"A lot of what I do in cows, I learned in chickens," said Barry Cronic. That includes finding out as much as he can about the genetic makeup of his 250-cow, Angus-based commercial herd.
To that end, the Canon, Ga., cattleman has been performing GeneMax Focus testing for the last three years. A genomic test designed for commercial Angus heifers, it uses a DNA sample from a heifer to provide an estimate of how the animal ranks in the GeneMax database for gain and marbling. The $17 test, offered as a collaboration between Zoetis and Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI), also identifies the heifer's sire from Cronic's artificial insemination (AI), multi-sire breeding groups.
Cronic said testing lets him track females a little closer, seeing where the growth is and helping ensure he's breeding toward a good carcass.
"We'd like for our cows to be in the upper 20% of every trait except calving ease, and we want to be in the upper 50% for that. We're not there yet," Cronic said.
Understanding genetics is more than just an interest for Cronic, it is a big part of his day job as a complex manager for the House of Raeford/Columbia Farms, an integrated poultry operation. He's in charge of everything from the breeding hens to the hatchery to the harvest facility to sales. It all allows him to see firsthand just what genetic knowledge can do for the bottom line.
"We know the genome of the chicken really well. Our companies have invested a lot of money in learning and identifying that genome. We have great computer programs that interpret the data. Ten years ago broilers had a 24% white meat yield. Now it is 28.5%. We produce 7 million pounds [of chicken] a week. A 1% increase in yield back to live weight is $125,000 in profit a week," he said.
He uses that same eye for profits when evaluating carcass data on his steers. Although he hasn't retained ownership on them for the last five or six years, Cronic said the carcass data he gathered from the experience shows potential payback on the GeneMax Focus test.
"We never lost any money feeding," he said. "The last year we fed we only made $50 to $60 more a calf compared to what they would have brought selling them off the cow. The carcass premiums pulled us through. They brought in an additional $100 a head."
Cronic is quick to say there is more to the equation than a good carcass, and some of the traits aren't necessarily measured in genomic tests.
"That cow has to make a living on fescue and bermudagrass. If she doesn't have a calf and it doesn't grow fast and she doesn't breed back, it doesn't matter what kind of carcass she's got. She ain't going to make any money."
GENETICS AND ENVIRONMENT
Worland, Wyo., rancher Mike Healy has been using the $25 Igenity genomic test on his potential replacement heifers for five years. Developed by Neogen's GeneSeek operation, the profile lets Healy know how his Angus-Simmental commercial heifers rank in their potential to express and pass on traits like calving ease, stayability, average daily gain, feed efficiency, tenderness and marbling.
Recently, he did see a potential payback on marbling. Along with the genomic testing, he has also changed feedlots and rations and used high-marbling AI sires, making it difficult to say whether any single factor made the difference. But the packer paid 4 cents per pound over the market for his cattle, compared to the 2 to 2.5 cents per pound he has received in the past.
"Two or three years ago, we AI-bred to high-marbling Angus bulls. We could see the impact in the AI-sired steers and the DNA scores of their heifer mates," he said.
In 2014, he really hit a home run with the steers. Instead of the ranch's usual average of 70% Choice, overall, the steers averaged 92% Choice. Steer calves from 2-year-olds graded 96% Choice with 59% qualifying for Certified Angus Beef (CAB) or a comparable designation. Calves from the herd's three-year-olds graded 92% Choice with 53% qualifying for CAB or its equivalent.
SORT ON THE THIRDS
Jim Gibb, beef genomics territory manager for Neogen GeneSeek, said if a producer sorts his replacement heifers into a top and bottom third using Igenity Silver, the top third will typically be worth the equivalent of $250 a head more than the bottom third.
That is based on the impact of the heifer in the cow herd over a lifetime production of six calves. It comes out to a 10-to-one return on a $25 test, said Gibb. He added that conservative projected prices were used in the analysis for the next two to four years, rather than last year's higher prices.
"You want more cows that have more calves. You want fewer cows that have fertility or calving problems. That has the biggest impact on your bottom line. Improving feed efficiency and carcass traits provide added margin and can help you verify the merit of your cattle," he said.
Producers can speed their herds' genetic progress by combining heifer profiles with the use of bulls with genomic-enhanced, expected progeny differences (GE-EPDs).
Tonya Amen, genetic service director, AGI, agreed in today's environment, genomic tests do pay.
"With the cost of developing or purchasing replacement heifers, it makes sense not to waste money on heifers that aren't expected to perform. These tests are under $50, and in some cases under $20."
Along with GeneMax Focus ($17), Zoetis and AGI also offer GeneMax Advantage ($44). It ranks females for predicted net profit in heifer development, pregnancy, calving ease, milk production, growth and cow costs. In addition, the test provides an expected net return of feeder calf progeny due to transmitted genetics for post-weaning growth, feed efficiency, carcass weight and CAB carcass merit.
TRUE COST OF GENOMIC TESTS
Even with all the information offered, University of Nebraska beef genetics Extension specialist Matt Spangler said he isn't so sure genomic tests pay when selecting commercial heifers.
"Do your arithmetic. Figure out what proportion of heifer calves you're going to retain. After you get rid of those born too late or that didn't perform, are there enough heifers left to select from for it to be worth testing all of them?" he asked.
He said the expense of the test is based on all the heifers tested in a herd. So assuming a producer has 10 potential replacement heifers and will keep five, the test may be $20 each, but now it costs $40 for the five the producer kept. The ones he sells out of the herd are, in one viewpoint, lost money.
"The tests are designed to make decisions on which heifers to keep as replacements. If a test is going to be used, it should be used on all heifers born in a calf crop. That's why it could become more expensive than you first think.
"After you get rid of outliers, many commercial cattlemen don't have room for a lot of decisions."
Spangler said it's important producers don't see genomic tests as some sort of silver bullet.
"Just because a heifer ranks high on fertility based on a genomic test doesn't mean she is going to become pregnant. What we hope it means is she is superior to the other heifers relative to her genetic potential for fertility.
"You also have to make assumptions about the breed of heifers," he said. "Genomic tests are very sensitive to breed composition. Only a few tests are designed to be used in commercial cattle that are breed specific. Use a test that is designed to fit the breeds you have. In many cases, it does not exist."
The geneticist emphasizes producers need to realize that the bulls they use have a greater impact on their herd than heifers they keep. The majority of change is driven by sire selection. Commercial cattle producers can use genomics by purchasing bulls that have EPDs enhanced by genomics.
In Mike Healy's case, he by no means expects Igenity Silver to do all his heifer improvement and selection work. His culling is done in stages, giving him time to consider gains and fertility as well as genetics.
In 2014, for example, he weaned 650 spring-born replacement heifers and culled those down to 544 head on December 1. At that point he sent their DNA samples to Igenity for testing. Based on the results, he culled again in April 2015, taking the number down to 300 head. A third cull, based on an Igenity's weighted index took another 180 heifers out of the herd; 64 more were cut due to poor gains.
After breeding, heifers undergo one more selection, this time for fertility. Heifers are expected to breed in 30 days, including one timed AI breeding before the cleanup bulls are turned in. Those that don't get pregnant, normally only 10%, are culled after they are preg checked in August.
For more information:
American Angus Association/Angus Genetics Inc.: www.angus.org/AGI/default.aspx
Neogen's GeneSeek: www.neogen.com/genomics
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