The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of genomically enhanced breeding values danced in their heads”
If this describes your house on Christmas Eve, you might be raising the next wave of genomics researchers. Meanwhile, present day researchers are using genomics to develop multi-trait value indices for improving carcass quality and feed efficiency in beef cattle. The Genome Alberta project is led by Dr. John Basarab, Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry.
As 2016 winds down, Dr. Basarab said things are looking up for the project on a few fronts.
“The goal is to improve the accuracy of genomically enhanced expected progeny differences (gEPDs) that would work well in crossbred cattle. It’s always a challenge as EPD values in the beef industry have largely only been produced for purebred cattle. When we start moving seed stock animals into commercial breeding herds those values are not as accurate.”
To address that shortfall, Dr. Paul Stothard – a co-investigator in this project – is annotating over 30 million genetic variances to determine which ones have a high probability of impacting carcass quality and feed efficiency. Those variances are placed on new DNA panels in hopes of achieving a better association between the variance and the traits of interest to this project.
Who’s your daddy?
One benefit to industry of improved accuracy relates to parentage/sire assignment.
“In a commercial herd, groups of bulls are put with many cows, so we don’t know the sire of a particular calf, which is very important for measurement of fertility and carcass traits,” said Dr. Basarab.
“If you can say ‘this sire produced this calf, from which a valuable carcass was obtained at the packer,’ there’s a lot of value in that.”
With the difference in carcass values ranging from $75-150 per animal, naming the daddy could help industry hit the mother lode.
Barking up the right family tree
Another branch of the project that has flourished this year is genomic breed composition. Proving that researchers DO have a sense of humor, Dr. Basarab refers to this as “ancestry.com for cows”.
“From the same DNA tests used for genotyping you can determine genomic breed composition of the progeny of the calf and dam. That allows you to do mate selection and pick the breed of bull that fits best with that group of cows to optimize heterozygosity (“heterozygous” describes a genotype consisting of two different alleles at a locus) or hybrid vigor.”
As Dr. Basarab explained, the more crossbred an animal is, the more hybrid vigor you will get in fertility, productivity and feed efficiency traits.
“If I take an 80 per cent Angus cow and mate it to an Angus bull, I won’t see much vigor. But if I mate that same cow with a Simmental bull I’ll see a lot more. In other words, the progeny performs better than the average of the two parents; for example, your son is taller than both you and your wife.”
Researchers are now working on a phone or website app to present this breeding information to commercial producers in a way that’s easy to understand and access.
Research & reality
Speaking of apps, it’s the application of their findings in the real world that excites Basarab and his team.
“We were surprised by the strong relationship between pedigree and genomic breed composition that allows us to calculate retained heterozygosity and calculate a vigor score. Our service providers who work with cow/calf producers are really enthused about this as it can make them more money and allow them to assess the amount of hybrid vigor in their herds.”
All of this doesn’t mean you should discourage your kids from dreaming about sugar plums on the night before Christmas; but if they can work in some thoughts of EPD values along the way, so much the better.