Better breeding through cow genetics

Jun 6, 2012

For cattle breeders, buying a new bull or cow can be a risk—its offspring will bring home the profit. Jared Decker, a phD student in genetics at the University of Missouri, thinks he’s found a way to manage some of that risk through the manipulation of cow genetics.

Jared Decker stands in front of his poster on the fourth floor of the Life Sciences building at the University of Missouri. It’s a little after noon, and he’s explaining his work to a handful of people who have gathered around his poster. There are pictures of cattle, some short and stocky, others tall, sleek and sturdy. Decker is also tall and sturdy, but gentle, with small town manners. He grew up on a small farm in New Mexico. And really, you can trace his research back to a childhood memory.

“Her name was Goldie. She was all gold and had white on her, quite a bit of white…” Decker said.

It all started when he was young. He spent 9 years learning to raise a grand champion cow. That gold and white cow, Goldie.

“I grew up on a small farm. I always wanted to win at the state fair,” Decker said.

Decker says building a genetic champion like Goldie isn’t easy because there’s no exact way to tell how effectively two animals will breed. You might get a cow like Goldie, or you might get something else.

“What genomic selection provides compared to traditional selection techniques is it just provides a more accurate estimate earlier in the life of the animal,” Decker said.

Here’s why it’s complicated. There are two ways to breed cattle, by genetic material from a breeder to do it artificially, or to let cows take care of it themselves out in the field. Even with the careful science of AI, there’s no hard guarantee what you’ll get when a calf is born.

But Decker has spent hours in his lab at MU animal research center trying to find the value of each of his 56,000 samples. He’s finding a way to breed the best cattle, which in turn will save the farmer money. It decreases the guesswork and makes it easier for farmers to efficiently raise cows.

Decker shows me around his lab. To my right are freezers full of tissue and DNA samples, and in front of me is a workbench with microscopes, Petri dishes and other instruments to prepare the samples for analysis.

Decker’s research has been assisted by his mentor, professor Jerry Taylor. Taylor says this work is important because it will help farmers produce higher quality beef and the research will help them find ways to save money in the process. If Decker’s research goes as planned, they’ll be able to figure out how efficiently cows turn feed into pounds of meat and how resistant they are to illness and disease.

Think about it like this. What if you could know before having kids exactly how much that child would eat, the likelihood of illness, and the total cost to raise the child. That’s what Decker’s research is doing, only for cows.

U.S. consumers love beef. Year after year they want more of it, and at a higher quality. Taylor says Decker’s research has perfect timing.

“People want more marbling, better tenderness. The demand for certified beef is through the roof, to the point that we can’t meet that demand anymore,” Taylor said.

So how does it actually work? Usually on a farm, when a calf is born it could take years before the farmer knows the genetic value of that cow. With Decker’s help, they’ll know immediately after birth. Not everyone thinks this is actually going to work.

“I remember buying a bull that was all hyped up, and he brought $115,000 and we outbid everyone. He did not do well,” said Ben Eggers, the farm manger for Missouri’s largest Angus cattle breeder, Sydenstricker Farms in Mexico Missouri.

Multiple times every day, Eggers gets into his truck and drives through the pastures to check on the cattle. He makes a living breeding cows with desirable traits. Eggers says 50 years ago farmers chose a cow based on what they could see with their own eyes. Now, it’s about data.

“Back when I started in the Angus business, all value was determined by how they did in a show room. Merit was based on what we saw with our eyes,” Eggers said.

Egger’s method seems like a science all in its own. He collects data on the cow, from birth weight to milk production. A cow’s value is also based on its parents’ information. Accuracy takes time with this method, and keeping data can’t tell Eggers everything he wants to know about a cow.

“In general, most sires have to produce more than a thousand calves to reach an 80 accuracy, or to be considered a well-proven bull. The sire’s probably 5 to 7 years old by the time that’s done,” Eggers said.

If Eggers used genomic technology, like MU student Jared Decker’s, he could know how much a cow is worth right away.

But Egger’s ranch has more than 900 cattle. For smaller farms that produce only 10 to 50 cows each year, that may never happen. That means that at the auction barn, farmers still use methods from the 1960s, and that’s risky guesswork because now cows cost an average of about $1700.

Decker’s research is there to make those buying decisions easier, but some farmers like Eggers don’t think they have much to gain from it—yet.

“I know what’s worked over the years, even if I am watching the genetic markers. But I’m not going to bet the farm on a young bull just because he’s high on the genomic process,” Eggers said.

For now, Eggers will continue to use genomic tests, but rarely. But if the next phase of Decker’s research goes as planned, and he can pinpoint how effectively a cow will gain weight, then farmers like Eggers would produce better cattle, and U.S. consumers would see more high quality beef on supermarket shelves.