During the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants conference, experts from Angus Genetics, Inc., the University of Missouri and Zoetis updated veterinarians on genomic technologies and the use of genomic information in beef-cattle selection.

Zoetis technical services veterinarian Jason Osterstock outlined how veterinarians can provide a valuable service to clients by helping them adopt genomic technologies. He noted that veterinarians today typically provide comprehensive support to their clients, often including advice on performance technologies, nutrition, reproduction preventative medicine and marketing. As genomic tests and the information they provide become more powerful, advising clients in their use is a natural fit for the veterinarian, as genetic selection can influence performance, reproduction, health, marketing and overall profitability in cow-calf operations.

Prior to offering clients advice on genomic testing, Osterstock says veterinarians should identify those clients who stand to benefit. The value of DNA testing relies on an overall management system that allows cattle to reach their genetic potential. If sub-optimal health, nutrition or stockmanship practices limit performance in a herd, those issues need to be addressed before the client can benefit from genomic-enhanced selection.

Osterstock outlined a scale or “ladder” showing different levels of service a veterinarian could provide, beginning with the simplest and advancing to more complex and comprehensive services with greater potential for generating revenue for the practice. The first level, he says, is simply improving education and awareness by discussing genomics with clients and asking and answering questions. At the next level of technical services, the veterinarian could conduct sample collection and submission, earning revenue from billable time or from a per-sample fee with a margin over the cost, similar to what they might do for diagnostic testing.

At the next level – data management – the veterinarian could compile and maintain the genomic data from the testing laboratory. At the highest level of consulting, the veterinarian could manage and evaluate genomic data and breeding records, provide ongoing analysis applied to bull purchases, heifer selection and culling and develop overall herd-management and marketing plans incorporating genomic records. Some veterinarians, Osterstock says, include genomic testing and selection within a package of services including heifer development, phenotyping, estrus synchronization and overall reproductive management.

As veterinarians progress higher on this range of services, they can shift from a fee-for-service model toward an hourly fee model.

To begin, Osterstock suggests veterinarians simply talk with clients they believe could benefit, assessing their interest, level of knowledge and need for assistance. Next he says, the consultant and client should identify decisions that will be influenced by the testing, such as which heifers to keep or cull. Information is only valuable, he says, when it is tied to a decision. Veterinarians might consider setting up a trial run with a client as a way for both parties to gain experience.

Genomic information can enhance the accuracy of EPDs, particularly for traits that are either difficult and expensive to measure, such as individual feed efficiency, or traits that are measured late in an animal’s life, such as carcass traits or cow longevity. Depending on the trait, genomic-enhanced EPDs, or GE-EPDs, can provide accuracy on a young animal equivalent to what would be gained by collecting performance records on more than 20 of that animal’s progeny.  Applying GE-EPDs in heifer selection can significantly accelerate genetic progress and offers a good starting point for producers. Osterstock adds that some producers who test their replacement heifers use their average scores to help market their steers, as the steers, on average, will have similar genetic potential for economic traits important to buyers such as post-weaning growth, feed efficiency and carcass quality.

Osterstock says the cost-effectiveness of testing replacement heifers is optimized in herds where 45 to 55 percent of heifers will be retained for breeding, due to selection intensity and genetic progress versus the cost of testing, particularly the testing cost for heifers that are culled. If a producer plans to keep a smaller percentage of heifers, he suggests first culling deeper based on phenotype, then using genomic testing to assist in sorting those that passed the initial cut.