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Using Genomics to Beef Up Meat Quality

When it comes to marketing a product or service, ensuring quality is like showering before a job interview: It won’t guarantee success, but it’s a pretty good start. It seems that many researchers agree, which is why enhancing meat quality – along with feed efficiency - forms the basis of a Genome Alberta project involving genomics and the beef cattle industry. And if quality is the end goal, gEPDs are the starting point.

“As the name suggests, EPDs or expected progeny differences are the expected differences in the performance of progeny based on their estimated genetic merit,” said Donagh Berry, Principal Investigator in Quantitative Genetics for Teagasc and adjunct professor at University College Cork in Ireland.

Dollars and per cents

Because the estimated genetic merit of a commercial animal is usually based solely on its parents, the maximum accuracy achievable for this estimate is 70%. Using gEPDs (genomically-enhanced EPDs), that number can be improved to as high as 100% by supplementing parental information with the DNA information of the animal itself.

Boosting accuracy through gEPDs has many benefits, and chief among them is the impact on meat quality.

“The main competitor of beef farmers is not other beef farmers or abattoirs; it is actually the white meat industry (i.e., poultry and swine),” said Berry.

Cooking up quality

“Consistently achieving excellent meat quality of beef steaks is difficult, especially since cooking greatly impacts the quality of the consumed product.”

In pursuit of excellent meat quality, various management strategies such as aging and hanging are imposed by processors, all of which incur a cost. The benefit of breeding is that it is cumulative and permanent, so the genetic merit of individuals today is the cumulative effect of historical breeding strategies.

“Because the cow must be served to produce a calf, why not simply supply a better bull? Breeding was often thought of as a slow process, but we now know from empirical data that breeding can achieve rapid gains in performance. Supplementing genetic evaluations with DNA information such as gEPDs is particularly beneficial for traits that are only expressed in one sex (e.g., milk yield in females), are under weak genetic control (e.g., fertility) or take a long time to properly measure and are costly to record in large numbers.”

Since the cost of acquiring data on meat quality is high, it’s a trait that can benefit greatly from genomics.

To that end, Berry and Teagasc - through a collaboration with industry - are embarking on a multi-million-euro project to generate the largest database globally on meat sensory data from genotyped beef cattle.

“A large database of recorded animals with DNA information is required to produce accurate gEPDs, but the cost of any one country doing so is massive.  Consequently, strong international collaboration is vital. Our goal is to generate accurate gEPDs for meat quality and, in the process, help satisfy the demands of consumers.”

In fact, gEPDs and the Genome Alberta research may offer satisfaction on a number of fronts.

Everything to gain

“We know that breeding accounts for at least half the gains in performance in most traits. In growing chickens, for example, up to 90% of the gains in feed efficiency in recent decades has been attributable to breeding. Genomics, or gEPDs, has the potential to accelerate these gains even further.”

Because selection will never be focused solely on a single trait, gains in meat quality will be realized within a framework that selects for more profitable, efficient and environmentally-friendly animals.

And like the pre-interview shower, gEPDs and the quality they produce may give the Canadian beef industry a clean break from the competition.

Using Genomics to Beef Up Meat Quality

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