May 8, 2009
COMMENTS Better and faster


Twenty-five years ago when the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) only attracted about 60 folks, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) were the hot topic of the time. Two weeks ago, BIF held their annual meeting in Sacramento, CA, in conjunction with the California Beef Cattle Improvement Association and gathered more than 450 people.

This time, the major topics of concern were DNA and genome mapping. Most of the debate was about accuracy levels and needing more tests to properly evaluate beef cattle sires. Again, the dairy industry is out in front on the DNA issue and already utilizing the information for sire selection.

At this point, it seems that DNA testing is focused around finding those seedstock sires that have known genetic defects, which has been a hot topic in purebred circles, and is a simple way to sort the good ones out. In the future, DNA testing may be a vital tool in determining if a sire has a much wider variety of un-measured economic traits like disease resistance The genetic researchers at the meeting were telling us that they need to test at least 7,000 sires in order to benchmark a certain trait. And at that level, they will only be about 50 percent accurate. They think they can double the rate of genetic improvement with the DNA testing in the next few years. However, it appears that they have a long way to go before DNA will become a common tool for trait selection by commercial producers.

The amount of data that these guys are working with is overwhelming. They talk about a 50K card, which is 50,000 pieces of DNA data on one animal. They were telling us that these DNA markers have relationships going back nearly to the beginning of the breed itself. Boy, that could have settled some problems years ago. These researchers seem to think the DNA markets will eventually replace the current EPD system we now use for genetic selection. Again, that could be a long way off. Their biggest problem is needing more individual samples to increase accuracy levels and, of course, money to do it. Can you imagine the amount of data they will be required to manage? One of the speakers said some traits are controlled by single genes, like the abnormal genes that are causing much concern. Many tests for those genes are already in use. However, they say most economically important traits are controlled by groups of genes which are also influenced by environment. All of the data will be compiled and used to calculate a Molecular Breeding Value. And you thought EPDs were confusing. These guys were even talking about tests that would include 500,000 pieces of genomic data. Seems to me, the hard part of using DNA for the selection of traits, such as feed conversion, tenderness or marbling, is to boil the information down to a simple usable format to allow producers to select desired traits. It would also seem that the AI companies would actively use the DNA markers to guarantee that a certain bull is free of any genetic defects. Genetic selection could then be done with less risk. Seedstock producers seem to be all about taking genetic risks to produce the outliers that generally sell for big money.

We’ve got a ways to go before we get a handle on all this genetic data and it’s hard to tell how long it will take just to get the basic traits nailed down. However, one researcher told me that the genomic mapping technology is moving rapidly.

He said it’s kind of like the computer business was, doubling in capacity every nine months. Most seedstock producers I visited with said there is nothing they can use now, except for finding those abnormal genetics. I would have to say most were cautiously optimistic that at some point the genomic mapping will help them produce more efficient cattle.

Many seedstock producers also said they had a problem with the accuracy of the information and that at some point the DNA data would have to support the ends and vice versa. I was told by one producer that it’s just another tool in our genetic tool box. Most don’t think it will ever replace the EPD system. — PETE CROW