Beef Improvement Federation

Genetic Progress Focuses on Health, Animal Welfare

Precision breeding for polled animals will be faster, and allow for more retained genetic diversity. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

This year's recent Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) meeting in Loveland, Colorado, included a Neogen International Genomics Symposium, highlighting genetic emphasis on endemic health and welfare issues in the livestock industry.

As part of that program, Mitch Abrahamsen, executive vice president of Recombinetics, outlined that company's approach to gene editing in agricultural as well as human medicine applications.

"For livestock, our initial focus is on animal welfare and health," Abrahamsen said. His company uses gene editing to express traits that naturally occur in a species, which in effect more efficiently delivers breed improvements.

The firm is focusing on costly, endemic health and welfare issues.

For example, Abrahamsen explained, some breeds of cattle do not grow horns (polled), while other breeds do. "Traditional breeding for the polled trait is inefficient and comes at a high productivity cost. Precision breeding with gene editing can do this faster, all while retaining genetic diversity."

Recombinetics has been working with Semex to introduce hornless genes into commercial dairy cattle. The work will reduce injury between animals caused by horns and eliminate the need for dehorning.

"The precision breeding technique makes small adjustments to an animal's genome. In this case, we make use of the natural repair function to replace the horned gene with a naturally occurring polled gene. This provides a direct and lifelong impact on animals' well-being and health," Abrahamsen said. Gene editing processes like TALEN and CRISPR-Cas 9 promise to quickly and precisely make these kinds of improvements.

These techniques are also bringing an end to surgical castrations of male piglets. Recombinetics and its commercial partners DNA Swine Genetics and Hendrix Genetics are working to bring the castration-free trait to market as a new tool for the pork industry.

The technology also holds promise to reduce porcine respiratory and reproduction syndrome (a virus whose last outbreak cost the industry over $650 million), and other threats to animal health. Enhanced swine genetics would enable pigs to stay healthy and prosper when exposed to a virus and pass that trait on to future litters.

He noted, gene editing will be useful in a wide variety of agricultural applications to help sustainably feed a hungry, growing world while bringing new benefits to human medical research on challenging health problems like cancer or inherited diseases.

Specific to the beef cattle industry, Matt Barten, founder and CEO of Embruon, addressed how genotyping of cattle embryos will speed seedstock herd improvement. His company uses DNA screening of cattle embryos from donor cows to help producers plan selection and breeding decisions before embryos are transferred to recip cows. Barten said the technology is derived from human reproductive medicine and added that his company had recently opened an in vitro fertilization clinic to go with its genetic screening of embryos.

Economic analysis Barten presented, compiled by a Kansas State University specialist, showed a moderate-sized cattle breeding operation could easily cut tens of thousands of dollars from expenses by pre-screening embryos. The savings come mainly from using a smaller herd of recip cows to achieve a producers' production goals. Embruon helps assess genetic merit before cattle are born.

Barten said that the economic analysis addresses cost savings but did not get into higher prices earned by selling groups of offspring with higher genetic merit.

"It stands to reason that when you are making decisions about which embryos to implant, you will choose to invest in developing those of higher genetic merit," he said. "Those bulls or females will be worth more at sale and thus can improve profit potential."

JR Tait, director of genetic product development at Neogen, outlined how that company's commercial beef DNA profiles are helping producers speed herd improvement. He described how Igenity gene markers work in crossbred and straightbred cattle with Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, Hereford, Limousin and Gelbvieh backgrounds. The company's gene markers are uniquely designed to work in mixed-breed cattle.

"This allows producers to use genomics to choose their best commercial heifers out of their high genetic potential bulls for cross-breeding programs that take advantage of heterosis. These practices work together well to speed herd improvement," he said.

Rounding out the conference was Stewart Bauck, vice president of genomics at Neogen. "The Beef Improvement Federation is 50 years old this year," Bauck said, noting that BIF unites academic, breed leaders and cattle producers to empower change.

Igenity was introduced to the beef market at the 2003 BIF conference, he recalled, and is now 15 years old, adding GeneSeek began operations as a university-related start up in 1998 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

"Who would have known 50 years ago that we could, for about $30, assay the blueprint of life on a practical scale for any cattle producer? Who would have guessed that we'd read the DNA of unborn bulls and pick the very best ones to raise? And now we look at ideas like gene editing, which give us precise, safe and natural tools to rapidly solve long standing challenges to animal health," he said.

"As we consider the advances of the last 50 years, and honor those who have made so many important contributions, it is very exciting to think about what will come next," Bauck said.


To read more about Matt Barten's work and Embruon, see an earlier article by Victoria G. Myers, Progressive Farmer Senior editor at this link:…