Why DNA Testing?



June 1, 2012

Genomics – the great equalizer…

The hottest term in the cattle industry today is genomics. It is too bad that it is also the most misunderstood term in our cattle breeding vocabulary!

A quick look at what the dairy industry has done using genomic technology offers a preview of the great things that are yet ahead for the beef industry. Scientists from the Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory, Agriculture Research Service, USDA, Beltsville, Maryland say this about genomics in the dairy industry: “Implementation of genomic evaluation has caused profound changes in dairy cattle breeding. All young bulls bought by major artificial-insemination organizations now are selected based on these evaluations. Evaluation reliability can reach ~75% for yield traits, which is adequate for marketing semen of 2-yr-old bulls. Shortened generation interval from using genomic evaluations is the most important factor in increasing genetic improvement. Genomic evaluations are based on 42,503 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) genotyped with technology that became available in 2007. The first unofficial USDA genomic evaluations were released in 2008 and became official for Holsteins, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss in 2009. Evaluation accuracy has increased steadily from including additional bulls with genotypes and traditional evaluations (predictor animals). Some of that increase occurs automatically as young genotyped bulls receive a progeny test evaluation at 5 years of age. Cow contribution to evaluation accuracy is increased by reducing mean and variance of their evaluations so that they are similar to bull evaluations. Genomic evaluations have revolutionized dairy cattle breeding by greatly increasing accuracy of estimates of genetic merit for young animals and could double the rate of genetic progress."

While beef cattle breeders have always rationalized the slower genetic progress in beef cattle breeding as compared to dairy cattle breeding by saying “they only focus on and select for one trait - milk production,” the fact is that could not be further from the truth. Dairy cattle genomics has been instrumental in great genetic progress in the improvement of the fat content of milk used for cheese production, improving the structural soundness and longevity of producing dairy cows and most importantly, dramatic improvements in fertility that have shortened the interval between lactations. Beef producers acknowledge that the single largest economic factor in profitable beef production is reproduction, but we have made meager progress towards improving it using our primitive means of selection when we are compared to our brothers that are breeding dairy cattle.

With this foundation of fact, why isn't every beef cattle breeder using genomic technology to speed up their genetic progress? The most commonly given answer to this question is “it's too expensive.” With the Pfizer HD50K test priced at $139 per sample processed, there is a degree of sticker shock when one first considers implementing broad spectrum DNA testing. A closer look at the true economics of genomic testing can open eyes.

Included in that $139 cost is parentage verification which is a cost of $19 per animal if one does only parentage verification. Several different analyses of the American Angus Association database have shown that even in the best of programs with excellent records systems, parentage errors occur and all serious seedstock producers should parentage verify the breeding animals they produce to be certain they are drawing accurate conclusions and making accurate selection decisions. Very simply, that is why nearly all breed associations require that sires used for artificial insemination and dams used as embryo donors have DNA parentage verification before progeny they produce can be registered. If you have never done parentage verification and don't believe that you need to, test 100 head of the active animals in your herd and see what you learn.

For the traits that the American Angus Association has a large number of phenotypic records like birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, carcass weight, marbling score and rib eye area, the highly proven animals used to train the DNA markers for HD50K have generated a very reliable genomic prediction tool. Analysis of the impact of HD50K test results on genomic-enhanced EPD values show that a young animal tested in this manner has genomic-enhanced EPD values with the same level of accuracy as a proven animal with eight progeny records for birth weight, 16 progeny records for weaning weight, 20 progeny records for yearling weight, seven progeny records for carcass weight, nine progeny records for rib eye area in a harvested carcass and 12 progeny records for marbling score in a harvested carcass which translates to more than 30 progeny ultrasound records. For $100 of genomic testing, a breeder can skip what normally takes ten years of productive life or significant embryo transfer for most cows and three to four years for a sire that is extensively sampled as a yearling. Time is money!

The real beauty of genomics is that it levels the playing field for all producers - both large and small. A breeder with one animal can use genomic evaluation to compare that animal to the entire breeding population without the need for large contemporary group comparisons. Breeders that have spent a lifetime and considerable effort and expense in designing traditional data collection systems that have historically given them an advantage in both genetic progress and marketing are justifiably nervous. A popular line among those who fear this new advance in technology is “Genomics does the most for those who have contributed the least to the industry.” I am fairly certain that the stockmen breeding mules felt exactly the same way for the first few years that they watched Henry Ford's famous inventions chug down the street belching smoke and frightening horses and small children. We all know the outcome of that story…

At Three Trees Ranch, we have made the decision to embrace genomic technology and make it the foundation of our data collection, selection and mating systems. Every Angus bull that Three Trees Ranch offers for sale has been compared to the Angus population using HD50K testing. That is done to increase our confidence that a bull purchased from Three Trees Ranch will do what he was selected to do! All of the young Angus females that earn the right to be the dam of a new generation at Three Trees Ranch have been HD50K evaluated so that we can use their genomic-enhanced EPD values in combination with our personal evaluation of their fertility, udder quality, structural soundness and heat tolerance to continue creating the genetics that we believe fit the needs of the beef industry. As the other breeds in our genetic mix offer high density 50K genomic evaluation, we will use that technology to improve the accuracy of evaluation of our Brangus, Charolais and hybrid cattle. While Angus HD50K evaluation of our “Angus Plus” cattle that are 13/16 Angus and 3/16 Brahman is still less than scientifically perfect, we believe that it will allow us to accelerate genetic progress in our lines of superior carcass cattle with added levels of heat tolerance. Until either the Angus or Brangus breed association offers genomic-enhanced EPD values for these cattle that have great importance to the southern regions of our nation, we will present the raw HD50K percentile data that compares these “Angus Plus” cattle to the Angus population.


Dick Beck
General Manager

If you would like assistance with bull selections, please feel free to call any of these team members:

Dick Beck - (770) 846-0046 
Rob Singleton - (770) 862-0983
Clay Chapman - (706) 594-3813
Ryan Johnson - (770) 550-7548
Craig Smith - (770) 550-7546
John Painter - (770) 550-8031

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