EPDs, Genomic Testing Help Producers Plan Future of the Herd
Finding the perfect bull is no easy task. However, the addition of a new bull to the herd is typically the quickest way livestock owners can make significant genetic change in short time.
“Producers spend a lot of time sorting through their own replacement heifers,” says Dr. Dan Moser, president of Angus Genetics, Inc. “But the best half of heifers you raise are probably not dramatically different from the rest of them. If you want to make real change quickly, the easiest way to do that is to bring in bulls from outside the herd.”
Today, many genetic tools, like genomic-enhanced EPDs (expected progeny differences), exist to help producers find the best animals possible. Whether it’s greater fertility, longevity, or carcass quality, Moser explains, highly detailed genetic information is now available on modern bulls and ready to help livestock producers meet their cattle breeding goals.
Defining the genetic target
Most ranchers procure bulls from one or more seedstock producers, notes Moser. Additionally, he says, producers also purchase bulls at auctions and through private treaty sales.
“Generally, the most successful commercial producers often times have long-term relationships with one or more seedstock suppliers,” says Moser. “These breed-focused operators serve as not only a source of bulls but are also folks producers trust to help them make genetic decisions for their commercial herd.”
When starting out on the quest for a new bull, Moser recommends producers first spend some time thinking about what they want their bull to do for them. The best way to do this is to write a job description for the potential bull, he explains.
For instance, Moser says, will the bull be breeding first-calf heifers, mature cows, or a mixture of the two? Depending on the situation, calving ease may or may not be important when considering potential candidates. Will heifers out of the bull be kept as replacements or will the females go to market? The desired outcome will have an impact on how vital traits like fertility, milk, and cow longevity are to bull selection.
“You really need to figure out what your target is,” says Moser. “This helps you decide where to shop and which bulls to select.”
When choosing bulls, Moser says, producers should always make sure animals are functionally sound. Structural correctness is an important factor which plays into a bull’s longevity, he explains.
“I’m talking about things like feet and leg structure and skeletal structure,” says Moser. “Bulls that are physically sound are able to walk and travel freely, take long strides, and have good feet.”
A breeding soundness exam (BSE) should also be conducted to ensure good fertility. BSEs typically entail body condition scoring and a physical examination of the entire animal. Some exams may also employ the use of thermography or ultrasonography to assess scrotal and testicular health, in addition to standard evaluation techniques such as palpation and scrotal circumference measurements.
For the most part, Moser says, potential bull buyers can expect the majority of seedstock producers to have already completed a BSE and review of skeletal structure and soundness on the bulls they offer up for sale.
Narrow down choices through data assessment
Moser recommends ranchers select one or two (possibly more, depending on the number of bulls needed) seedstock producers which offer bulls with the traits they consider most desirable.
“Look through sale catalogs and perhaps sort through the genetic information (like EPDs) that is available online,” says Moser. “You can do a lot of searching and sorting ahead of time.” Moser says EPDs are available for a number of traits. The details necessary to calculate these EPDs are collected at chute side by seedstock producers and bull testing programs across the country using technology like Gallagher’s weigh and data management systems. These include products like the proven TSi 2 Livestock Manager and newly released TW-3 Weigh Scale Indicator and Data Collector.
“Accessibility is the big buzz in the producer world these days,” says Ray Williams, Gallagher’s business development manager. “With a weighing and data collection system like the TW-3, we can capture up to three traits at a time, write notes, and create alerts for the animal all with the wave of an EID reader. Then we can upload that information to the cloud.” Angus Genetics, Inc., which exists as a subsidiary of the American Angus Association, Moser explains, currently assists with genetic testing and evaluation across not only Angus cattle, but the Charolais, Senepol, and Maine Anjou breeds as well.
“Each breed is slightly different, but for the Angus breed, 18 different traits are described through our EPDs,” says Moser. “In addition, we have what we call dollar or economic values that combine traits into dollars and cents, predicting profit differences.”
As one can imagine, Moser says sorting through 18 different EPDs on every animal in a sale catalog to find the right bull is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The dollar values and economic selection indexes Angus Genetics has developed help producers make sense of the data and make top picks faster and easier.
As an example, says Moser, if a producer plans to sell weaned calves out of a bull they are buying, they may be interested in the $W or Weaned Calf Value index. The $W index combines EPDs like birth weight, weaning weight, milk production, and mature cow size to identify the most profitable combination of genetics for that phase of production. “For producers selling calves at weaning, they can start with finding cattle that are favorable for the $W value for their first sort,” says Moser. “Then they can do some fine tuning by searching for some of the individual EPDs that are also available.”
Along with the Weaned Calf Value index, Moser points out Angus Genetics also provides users with indexes covering Beef Value ($B), Feedlot Value ($F), Grid Value ($G), Quality Grade ($QG), and Yield Grade ($YG). Producers can find more details and definitions of the EPDs and Value Indexes available on the Angus Genetics website.
DNA testing improves accuracy
For producers wanting to dig even deeper into bull genetics, some breed associations also now offer DNA genomic testing.
“It’s been a big advancement in the past seven to ten years in terms of EPD calculations,” says Moser. “It doesn’t change the way producers use EPDs, but greatly improves the accuracy.”
With added DNA testing, Moser says, researchers can predict EPDs for an animal which provide the same kind of accuracy comparable to an animal which may have had 10 to 20 recorded progeny.
“Bulls that have genomics testing factored into their EPDs basically offer you a bull with a lot less risk,” says Moser. “You can feel confident that bull is even more likely to perform the way his EPDs indicate.”
Starting the search
Moser suggests producers seek out a representative from a cattle breed association to learn more about specific genetic tools and EPDs available within their chosen breed. Most breed organizations have staff members located across the country ready to provide support.
“They’re knowledgeable about cattle production and genetics,” says Moser. “They’ll have contacts of people in your part of the country that have the kind of bulls you’re looking for.” Additionally, extension and university experts can also be a great source of information. Ultimately, the important thing to remember, says Moser, is bull selection comes down to two things: an assessment of the current genetics in the cowherd and where producers want to take that herd in the future.