Future of DNA testing is promising for beef industry

Technology seems to be constantly changing the way we work and just about everything else we do.

Whether that is good or bad is open for debate, but regardless of the outcome of such a debate, we probably will be dealing with technology changes at an accelerating pace for the forseeable future.

I believe that the advancements in technology used in livestock production have been instrumental in helping us as an industry be more efficient and more responsible with the use of our land and other resources.

One type of technology that is fairly recent to the cattle industry is the use of DNA testing. In some ways and in some people’s opinions, the practice of DNA testing still might be in its infancy compared to what we might be able to do in just a few years. Basically, with DNA testing, we are able to get information on what an animal’s production potential is without waiting two to four years for that animal’s progeny to be old enough to be performance-tested.

Another way to look at it is that a DNA test can dramatically increase EPD accuracies on a young bull or heifer that has not yet had any progeny. That, however, is breed specific, and not yet available for every breed. The dairy industry has a fairly comprehensive test available, and many beef breeds are focusing on creating a useful DNA test for genetic selection of various traits.

In the beef industry, DNA testing has been used mostly by seedstock producers, but there are some situations where it can fit into a commercial operation’s management strategy.

We have had some clients use this technology on commercial herds. One operation wanted to find out which of its Simmental bulls was homozygous black to know which bulls to put with its Hereford cows and increase the chances of getting all black calves.

Another farm was having some bigger birthweight calves and wanted to try to determine which clean-up bull they were coming from. So we collected DNA samples when we semen-tested the bulls and DNA samples from the calves. If all or most of the big-birthweight calves were sired by one bull, then that bull won’t get turned out with the heifers this year.

In addition to coat color and parentage, many other traits can be tested for, including growth, feed efficiency, carcass characteristics, tenderness, etc. One other important use of DNA testing is identifying carriers of genetic defects, and the elimination of these defects from the gene pool of that particular breed.

While I don’t feel that spending a lot of money on the newest fad just because it is new makes much sense, there does appear to be a great deal of promise in the use of DNA testing as it matures and becomes more relevant. I think DNA testing could be used in addition to, but not in place of, other well-proven performance testing processes. I would encourage you to remain informed about this technology or have someone who knows your operation help you determine whether it would be a good fit in your management strategy.