Applying genomic information or DNA testing to cattle selection is the latest in a long line of methods producers have used to improve the genetic features of livestock over centuries of production. And while the technology already has some practical applications, scientists have just scratched the surface of its overall potential.
The National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC) has published a white paper titled “Delivering Genomics Technology to the Beef Industry,” summarizing the history, challenges and future outlook for using genomic information toward genetic progress in beef cattle.
DNA tests and genomic technology currently have three types of uses in beef-cattle selection. The first of these is to verify parentage of individual cattle. The authors note that determination of parentage is a critical factor in estimating reliable EPDs. Utilizing genomics for parentage allows seedstock producers to manage multiple sire breeding pastures and settle AI/natural sire discrepancies when birth dates are inconclusive.
The next practical use of genomic information is to identify markers for qualitative traits, which are traits controlled by a single pair of genes that have simple recessive inheritance. These include traits such as coat color, horned/polled and a variety of genetic defects. The authors note that the technology has saved the industry countless dollars by helping identify and manage lethal recessive traits for defects in cattle without the need for aggressive culling or eliminating entire lines of cattle. .
The third and more complex application of genomic technology is to select cattle for quantitative traits, which are controlled by multiple pairs of genes and influenced by the environment. Several companies offer tests and calculate breeding values based on genomic information for a variety of traits. The authors say the likely best use of this information is to combine it with phenotypic information in a genetic evaluation to compute genomically enhanced EPDs. Research indicates the genetic markers used to predict molecular breeding values are breed specific. The American Angus Association was the first to augment their EPDs with genomic information, but several other breeds are making progress toward that application.
In addition to the ongoing challenge of building understanding and familiarity with genomics, economic factors create resistance to adoption of the technology. Today, seedstock producers are most likely to invest in genomic testing and use the information in selection. They use the information in their marketing programs, but most of the value of improved selection will be realized at later production stages such as in the cow-calf, feedyard or packing sectors. A commercial producer who pays more for bulls based in part on genomic ratings needs some assurance of capturing the value when they sell calves, for example. The authors suggest