Ranchers rely on genomic testing of DNA markers

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Ranchers using genomic testing say DNA markers are helping to take the guesswork out of deciding which bulls to breed to which cows.

Genetic tests have revealed that breeding the biggest and best-looking cows do not always produce the best-performing calves.

“The genomic testing can save you about 15 years’ worth of grief,” said Steve Herbst, manager of Nelson Angus Ranch east of Salmon. “It provides solid information to breed the traits you want to develop in your herd.”

In 2015, he began using tests provided by Zoetis, formerly Pfizer Animal Health. The company’s product, High Density 50K, offers percentile ranks of traits based on a tested population of more than 50,000 registered Black Angus cattle.

It provides percentile ranks for 19 traits called genomic enhanced expected progeny differences (GE-EPDs) including a calf’s birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, ribeye area, marbling and other critical information.

For young bulls and heifers with limited or no progeny, the tests help ranchers predict what they will produce. HD 50K provides information equivalent to each tested animal having about a dozen progeny, depending on the trait.

To learn about an animal’s genetics, Herbst sends hair follicles to a lab.

“We test about 150 bulls every year,” Herbst said. “It provides us with the knowledge we need to make the best decisions and provide ideal breeding stock. Ultimately, we’re producing better beef for consumers.”

Nelson Angus provides livestock for the commercial beef production market.

On March 17, the ranch will sell bulls, yearling heifers and cow/calf pairs. A catalog will provide genetic profiles to help buyers pick the animals with the characteristics they want to cultivate in their herd.

Herbst advises ranchers to use seedstock that has been tested, “so you can benefit from the predictability. You know what you’re bringing on to your ranch.”

He said the tests have become more affordable since they were first introduced. “They’re $37 instead of $70 an animal.”

To ranch owner Clyde Nelson, 85, the tests and other breeding technology are worthwhile investments. He has always been an innovator when dealing with new breeding technology.

“The only way to advance anything is to take a little risk,” Nelson said. “We’re willing to take a risk because the knowledge gained gives us a jump-start in the art of breeding cattle.”

In 1983, his ranch was the first in the western U.S. to have a calf born from frozen embryos. A decade later, in 1993, the ranch had the first cloned Angus calf born in the United States.

Nelson is still involved in the ranch.

“I still get around and see what’s going on and what practices Steve is putting to work,” Nelson said. “He’ll ask me for advice, and I’ll give it because after all, it’s free.”

The HD 50K testing program resulted from a partnership between Zoetis and Angus Genetics Inc. It was started on Black Angus cattle because such a vast database had already been compiled from breeders’ reports.

For decades, breeders have tracked calving ease, growth rates and other traits while striving to produce robust calves that are easy on cows at birth, are docile and gain weight quickly at feedlots.

HD 50K is also available for Red Angus. Zoetis also has a genetic test for commercial nonregistered heifers.

“From a genetic standpoint, these tests make life easier,” Herbst said. “The DNA test gives a lead and verifies what you’re doing.”

 

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