Combine Insights: Cattle Genetics

Combine Insights: Increased Adoption of Genetic Data in the Cattle Industry


Increased usage of genetic data improving efficiency in the cattle industry

Precision agriculture originated in the 1990s when farmers started using GPS, geographic information systems (GIS), yield monitors and other software to collect field data. As technology advanced, so did the techniques: GPS and GIS allow farmers to locate areas in large fields that vary in certain traits; sensing technology allows farmers to gather low-cost data about plant health or possible input needs. However, it is not is not until recent years when more start up activity and large industry participation have we seen significant rise in the usage.

A recent USDA report found the highest adoption rates were on farms with more than 3,800 acres, with 80% using GPS-based soil or yield mapping, 84% using guidance systems, and 40% using VRT.

Can a similar adoption growth in precision genetic analysis begin to take root in the cattle industry to a point where adoption rates even surpass adoption rates of tools such as guidance systems and variable rate technology in row crops?

One main tool used is expected progeny difference (EPD).

EPD’s are an estimate of an animal's genetic worth for that particular trait. Simply put, they help predict how offspring will perform in regard to a certain trait (docility, calving ease, marbling, etc.). An EPD is expressed in the units of measurement for that trait. They are based on a combination of performance information from an animal's pedigree, individual and progeny performance.

EPDs are a tool, just like a hammer or a screwdriver. Tools are very helpful, but without the knowledge to use them, they become worthless. Cow calf producers have EPD’s and index tools to make genetic selection for impact levels of productivity and longevity.

“As with any new ‘technology’ it takes time and a lot of education to truly appreciate the benefits that adoption of EPDs would bring to an operation. It takes time for someone to be comfortable in the fact that the technology works.” said Jamie Courter Beef Product Manager at Neogen, a leading player in cattle genomics.


It is also important to note data from one breed should only be compared side by side in most cases. In other words, the EPD values for an Angus bull need to be compared to another Angus. Do not compare the Angus bull to a Hereford or Limousin bull’s EPDs.While there is plenty of room for improvement, recognition is also deserved for the strides made by the industry in recent decades. When one considers that the cow population in the US has shrunk since 1974 while total pounds of beef produced annually has been maintained at nearly 50 billion lb over the same time period (USDA-NASS).

One interesting development across the industry is the unprecedented collaboration across breed association supporting International Genetic Solutions (IGS). Historically beef brands have managed information within their respective organizations. However, recognizing the opportunity at hand a cooperative approach is improving information for multibreed beef cattle.

What started as a collaboration between Red Angus and Simmental in 2010, with the goal of creating the industry’s first multi-breed EPDs, has now grown to become the world’s largest genetic evaluation for beef cattle with now 16 partnering brands. Breed association partners in IGS have the ability to boast the first directly comparable EPD’s across breeds.


The collaboration has yielded genetic evaluation of over 19 million animals and 200,000+ genotypes.

“A key opportunity resulting from IGS is commercial breeders being able to further capitalize on effective crossbreeding solutions through more useful information.” said Lane Giess Director of Commercial Data Programs for the American Simmental Association.


Effective use of publicly available data complimented with on ranch records can become a competitive advantage when it comes to high value sales.


Platform Cattle is a software platform help seed stock producers find customers who desire their genetics and conditioning practices. The company is currently in the Combine Incubator on Nebraska Innovation Campus and has seen early success is connecting specific purchase requests to seed stock producers based on genetic recommendations.


“There is no industry ran quite like cattle, the data and technology behind it is unique. it is our job as cattlemen and women to use the tools technology provides us and continue to improve the industry from all segments" said CEO Emmet Storer.


Going forward the industry as a whole continues to view increased digitization and software tools as bringing forth constant progress.

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