By Victoria G. Myers
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Everyone likes a bargain, but bulls are generally not a good place to pinch pennies. Buy young and you'll probably pay less because he's unproven. But do you really know what sort of calves that bull will produce once he's fully developed?
Genomic testing is as close as the industry has come to being able to answer that question before a bull's first calf hits the ground. It's all about progeny equivalency.
Without genomic testing, a bull has to produce a certain number of calves before anyone can judge how close that young bull's EPDs (expected progeny difference) are going to be to his true genetic potential. But a genomically tested bull's EPDs, depending on the trait and the breed, will have a progeny equivalent value of anywhere from five to 20 calves. This allows a commercial cattle operation to invest in a bull as a yearling, or even younger, relying on these genetically enhanced EPDs (GE-EPDs) as a guide to how that bull will affect herd genetics.
At Collins Farms, in Cusseta, Ala., GE-EPDs are important tools for Jim and his dad, Jimmy. They put a fine touch on a program that was already heavily invested in the idea of balance and consistency.
The father/son team moved the cattle operation's emphasis to heifer development in 1992. They have long had a high degree of consistency in their heifer crop thanks to a focus on bulls that are genetically close. They often use flush mates and three-quarter brothers on the cow herd, creating herds of females that are basically half siblings. Jim said this makes it easier to select outcross matings while staying within the Angus breed.
The Collinses rely on young, Black Angus bulls with GE-EPDs to ensure their herd of around 400 cows keeps producing high-quality heifers, as well as steers that will perform well in the feedyards. They breed about 200 heifers annually.
"On younger bulls, this technology helps you improve confidence in your bull choices," Jim said. "You can see, by trait, a comparative number of calves. It increases accuracy as if I had turned in birthweight data on, for example, nine or 10 calves."
Each year, Jim said, they develop between 25 and 30 bulls, selling 10 to 15. The goal is to always have next year's lineup on hand. They generally have 30 to 35 working bulls. Breeding soundness exams are done each year by their veterinarians, ensuring the genetics are backed up by ability and good health.
Heifers calve first in September. Cows calve after that, finishing up by early December. All calves will be weaned and preconditioned, with heifers ready for sale the first of May as bred replacements. Heifers are sold private treaty at the farm, as well as in the University of Georgia HERD sale (Heifer Evaluation and Reproductive Development) and consignment sales in Alabama, including the BCIA sale (Beef Cattle Improvement Association). Jim said the operation has working females in herds in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and, of course, their home state of Alabama.
The important thing when choosing bulls, Jim said, is balanced trait selection. That's something Matthew Spangler stresses every time he speaks to producers about genetics. He wants to avoid the perils of single-trait selection, always aiming for balance when using EPDs.
Spangler, University of Nebraska beef cattle genetics Extension specialist, explained that for commercial cattlemen, GE-EPDs mitigate risk.
"What's important for cattlemen to understand about genomic testing is that it means the EPDs they are looking at are far more accurate. So if you buy a yearling bull that has never been used, for example, you can do it with the same level of confidence as if he has already sired several calves."
Genomic testing is available at this time for Black Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Simmental, Santa Gertrudis and Brahman. Some breed organizations have GE-EPDs for more traits than others. Brahman, for example, has a GE-EPD only for tenderness at this time, Spangler said. In addition, he said registered Angus composites (e.g. SimAngus, Lim-Flex or Balancer) can also use genomics to enhance EPD data.
Genomic testing is available through Neogen Corp.'s GeneSeek and Zoetis. These companies work in partnership with breed organizations. Producers go through their respective breed associations to get testing done, and the resulting data then becomes part of the animal's EPD profile.
Jim uses the Zoetis GeneMax (GMX) and the High Density (HD) 50K tests, available through Angus Genetics Inc. (This is the genetics division of the American Angus Association.) He said the GMX Advantage test, used on their commercial heifers, costs $44 per head; the HD 50K test is $75 per head. The tests equal a small insurance policy to help guarantee the bulls he's developing fit the niche for which they're intended.
Heifer bulls, for example, will need to have a target range on EPDs for birthweight and calving ease. Jim said he and his dad also look at growth, weaning weights and even milk and longevity, aiming for heifers that will work well in their Southern environment.
On the steer side, he said having a highly accurate set of EPDs has helped the family develop a solid reputation with feeders for producing cattle with adequate growth and above-average carcass traits. The same DNA technology that increases the accuracy of their bulls' EPDs has value when marketing the steer mates to those bred heifers. The Collinses use the Reputation Feeder Cattle program's Genetic Merit Scorecard to help market feeders. The scorecard utilizes historic EPDs of herd sires to quantify the genetic merit of their calves for performance and carcass merit traits in the feedlot.
What Jim said he is looking for genetically is not only balanced but constantly evolving. The average EPDs on his heifer bulls, as reported for Collins Farms' most recent sale, show the following: birthweight, +0.7; weaning weight, +46; yearling weight, +85; milk, +28; and scrotal circumference, +1.12.
Jim said it's generally genetics that cause bulls to be moved out of the operation's herd. Older bulls that stay around have proven themselves as producers of moderately framed, high-volume cattle with muscle and fleshing ability.
"Most of what we do is for our herd first, and then it's for our repeat customers," he said. "The important thing to remember is that genetic testing is just one more tool to help you reach your goals. It's not the only thing, but it's a good thing for sure."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Collins Farms: www.collinscattle.com
University of Georgia's HERD sale: www.caes.uga.edu
Alabama's BCIA sale: www.albcia.com
Reputation Feeder Cattle: www.reputationfeedercattle.com
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