Genetic prediction tests: An accurate means of telling a heifer’s fortune

The moment a heifer is born, her DNA can be tested to show her future performance and profitability. (Journal photo by Lacey Vilhauer.)

Traditional commercial heifer selection through phenotypic means can be right on the money, but in some cases, it’s about as accurate as shaking a Magic 8 Ball and expecting the prediction to be true. Unlike many seedstock businesses, most commercial cow-calf operations lack detailed parentage and performance records for their females, but DNA testing can be a valuable tool for commercial cattle producers to obtain a full view of a heifer’s future performance before she has even started to mature. 

“There are several genetic predictors on the market for commercial heifers where we don’t necessarily know anything about that animal,” said Jared Decker, associate professor of computational genomics at the University of Missouri. “We may not know who her sire or dam was, her birth date or anything else, other than what’s in the DNA sample. But with that DNA sample and borrowing information from other datasets with large amounts of trait records, we can give that commercial heifer an accurate genetic prediction.”  

One such DNA test from Zoetis that is popular with Angus breeders is GeneMax Advantage; Decker has completed a study on this test’s genetic prediction accuracy. The project utilized 300 commercial Angus cows, which included performance data that had been collected on the herd for over 15 years. Decker’s team at the Thompson Research Farm—a Missouri agricultural experiment station in Spickard—compared the calf’s performance data in terms of weaning weight, carcass weight, marbling, fat thickness and ribeye area to their dams and looked for conclusions that would support or discredit the accuracy of the DNA testing.  

“The overall goal for that research was to test if the GeneMax Advantage genetic predictions accurately predicted the performance of the progeny of the cows,” Decker said. “It was all about trying to ask the questions, does this genetic prediction work and can we with confidence recommend that beef producers across the industry use it to select more desirable genetics.” 

The results of this research were no different than other tests conducted on genomic predictions, expected progeny differences, and DNA testing. They are all accurate. The question is not if DNA testing works, but rather how producers can use the technology in a way that makes financial sense and improves their herds. 

Who should use DNA testing

GeneMax Advantage DNA testing is $28 per animal, which adds up quickly for any operation. Decker said he only recommends this DNA test if producers are going above and beyond to market their heifers or cows through a value-added program, retaining ownership in the feedlot or simply improving their own cow herd by selecting superior replacement heifers. 

Mike Kasten of Mike Kasten Beef Alliance in Millersville, Missouri, said a producer who uses a DNA test like GeneMax and sells calves at weaning is leaving all the genetic advantage on the table and not reaping any financial benefit from the expense of testing.  

Although Kasten is moving into retirement, he has used GeneMax Advantage in his performance-oriented commercial cow-calf operation since the test was first developed. 

“Since 1988, we’ve retained ownership on most of our cattle,” Kasten said. “We’ve raised replacement heifers, and the rest went to the feed yard where we retained ownership and collected carcass data. For a long time, we’ve been measuring individual profitability on every cow in the herd based on total performance. We look for those cattle that kind of put everything together.” 

Seeing the big picture

Decker said one of the reasons GeneMax Advantage is an ideal test for Angus breeders is that it works well for data enthusiasts, those who struggle with collecting and inputting data, and producers who have no data at all.  

Another fascinating element of GeneMax Advantage is that it can be used to select the females that are desirable from the cost side of the equation, leading to increased profitability. If a producer can predict a heifer’s lifetime productivity, her cost of maintenance, feed intake, teat and udder quality and whether she will produce high-value calves for the feedlot and on the rail, they are sure to make optimal female selection choices. 

“These producers who invest in DNA testing and genomic prediction, not only improve the genetic potential for revenue, they also improve the genetic potential to identify those animals who are going to be more cost effective and more efficient,” Decker said. 

DNA testing can be applied to more than heifer selection, Decker said it can be used to select bulls to breed to individual cows in order to match her genetic strengths and weaknesses based on the DNA results. Decker also pointed out that by DNA testing heifers in a calf crop, the average genetic merit of those heifers is going to be equal to the average genetic merit of their steer mates.  

“With this, we know the genetic potential of those steers without DNA testing a single of the males,” Decker said. “And there are programs available where we can use that information to more aggressively market the steer crop.” 

Conducting DNA testing on a commercial operation can be a monumental step toward understanding the genetic merit of a set of heifers or cows and can give producers the ability to put all the puzzle pieces together for herd improvement. 

“The rate at which a herd improves is really going to be driven by how much genetic improvement their seed stock producer is making and which bulls they’re buying,” Decker explained. “What the GeneMax test does for heifer selection is cut out genetic lag between the commercial herd’s performances and the seedstock herd’s performance. By simply applying selection pressure to the heifers, we can shorten or get rid of that lag between the genetic potential of the seed stock and the genetic potential of the commercial animals. Basically, what that does is it allows the commercial producer to select the genetics to create a superior calf crop.”  

Kasten agreed. 

“If you’re trying to get to the higher quality level of cattle, this is certainly a quick start,” Kasten said. “If you don’t have any clue where your genetics are at the moment it’s a good way to identify and find out your starting point to move forward in a breeding program.” 

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Commercial cattle producers do not need to ask a Magic 8 Ball if DNA testing and genetic predictions are the future of improvement in the cow calf industry. The data alone tells them all signs point to yes. 

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].