A nutritionist talks about genomics

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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.

While new applications of DNA technology may be right around the corner, much of the beef industry is currently struggling to manage through the dwindling feed supplies. It is no secret that hay stocks are at record lows and as you read this many of you are a few weeks away from pasture turnout. A striking example of this came from the ISU McNay research farm where the last of the “emergency supply” of small square bales were brought out of storage this month. Some of this hay was greater than 10 years old. This may be an extreme example, but similar stories are being told across the region. We encourage you to sample and test feeds that may be questionable in quality and supplement them appropriately. Also, try to avoid the temptation of turning out cattle on pasture before there is at least 3-4 inches of growth. This will aid in the recovery of pastures that may need some healing from last summer’s dry conditions. ISU Forage agronomist Dr. Steve Barnhart discussed this and other pasture recovery topics in the March issue of our online newsletter “Growing Beef.” You can find the archives of past issues and a subscription link on the Iowa Beef Center website. If you have specific questions about forage, pasture or grazing management your regional ISU Extension Beef and Agronomy specialists are here to help.

April is the time of year when IBC staff begins the process of planning programs for the upcoming year, and take time to learn more about the current state of the art in beef systems management. What in your beef business keeps you up at night? What would make you more successful in reaching your goals? We invite you to contact us to let us know what areas you need to know more about.

One of my goals in writing this column this month was to not mention the weather.I’m not sure how successful this has been as crop conditions will continue to be the gorilla in the room.Recovery from the lingering effects of the drought of 2012 and prospects for the feed supply and availability for 2013 remain issues that we will constantly monitor throughout the growing season.

Source: Dan Loy


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