Challenges to Adopting Genomics in Beef Industry

GLOBAL - Genomics has fundamentally changed the dairy industry, and will eventually transform other livestock industries.
calendar icon 11 April 2013
clock icon 3 minute read

But when it comes to beef, “it’s more of a challenge to recognise benefits of genomics than some thought. Three years ago, I thought we’d be in a completely different place than we are today with beef genomics. I now understand why,” says Mike McMorris, General Manager at BIO.

Mr McMorris has been involved in the cattle industry for 25 years, including time as a beef genetics extension specialist. He is now the general manager at Beef Improvement Opportunities (BIO).

BIO staff have been doing traditional genetic evaluations on cross-bred cattle for 20 years. BIO staffers are also working with other stakeholders with the Genome Canada project to build a reference database.

They are also collecting DNA from bulls and calves to give seedstock producers early indications on traits such as tenderness and residual feed intake.

“And then they can use that, if they want to, (along with) additional pieces of information to decide which animals they will put on test this coming fall,” says Mr McMorris.

Barriers to adopting genomics in beef industry

Mr McMorris says the first beef panels were based on Angus genetics, which didn’t always work well for other breeds.

“The worst thing that can happen to something new that comes out is that you get some bad results.”

Genomics can help producers improve their beef herds more quickly than traditional genetic evaluations.

“But the problem in the beef industry is there isn’t a clear breeding objective. So what are you trying to change? In the dairy industry, the payment structure clearly identifies what you’re trying to change,” said Mr McMorris. The beef industry, on the other hand, is broken into different segments.

Genomic testing needs to be affordable and fit into existing genetic evaluations to start to move the industry where it wants to go, said Mr McMorris.

In Alberta, on-farm DNA testing has revealed bulls that aren’t siring any calves, despite appearing healthy and fertile. McMorris says genomic testing has also exposed errors on pedigrees, and cleaning up those errors may be one of the biggest benefits of the technology.

“And that’s not a knock on any breed or anybody. It’s just the reality for everybody,” said Mr McMorris.

Genetic evaluations can help cow-calf producers with things such as selecting mothers of replacement heifers or culling cows, when combined with other data. But producers need to collect other information, such as weight, to get any value out of genetic evaluations.

Ultimately, one benefit of genomic research may have little to do with science.

“One of the more interesting developments around genomics is the fact that it is forcing an industry that is absolutely known for its rugged independence…to actually start to have to work together,” said Mr McMorris.

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