, to achieve more accuracy on EPDs for younger animals and to characterize genetics for traits where it’s difficult to measure the animal’s own performance for the trait, such as carcass traits in breeding stock or maternal traits in bulls.

Andersen agrees.

“The shortcoming of the information we have available on bulls is that as good as EPDs that are based on pedigree and own performance, bulls that don’t yet have any offspring into the system still don’t have very high accuracy,” he said.

EPDs have served cattle producers extremely well, according to Andersen.

“They’re by all means the tool to use to make your bull-buying decisions, but (at) the same time the young, non-parent bull has relatively low accuracy,” he said. “The other thing about the young bull is often times we don’t have them evaluated for the full complement of traits.”

The DNA marker information is helping to jumpstart the accuracy on young cattle and that is especially important in bulls.

“So in addition to the animals pedigree information, which is verified through the markers, we know the pedigree is right and the individuals own performance,” Andersen said. “We’re just trying to jump start the accuracy of the EPDs and the indexes by virtue of having marker information on board.”

The authenticated and verified pedigree helps evaluate the increase in accuracy.

“So it’s like buying a bull with a few daughters already in production. Some fed cattle that have already gone through the feedyard—that performance contributing and with carcass information contributed,” he said. “So when you’re buying a bull with the genomic enhanced EPDs it’s like buying a bull that already has initial progeny proof.”

With traits like maternal complex, some take a long time and are often hard to measure, according to Andersen.

“The maternal half of pregnancy is related to growth and lowly inheritable,” he said. “So if we can know in advance an idea of the daughters and their productivity and the bulls their going to produce, I think we can be more efficient in our replacement heifer enterprises by virtue of selecting genetically superior bulls based on genomic enhanced EPDs for those maternal traits.”

Andersen often gets asked how “this stuff” really works.

“In simple cowboy terms, all we’re really doing is we’re using a marker to flag a piece of the chromosome or a piece of the DNA,” Andersen said. “We know that an animal inherited that chunk of chromosome, by virtue of this marker, and that chromosome came from the dam’s side of the pedigree down here in the sire’s side of the pedigree here, and back to this grandparent. Using our historic performance records we’re able to figure out what that piece of chromosome means and the way it transmits genetic merit or traits like weaning weights or carcass weight and marbling.”

Andersen said producers are better able to know what different animals actually inherit so the accuracy can be jumpstarted. So, if a producer is aiming to sell heifer bulls, that will likely produce easy calving progeny, they can have a little prediction on their side.

“We’re going to be able to do that a little bit better by virtue of knowing whether this bull got a good or bad sample of genes for calving ease,” he said. “If we’re buying bulls for the maternal complex of traits, by virtue of knowing a little more about what that bull actually possesses genetically, and have to transmit we can do a little better job of describing them.”


Andersen said Zoetis has paired with the American Angus Association on a couple tools for producers—GeneMax Focus and GeneMax Advantage.

GeneMax Focus is intended for use in prospective commercial Angus replacement females, cows or feeder cattle, while GeneMax Advantage is intended for use in prospective commercial Angus replacement heifers or cows.

Gene Max Focus test features include:

Genomic predictions for feedlot gain (GMX Gain), carcass quality grade (GMX Marbling) and combined genetic merit for gain and grade (GMX Score).

Optional sire assignment (if candidate Angus sires have been tested with Zoetis HD 50K).

GeneMax Advantage test features include:

Three multi‐trait economic indexes expressed as simple to use Advantage scores:

Cow Advantage scores focus on maternal traits and rank females for net return from the heifer development/breeding to progeny weaning phase of production. Both revenue from the sale of weaned calves and costs associated with milk and cow size are included in Cow Advantage scores.

Feeder Advantage scores zero‐in on genetics transmitted from tested females to offspring for net returns from feedlot (growth and feed efficiency) and carcass merit, assuming animals are marketed on a Certified Angus Beef grid (similar to GeneMax Focus).

Total Advantage scores rank females for net returns across the complete supply chain (combined Cow and Feeder Advantage), essentially from heifer development prior to first conception to CAB carcasses from progeny.

“This product and tools that are emerging, allow us to hopefully be able to evaluate those things in the unseen world that really contribute to net profit,” Andersen said. “They’ll contribute to both the cost associated with production, be it due to cow size and milk or dry matter intake as well as the revenue associated with production.”

The tools, Andersen said, have been designed to be simple and easy to use for commercial producers. The GeneMax Advantage is aimed at 3/4 blood or higher black Angus females.

“Ideally it’d be perfectly suited for those that are out of registered and transferred and DNA tested black angus sire and then out of a black cow that’s at least 50 percent Angus,” he said. “Obviously the more Angus the better, as relative to the accuracy of this product.”

This has an advantage to the producer who’s been buying bulls based on a prescribed set of EPDs and thus, the bulls are pretty closely related.

“If you’ve been stacking pedigrees, it’s knowledgeable to know which bull produced which heifer, so as to when you breed those through out their lifetime, you can minimize the inbreeding,” he said. “So there’s some benefit there.”

GeneMax Advantage has advantage scores—indexes where the genetic differences are married with the economics.

“We’ve created a cow advantage score that ranks them for net profit through the weaning of calves,” he said. “That includes heifer pregnancy. It’s calving ease total maternal, weaning weight, milk and cow size. So we use both cow weight and height in the Cornell model to estimate the costs associated with keeping a cow around—of different size of milk combinations.”

Those traits are used to rank the animals for cow advantage. It also includes a feeder advantage score, which takes up where the cow advantage leaves off. Feeder advantage includes: post-weaning gain, dry matter intake, carcass, yield grade, quality grade. They can later be marketed with Certified Angus Beef carcass input, and it weights the quality grade appropriately. The total advantage score accounts for all of the traits.

“Conception to CAB carcass,” Andersen said.

Cow Advantage takes care of all the available female traits, and the feeder advantage takes up where the advantage leaves off.

“When we do the math, this is how the relative emphasis turns out if you’re to select for total advantage score,” Andersen said. “About equal parts maternal complex of traits versus the growth and efficiency traits, and about a fifth of the pie is for carcass merit.”

If a producer was to retain ownership, a tool like this could help a producer develop a balanced set of selection criteria for his animals across the combination of traits.

“We also know that relative to picking the best females, we need to have them stay in bounds for certain things,” he said.

Often a producer is tempted to keep a big, visually stout heifer only for her to get too big and/or not produce the best calves.

“We’re attempting to give you a tool that enables you maybe to identify those that aren’t matched to your resources,” Andersen said. “The main one there for my money is the identification of cows that might be extremes for combination of calf size and milk.”

CAB has identified the outliers for animals for marbling because they know the low marbling ones guide them to what those animals are bred to in the future.

“To give them a better chance of producing a CAB carcass by breeding them to bulls that are strong in marbling and the top end of the spectrum if we know they’re the high end of the marbling spectrum, it gives us a little more flexibility in what we breed those to and still have a chance of making a CAB carcass,” Andersen said.

“It’s a real first attempt at producing a replacement heifer tool,” Andersen said. “We think it’s a precursor of other type tools to come from other breeds and for other breed crosses, and we’ve attempted to make it something that’s yielding information that’s simple and easy to use.”

Making smart decisions upfront with bulls that are purchased and replacement heifers that are kept can keep cattle producers going.

“If you’re keeping superior replacements, the heifer offspring out of those superior ones are also going to be better,” Andersen said. “So genetics is an investment that builds on itself. An investment that is additive over time if we’re making wise choices.”

And new technology can help in the breeding process.

“Any new technology is best used along with a whole integration of solutions, so if we can be of service in setting up synchronization and AI and animal health programs for you, all those things are important elements to success of the replacement enterprise,” Andersen said.

For more information about the genetic offerings from the American Angus Association, visit www.angus.org/AGI/default.aspx. For more information about GeneMax, visit www.zoetisus.com/products/animal-genetics/genemax.aspx.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or kscott@hpj.com.

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