Moving ahead with beef genomics

CM-MR-Moving Ahead 1by Sally Colby
Although Beaver Creek Angus was started in 1999, the Grim family wasn’t new to the beef industry. The family has generations of experience in raising beef cattle, starting with Kyle Grim’s grandfather.
“Before we decided to become a genetics supplier, we were fortunate to be exposed to many different segments of the beef industry,” said Grim, a graduate of Penn State University with a degree in animal science. “My grandpa and his brother started out in the Charolais business many years ago, and my dad worked with his brother in a commercial cow-calf operation where they finished calves in a feedlot.” While Grim was at Penn State, he worked with the university’s cow herd, was a member of the livestock judging team and completed a summer internship in Nebraska. “With those experiences,” he said, “we had a clear goal for our breeding program and what we wanted to shoot for to create a genetically superior animal.”
Beaver Creek Angus is a 150-acre, pasture-based operation, with most of the cows bred to calve in January and February. Cows are brought to the barn for calving, then return to pasture. Grim says that early spring calving means that January and February bulls are old enough to use for breeding at 14 months. Rather than growing crops for the herd, the Grims rely on family member Evan Grim who farms 3,000 acres to supply corn and soybean meal.
To start their herd, the Grims purchased high quality cows to serve as building blocks for the 65 registered Angus brood cows they have today. In an effort to maintain the highest quality genetics, most of the calves born are the result of either artificial insemination or ET. Beaver Creek markets cattle two ways: females and show prospects are offered in a fall sale and bulls are sold in spring on a first come, first served basis. To reach their goal of having outstanding, marketable purebred stock, the Grims are taking advantage of the latest breeding technology — genomics.
“Genomics is DNA mapping in which a blood sample can reveal that female’s genomic potential as a cow,” said Grim. “It isn’t influenced at all by the environment. We can take a sample when the calf is as young as one day old. We don’t have to wait until the calf grows up to see how she’ll perform, and we don’t have to wait for progeny performance.”
Grim says one of the challenges in analyzing genetics is that there are numerous variables, and it’s hard to determine which will be most important. He explained that simple traits such as hair color and horns; and birth defects such as curly calf and hydrocephalus, are just one part of the equation. “The more difficult part of genetics to study and make progress on is quantitative genetics,” said Grim. “That involves traits such as birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, calving ease, milk production, structure longevity fertility, carcass and feed efficiency. It’s those quantitative traits that can be analyzed and improved through genomics.”
Beaver Creek is using Pfizer Animal Health’s HD 50K genomic mapping test on heifers that will return to the herd. “They look for certain alleles on the genome that indicate whether the animal is superior for growth, fertility, carcass merit,” said Grim, explaining the genomic test. “We focus on the economically important traits, and use those results along with the individual’s performance and progeny performance. It’s nice to wean off big, heavy calves, but if we don’t pay attention to some of the other traits, we won’t have those calves to wean.” Grim says the overall goal is to wean the most pounds of beef per acre at the lowest possible cost.
Despite what can be revealed through genomic testing, Grim says the animals’ physical appearance, or phenotype, is important to customers. “Whether they’re for show or not,” he said, “most beef cattle are purchased on eye appeal.”
Like other producers, Grim is aware of challenges to the beef industry, including government regulations on conservation that make it more challenging for those involved with animal agriculture. Grim says he’s concerned that regulations might make it difficult to produce beef in a cost-effective manner for consumers. He also noted that reproduction and mortality are issues, both of which affect the bottom line. “High corn prices, and feed prices in general make it hard,” he said. “The good thing about cows is that they can survive on a forage-based diet.”

Regarding consumer misconceptions about how beef cattle are finished, Grim says NCBA president Scott George recently compared the environmental impact of beef cattle in a feed yard to those raised on grass only. “When cattle are fed a high corn starch diet, they produce less greenhouse gas because they aren’t fermenting a high level of forages,” said Grim. “They also finish out faster, which reduces greenhouse gasses and produces more pounds of beef in a shorter time period, which keeps prices to consumers low.” Grim added that cattle on a high plane of nutrition will always taste better because there’s more marbling, and that equates to a good eating experience for the consumer.
Grim says there are many variables in the cattle business, and that both newcomers and experienced cattlemen run into difficulties. “In the cow-calf business, it isn’t hard to find ourselves stuck in a rut,” said Grim. “Don’t be afraid to step outside the box and try a new idea or practice. Science isn’t perfect; we make mistakes and things don’t always work out. Just don’t get hung up on failures.”

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