Going Green

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

DNA Testing in Cattle

One of the newest technologies to be applied to livestock is DNA testing. Although still in its infancy, DNA testing shows promise of significant economic benefit to purebred and commercial cattle raisers and to cattle feeders.

Much excitement was generated in the 1990’s with the development of technologies to identify specific genetic markers from DNA samples. The rush to capitalize on the technology was a result of the promise of significant economic benefit to producers. It was anticipated that within a short period of time, livestock breeders would be able to select for specific genetic characteristics that would result in a uniform product with the highest possible value. To many, it appears that the technology has fizzled.

While the “splash” hasn’t been what was projected, the scientists have quietly and steadily been working to identify genetic markers for characteristics that are important to the production process. To date in cattle, markers have been identified for tenderness, fat thickness, yield grade, hot carcass weight, quality grade, marbling, and horned/polled. It also is possible to determine parentage.

The homemaker going to the grocery store to purchase meat doesn’t need to understand the effects this technology will have on her selection. She only wants to know that the product she chooses will be of the highest quality. That quality is determined by many of these genetic markers that are now identifiable.

Pure Bred cattle operations have selected for specific characteristics for many generations. Such selection has resulted in the evolution of cattle types from the short-legged, boxy type of the 1950’s to the tall, lean, higher yielding types we see today. One of the difficulties in making that transition though, is the time required for selecting, breeding, raising, and finally evaluating the resulting progeny for the desired characteristics. DNA testing technologies can significantly reduce that timeframe by allowing the breeder to identify the desirable and undesirable traits of an animal at a much earlier age.

Commercial cattle producers face a different set of problems. They often only know half of the information needed to make good decisions on selecting for specific characteristics to improve their calf crop. Typically, they know the mother of the calf, but because of range conditions, they often don’t know the calf’s sire. They don’t know which bulls are producing the greatest number of calves, and they don’t know which bulls are producing the calves with the characteristics that they are seeking to enhance. DNA testing can determine the parentage of the calf. This allows the rancher to eliminate those animals that are not producing and to retain breeding stock from the bulls producing the desired traits.

When you look at the value of genetic testing from the feedlot’s perspective, you are limited to working with the calf. The value of cattle marketed is often based on the uniformity of the pen of animals, the performance characteristics – such as feed efficiency – and if marketed on a value-based grid, the quality potential of the cattle. If such characteristics are known at the beginning of the feeding period, rations can be adjusted to achieve the greatest value potential of the pen of cattle based on their anticipated performance and quality grade characteristics. Feeding cattle that will grade choice at fewer days on feed results in a higher potential for profitable performance. On the other hand, some sets of cattle may have high genetic potential for tenderness and be a better fit for a branded product that focuses on lean but tender cuts of meat.

The potential of genetic testing in cattle is still in its infancy. However, that potential is enormous. Ultimately, the homemaker will determine the success of the technology. When the shopper can go to the meat case in the local grocery store and select a cut of beef for supper without worrying about how tender it will be, the industry will have scored a great success. Consistent quality products are what we are striving to achieve.

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