Genomics proving its worth for purebred cattle

Genomically enhanced selection is catching on with purebred producers, but crossbreds pose more of a challenge

Purebred cattle have a leg up on their crossbred cousins — at least as far as genomics is concerned.

“The purebred industries are the ones that are really using genomically enhanced selection indexes,” said Dawn Trautman, technology translator at Livestock Gentec.

“In the purebred industry, you can get validated markers a lot faster because you’re looking at this one population, and with crossbred animals, you don’t really have a reference population to look back at.

“In some ways, the rigour of crossbreeding is slowing down advancements.”

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Historically, livestock producers have selected for desirable traits through observation, which is “really useful” for animals such as poultry that have multiple offspring a year because breeding for desired traits can be rapid, said Trautman.

“But now with genomics, we can look under the skin of the animal, if you will, and that really helps speed up the process for animals like beef, where you only likely get one offspring per year and it takes three years sometimes to get from breeding to market.”

However, in diverse populations, like those of crossbred cattle, it’s more challenging to link genetic markers with measurable traits such as feed efficiency, fertility, meat quality, and temperament.

“(In purebred herds), you can actually tell 45 to 60 per cent of variation within a herd for feed efficiency,” she said. “It really depends on validating those markers before you can really see gains.”

Crossbred challenge

The level of validation in crossbred cattle is much lower, she said.

“If you have 20 per cent validation, it’s still good — it’s better than zero — but it’s not as good as above 50 per cent.”

But as genome sequencing becomes “a lot faster and a lot cheaper,” crossbred cattle producers will start to see those gains as well.

“As researchers are getting more information on the crossbred population, the crossbred producers can use that too,” said Trautman. “They already have hybrid vigour and heterosis, but now it can be even further improved upon.”

Along with that opportunity comes the challenge of “making sense of and validating the data.” One of the ways producers can do that is by keeping good records.

“If they’re tracking their animals and using a system like BIXS, where you can actually track your animals to slaughter, that can all go into the system to further validate these markers,” she said.

“If you’re really recording that information and using it to the best of your ability, it builds your own operation because it can help prevent single-trait selection and the problems that go along with that. You can look at a more comprehensive view.”

And while there may be some extra work and costs that go along with that level of record-keeping, producers need to think of it as “a future investment.”

“If they influence the genetic merit of an animal now, in five or 10 years, the profitability of the future animals is going to be greater,” said Trautman.

“Even if you only have seven per cent — quite low — heritability, it’s much better than zero.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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