Delta's New Service Brings $$ to Producers
Sometimes, it’s the simple solutions that provide the most value. Given all the challenges of beef production, producers may prefer to focus on the more “earthy” moving parts of the business than on DNA—which can get very techy very fast.
EnVigour HX from Delta Genomics pushes the tech into the background, leaving just the critical information that producers need to monitor and optimize commercial cow/calf production. To use a good old-fashioned metaphor, the engine is under the hood (available for those who want to examine it more closely) but the dashboard provides the operational metrics.
This is exactly what EnVigour HX does. It gives commercial cow/calf producers a dashboard from which to monitor their genetics and to answer questions like: which bulls are producing (or not)? From what breeds and in what proportion is my herd derived? How much “hybrid vigour” is in my herd?
More and more, these are the metrics that make or break an operation because they are affiliated greater fertility in terms of successful pregnancy and weaning rates, longevity, lifetime productivity, resilience, and feed efficiency.
Each metric provides a decision point as to whether to keep or replace a bull, maintain or alter breed composition of the herd based on production goals, or select a bull (or bulls) to be paired by individual or by pasture to optimize the benefits of genetic diversity.
So what’s under the hood?
It’s hardly a big secret. gEPDs need to be just as robust in commercial cross-bred cattle as they are in purebreds to allow the same kind of genetic improvements and financial gains.
While commercial producers have had to wait a little longer than seedstock producers, Delta Genomics can reward their patience right now. Today, the technology is at a point where commercial producers can apply the EnVigour HX service in their own operations—and compound the benefits with each generation.
There’s no need to do anything different: yank a tail hair, send it to the lab. The exciting part is the extra knowledge that can be extracted from the tail hair and how that knowledge can put some coins in producers’ pockets.
Who’s your daddy?
At the beginning of the breeding season, cow-calf producers sort cows, replacement heifers and bulls into mating groups, typically with a female-to-bull ratio of 20:1 to 40:1. Without keeping a close eye on who does what with whom, there’s no way of identifying the sire. But pulling a hair or obtaining a blood sample from the offspring provides DNA information on the bull and, from that, parentage.
“There’s tremendous value for producers in knowing the sire,” emphasizes John Basarab, Senior Beef Research Scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) and Adjunct Professor at UAlberta. “For starters, they’ll know which bull is siring more calves. That’s important for fertility traits. Fertile bulls throw fertile daughters who go back into the herd and produce more calves. But they also pass on other traits (faster growth, better feed efficiency, carcass characteristics, etc.) to their offspring.”
And that’s not even the main advantage. There’s breed composition….
Who’s your gran’daddy?
If you figure out your family tree using a service like ancestry.com, you probably end up with some good yarns to tell the kids but very little of real use. Not so with cattle.
“Knowing the breed composition and estimating a hybrid vigour score (the technical term is retained heterozygosity) tells us which bull should be with which mating group,” says Basarab. “Again, there’s tremendous value in that.”
For example, mating a cow that is, say 80 percent one breed to any bull of primarily the same breed may limit hybrid vigour. The more hybrid vigour in cows, the more adaptable they tend to be, the more feed-efficient, the longer they stay in the herd, the more environmental stresses they can tolerate, and the more offspring they produce. Knowing the breed composition of individual cows gives a producer new options; for example, sorting cows into mating groups based on their genetic similarity then mating them with genetically different bulls that complement breeding objectives while increasing vigour by up to 20-30 percent.
Can the relationship between vigour and RFI and other performance traits be proved?
“Yes, it can,” Basarab affirms. He’s been working on this for years. “And data on stayability from the Lacombe research beef cattle herd say Yes to that as well. Like I said, this is worth quite a bit of money to producers.”
Even though cross-breeding has been the norm in North America since the 1970s, there hasn’t been a systematic program to record breed composition. The precise percentage just gets lost over the years, and genetic recombination mixes DNA past the F1 cross such that full siblings can have very different breed compositions. EnVigour HX allows producers to use DNA information and make decisions to maximize genetic diversity and related vigour, maintain a verifiable minimum breed composition required by some branding programs or optimize herd (and offspring) conformity.
As well, over the years, some very popular breeds have started to dominate cross-bred herds. They have desirable characteristics but the hybrid vigour score can be as low as 30 percent in some herds, which is the same as leaving money on the table. EnVigour HX allows producers to pick some of that money back up.
Of course, the ideal percentage of vigour depends on individual breeding goals. A purebred herd may not require the same level or score, but breeding to unrelated sires would maintain a useful level of genetic difference, even within a breed. In cross-bred herds, improvements can be seen above 50 percent vigour but producers can reach an optimum level and still take advantage of the traits that hybrid and purebred seedstock bulls bring to their program. Gentec has registered the domain name myherdandme.com (as a tongue-in-cheek salute to 23andme.com to work like beefed-up (pardon the pun) ancestry.com) to help producers assess and address the level of vigour relative to their herd objectives.
“The real prize is in using this information to increase the profitability of your herd, be it through improved adaptability, feed efficiency or stayability,” says Basarab.
What’s your opinion?
As part of the validation process, we asked how producers might respond to a one-stop shopping service that provides parentage, breed composition and a measure of vigour.
Dr. Troy Drake is the managing director for Cow/Calf Health and Management Services (CCHMS), a consultation practice that works to minimize the effect of disease and maximize the production potential within each cow/calf herd. CCHMS, along with its software program Herdtrax, provides data management services for ~200,000 cattle belonging to some of Alberta’s largest and most progressive farms.
“When John (Basarab) approached me about the best value proposition, I thought, for commercial herds, it was being able to identify the sire,” says Drake. “But when he provided the breed composition of the progeny and said he could back-calculate the breed compositions of the dams, I was really excited. This would be at least as valuable as knowing the sire.”
Delta thanks the many partner organizations that helped advance the technology to this point: Livestock Gentec, AAF, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, CCHMS, Beefbooster Inc., BIO, the Canadian beef breed associations and the Canadian Beef Breeds Council. We also acknowledge the projects that contributed to the database: the Canadian Cattle Genome Project, the 1,000 Bull Genomes project and collaborations with colleagues like Donagh Berry (Teagasc, Ireland).