Two Midwest Extension specialists talk about how genomics are changing the beef industry

Genomics have allowed the dairy industry to make genetic improvements four times faster than it did 20 or 30 years ago, said Bob Weaber, a professor and Extension beef specialist at Kansas State University.

Now beef producers are seeing the value of genetic tools in their industry, Weaber said.

“We are still kind of in the early adopter stage,” he said.

The beef industry has become more transparent, Weaber said. Genomic testing and tools have allowed for more genetic and performance information to flow through the industry than ever before.

Genomics, he said, is one of the more tangible processes producers can control.

“We are making genetic changes over a whole suite of traits,” he said.

However, Weaber said, producers need to make sense of the information and know their operation’s goals when making breeding decisions.

Profit potential should be one component of a producer’s breeding objective, said Matt Spangler, beef genetics Extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Ranchers must decide what tools and selection indexes can better improve performance and productivity.

But not all cattlemen are using the tools, he said. Ranchers who don’t rely on their cattle operation as their primary source of revenue might not use the tools as readily as those who do.

He estimated a third of commercial cattlemen use expected progeny difference as their primary selection criteria.

“The risk of not using EPDs is greater now than it was before,” Spangler said. “Those tools are more powerful. We know the incorporation of genomic information into EPDs makes those EPDs more accurate.”

The information can greatly improve their return on investment, he said.

Spangler said genomically enhanced EPDs have increased the accuracy, including when selecting for those younger or non-progeny-proven animals. Through DNA testing, ranchers, especially those in the seedstock industry, can validate young, unknown bulls to proven bulls without the years of breeding.

Genomics allows genetic progress to be achieved in one generation. Ranchers can assess a bull’s genetic value with the same accuracy as if it already had sired roughly 21 calves, Spangler said.

While genomic testing might make more economic sense for seedstock producers, Weaber said commercial producers are also taking advantage of the technology by purchasing bulls that have genomically enhanced EPDs.

The tools mitigate the risk of choosing the wrong bull, Spangler said.

Also, with an expanded list of EPDs, commercial bull buyers should rely on selection indexes to more effectively identify the genetics that fit their breeding objectives. Spangler said.

Selection indexes have been available to cattlemen for about a decade, he said.

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“I think it is growing, but I think it is underutilized,” he said.

Indexes make selecting for multiple traits easier and simpler, Spangler said.

However, he added, “It is impossible, nearly impossible, to make informed bull selection decisions if you haven’t sat down and understood what your production goals are.”

Besides listing their goals, producers should also determine how much they can pay for a quality bull and still profit. Commercial cattlemen will need to figure how many cows can be exposed to that bull in a year.

“Bull purchases need to be thought of as buying another asset for the ranch,” Spangler said. “When a producer goes to the auction, here is the maximum amount I can reasonably pay for that bull.”

For instance, he said, if comparing two bulls at a sale, and one is superior in genetics but the second one is reasonably good and sells substantially cheaper, the second bull might be the better buy.

Think about the economics and the size of the operation, he said.

“Oftentimes, we don’t think about buying a bull in an economic framework,” Spangler said. “But we need to think about it that way.”

Weaber added producers are becoming more astute in using selection tools like indexes and planned crossbreeding systems that create economic value.

“The motivation is to grow top-of-the-line revenue from those calves and the product they produce,” he said.

Producers can go to or learn more, Spangler said. The website is part of the national eXtension network.

“It’s meant to help educate producers,” he said. “It is important to stay abreast of the science.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].