THE use of cutting-edge DNA technology - genomics - in evaluations of how an animal will breed has the potential to deliver significant efficiencies to the lotfeeding game.
Data partnerships and sending the correct signals should be foremost on the feedlot operator’s mind right now in order to ensure the genetic opportunities are fully realised.
That’s how leading genetics scientist Dr Rob Banks sees things.
Speaking at this year’s Australian Lot Feeders Association annual conference, Dr Banks said genomics would change things in a big way for feedlots.
“I can’t see that anyone will be feeding cattle in three years time that have not been screened using genomics, be it at the feedlot entry or at weaning stage,” he said.
“There is real scope for making a difference to the profitability of the lotfeeding chain.”
Everything that was possible in the future depended on having good data, according to Dr Banks, who heads up the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit (AGBU) at Armidale.
“We can not evaluate cattle for anything without good data for that trait on a reasonable number of animals,” he said.
“The data that comes from the feedlot and processing sector is really valuable to anyone serious about breeding cattle for the future.
“We are increasingly likely to see operators in the feedlot sector entering into relationships with individual breeders, or even whole breeds, to collect high quality, well-structured performance data.”
The signals that go back to the producer, and through them to the stud breeders, will be just as important.
“Funnily enough, if stud breeders don’t get a price signal for marbling they don’t breed for it,” he said.
“The better the signals you can send in the contracts you set up and in your trading, the faster you will get better cattle to feed.
“The way you buy cattle now will determine the sort of cattle you will be getting five, ten, 15 years out.”
The idea, he explained, was to cull out the low-profit cattle.
To demonstrate the dollar value stemming from the differences in genetics occurring right now, he modelled a typical cross-section of cattle in a feedlot.
Assuming a turn-off carcase weight of 300 kilograms, on feed for 100 days at a cost of $300 per tonne, a carcase price of $5.60/kg and marble score worth 50 cents a kilogram, Dr Banks grouped the cattle into four quarters based on whether they were above or below average for three key traits - growth rate, marbling and feed efficiency.
The split showed nearly a $400/head profit per animal due to the differences in genetics.
That range would exist in any mob being feed, simply because we know the genetic variation that exists for these traits, he said.
“The key point is there are genetic differences in the cattle you are feeding and they are worth a lot of money,” Dr Banks said.
There are two things in that to respond to: Can the overall performance of all the cattle being fed be lifted or can the bottom 25 per cent be removed.
That’s where genomics comes into play.
The technology exists to screen cattle in order to sift out the poor performers from a feedlot perspective.
Genomic tests had been around for a number of years but were now becoming far more powerful, Dr Banks said.
Breedplan systems in Australia were now switching over to what is known as single step - a genomic method of analysis that uses DNA, he explained.
“The key thing is it means you can take a hair sample at any age, get the genotype read and access the EBVs for that animal.
“That means you can talk to your suppliers about screening cattle long before they come anywhere near your yard.”
While carcase weight, marbling and feed efficiency were three key traits, clearly there are other things affecting profitability in a feedlot.
Immunity, bovine respiratory disease, coat and temperament could all be assessed genomically if the data is there.
Dr Banks told delegates there had been substantial genetic change in Australian cattle in the past three decades.
As an example, he said since 1985, Angus cattle had became genetically superior to the tune of about 75 kilograms liveweight at the same age.
At the same time, marbling had increased and they had become genetically better at eating.
“The cattle you feed today are radically different from what they were 30 years ago,” he said.
“I’m confident that sort of change will happen again but much much quicker.”