Genetic Knowledge in Commercial Herds

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Genetic Knowledge in Commercial Herds

Four approaches to genetic awareness         |

By Chip Kemp, Rachel Endecott, Ph.D. and Jackie Atkins, Ph.D.         |             

Genetic awareness within the commercial beef sector has been a much-discussed topic and an ongoing challenge to make a pervasive reality. Ideally, commercial producers would see the rationale behind serious collection of phenotypes and genotypes, have the resources to capture them, and use the data to improve the profitability of the herd; however, the practicality of the matter may be very different. Given the limited time and dollars available within commercial environments, the expense of collecting records needs to be offset with a ready manner in which to use and profit from the data.   

Clearly, commercial producers hold the keys to obtaining genetic knowledge on certain hard-to-collect traits such as cow longevity, feedlot, and carcass data. While progressive seedstock producers prioritize these data points, in many seedstock operations cows turn over quickly in the pursuit of genetic progress and a high percentage of male calves are destined for a bull battery and not meat production. Thus, commercial producers have access to insight that seedstock breeders may not have the ability to collect. Commercial data promises immense value in genetic prediction. 

The difficulty of capturing value from commercial data collection may limit the bottom-line focus of the commercial audience unless the demand for data can
be turned into tangible actions and subsequent dollars for the commercial operation.

There are two primary pivot points that will determine the uptake of serious data collection and use in the commercial sector:

1. The production of and demand for slaughter cattle with more predictable profit potential, whether that takes the form of retained ownership or the marketing of value-added feeder calves.

2. Replacement females with reliable predictability of long term cow performance.

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) and likeminded organizations need to continue to engage and relay information to those entities involved in the marketing of feeder cattle, cattle feeding, the harvesting of terminal cattle, and the promotion and sale of beef products if we are to significantly grow the appetite for serious genetic awareness of feedlot and carcass traits in the commercial sector. The beef cattle industry should continue to advocate for whole life-cycle indexes that reflect a holistic view of the impact a female has on the bottom line of an operation, including female longevity without ignoring the end product (beef).

Commercial producers recognize these fundamental ingredients of a herd improvement program:

• A controlled breeding and calving season(s)

• Adoption of a mating system that uses heterosis

• Selection and use of superior sires for traits economically relevant to the system

• Selection of replacement females • Culling of the cow herd based on economically relevant criteria


For those commercial producers who seek to add genetic awareness to their decision-making process, there are multiple approaches available. The different approaches come with varying levels of ease, time commitment, expense, and different levels of genetic insight. The ASA has programs specifically built for improved genetic awareness in commercial herds ranging from valuating feeder calves to full-scale genetic evaluation including genomics. If you are interested in learning more about ASA’s commercial offerings, contact Chip Kemp at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Approach A:  Bull knowledge alone

Purchase bulls from trusted seedstock providers and use the genetics of the bull battery as a proxy for herd knowledge. In this scenario, commercial producers are taking advantage of the genetic credibility provided by their seedstock supplier. No further steps are taken by the commercial operation to refine the genetic awareness of their herd.


  • Easy –no added effort after purchase of bull(s) for record collection or DNA testing.
  • No added expense after bull purchase.
  • Allows access to most feeder calf verification programs (e.g. IGS Feeder Profit Calculator™) as do the remaining approaches.


  • Provides little to no understanding of genetic differences within the herd.
  • Doesn’t differentiate females based on their own genetic merit.
  • Provides the least genetic insight and therefore the poorest opportunity for genetic advancement of the approaches discussed.


Approach B:  Bull knowledge and commercial DNA tests

In addition to the knowledge acquired with bull purchases, this option incorporates commercially-available genomic tests that give a basic genetic view for in-herd comparisons. These tests range in price, efficacy, and appropriateness for various breed types or breed compositions. 


  • Easy –typically requires only a blood or tissue sample captured chute side. The sample is sent to a commercial lab and results returned on a simplified scale.
  • Provides information to make heifer retention decisions. It can be used on terminal calves, but that is usually price prohibitive. In lieu of sampling terminal calves, samples taken on replacement heifer prospects are usually viewed as a proxy for the terminal calves. 


  • Does not take into account the genetic awareness derived from pedigree and performance knowledge.
  • Is better served as an in-herd comparison than an industry-wide comparison.
  • Moderate expense. Return on investment should be considered.
  • Moderate knowledge.

BIF’s guiding policy makes the limitations of this approach clear: “BIF believes that information from DNA tests only has value in selection when incorporated with all other available forms of performance information for economically important traits in the National Cattle Evaluation (NCE), and when communicated in the form of an Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) with corresponding BIF accuracy. For some economically-important traits, information other than DNA tests may not be available.” In place of individual animal data collection, commercially available DNA tests can shed light on genetic differences in replacement candidates.


Approach C:  Structured genetic evaluation using pedigrees and phenotypes only

This approach (and Approach D) require a more significant commitment to data collection. A structured approach to individual animal identification, performance records, and reporting identified phenotypes at regularly scheduled intervals is essential to gain meaningful results. This approach opens the door for serious knowledge, but also requires significant homework to make the data usable in NCE. 



  • Significant genetic awareness — on par with seedstock operators.
  • EPDs and selection indexes can be generated across all females or an entire operation.
  • EPDs and selection indexes allow for more precise decisions on heifer selection, mating, and marketing.
  • Cost can be low when viewed on a per-cow basis through some genetic evaluation providers.
  • Robust software, system support, and technical assistance available through some genetic evaluation providers. 


  • Greater time and labor commitment for data collection and reporting.
  • Greater learning curve to understand the reporting software.
  • Cost can be variable depending upon the provider. 

Upon first glance, the demands of data reporting through a structured genetic evaluation are foreign to many commercial operations; however, many thorough and progressive producers are already capturing a large portion of the information needed — and often more. Seedstock operators should encourage their elite customers to consider this step. It empowers their customers and also provides an avenue to get more information regarding their own genetics into a genetic evaluation. All parties benefit from enhanced data collection, in particular, hard-to-capture phenotypes. The commercial customer gains more insight into their own ranch and is better equipped to determine the next step in their genetic purchases. This holds the seedstock operation more accountable for continuing to improve if they are to service that customer. In turn, the seedstock operator has greater knowledge to better consult and guide the commercial operation.


Approach D:  Structured genetic evaluation using pedigrees, phenotypes, and genomic data

This approach is the pinnacle of thorough genetic awareness. Of course, that brings with it the greatest demand of time and dollars. This approach allows a committed commercial operation to ultimately attain a similar level of genetic awareness with the most elite seedstock programs in the business. This approach isn’t for every commercial program, but where appropriate adds a unique level of knowledge and informed selection not possible with the other approaches. 


  • Greatest amount of genetic knowledge. With time can attain a similar level of genetic awareness of elite seedstock programs.
  • Provides powerful genetic insight for all facets of the operation 



  • Most expensive approach.  This is still quite varied depending upon the genetic evaluation provider and the relationship with the genotyping lab. These costs will range from moderate to high.
  • Largest commitment of time and labor for data collection and reporting.
  • Learning curve for reporting software and DNA testing. 

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