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Taking the Mystery out of Genomics

I gave my mom a hand feeding the cows yesterday and as we waited for the stragglers to arrive before rolling out grain, we started talking about genetics, and the pros and cons of bringing in another breed to the operation. The whole ordeal got me thinking, do most cow/calf producers know about the possibilities of genomics? Or understand the various ways to demonstrate genetic potential?

It wasn’t until this year, when I attended a rather unique bull sale, that I began to realize the growing impact genetic testing is having on cattle herds, beyond the parentage testing long associated with the purebred cattle industry.

While there, I had the opportunity to catch up with John Crowley, a geneticist I had interviewed the summer previous. At that time, Crowley told me that the genetic tools to identify certain traits weren’t necessarily feasible for cow-calf producers. At least not yet.

“Every day the cost of this technology is going down, that’s why the research is taking off so quickly.”

What I had the opportunity to hear about at that beef sale was something I should have highlighted more in our interview, and something Alison van Eenennaam, animal genomics and biotechnology cooperative extension specialist with UCDavis, alluded to in a scrum in February.

“Ideally, what you’d like to do is have very intensive measurements of your breeding animals,” van Eenennaam said. “And then, once you’ve made your genetic improvement that spreads down the process chain by natural mating.”

And to an extent, that ability exists now, when commercial producers invest in sires.

One such indicator, often offered alongside the sire’s own phenotypic observations, is its genetic value to parent a specific trait, or Expected Progeny Difference (EPD). EPDs are estimated based on a variety of factors, including heredity of a trait, its relation to other traits, the animal’s performance data, that of its relates and also, environmental conditions.

But, their potential in the industry doesn’t make them any less confusing. That’s why, when you look over the shoulder of the rancher sitting next to you at a bull sale, s/he’ll often have that bull’s specific birth weight and rate of gain circled, completely ignoring the hidden potential of all the other compiled data. And I’m no less guilty of ignoring complexities. When most winter days end with research about nutrient requirements, specific ailments or that exercise routine you’ve been holding off, it’s hard to read about something so abstract.

But there’s a solution to this confusion. I’ll take you back to an experience I had this summer. Wheat and barley breeding was always a complete mystery to me. I didn’t really understand the process. All I knew was that breeders put a lot of work into field trials, data and varietal approval submissions. Then I attended a field day that involved a workshop on plant breeding. They actually had us selectively pollinate and cover barley heads.. It was such an eye-opener. It made something so complex seem so real, and gave me all kinds of respect for the people involved in that line of work.

Perhaps we can follow suit in the livestock industry: translate numbers to actions. I’d love to stand alongside a scientist and see the process from waxing a calf (only partially kidding --- it's one way to submit DNA samples. Take a listen to the embedded interview above) to producing a SNP, from calculating EPDs of a specific animal to seeing the improvements made over using their phenotypic data alone.

It’s something I hope to explore and describe this winter. Mull it over. I know I will, as I’m out waiting for the stragglers.

Taking the Mystery out of Genomics

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