This column might be a little bit like your plumber doing your taxes, but bear with me. In the field of animal science we tend to specialize, especially in research, by discipline. These disciplines differ slightly from university to university, but the predominant disciplines are breeding and genetics, nutrition, reproduction, and meat science. Other disciplines related to these may be featured in an animal science department including physiology, growth and development, microbiology, and food science. I was trained primarily as a ruminant nutritionistand even though we specialize in research, as extension specialists we need to cover the all of these disciplines as they relate to beef production. So today, this nutritionist is going to share with you some exciting things happening in the field of animal genomics.
Iowa State University has a long history in the field of animal genetics, the study of single genes and their effects. Dr. Jay Lush is recognized as the father of modern animal breeding methods used for genetic selection. Dr. Richard Willham is recognized as the father of estimated progeny differences -- or EPDs -- in beef cattle. EPDs have revolutionized cattle selection over the past 30 years, contributing tothe improvements in productivity over that same time period.
Dr. Willham was recently interviewed for the “I am Angus” show on RFD-TV about these experiences. The interview is one of the IBC YouTube favorites and also is linked from our Facebook page. You can go directly to the video here. Many believe that genomics — the study of how all genetic material functions and interacts internally and externally — may be the next revolution in beef cattle science. The gene map opened the doors to the ability to associate traits in cattle with genetic tests of the DNA. Currently, genetic tests are available to evaluate cattle for common growth and carcass traits. For the most part these have been integrated into existing EPDs to complement them and improve their accuracy. Look for future tests that evaluate cattle for traits that are more difficult to measure and make progresstowards, like fertility and disease resistance.
However, some of the more exciting prospects for the use of genomic tools are just on the horizon. As the tests drop in cost and we learn more about the genes associated with different traits this opens the doors to using them as management tools. Nutritionists may sort cattle into marketing or management groups on the basis of information from a DNA test for example. Cattle might be sorted at market on the basis of their likelihood to produce a certain type of carcass or longevity in a breeding herd. We have much to learn to apply this technology, but the tools are becoming available and more affordable every day.