Bull sale season is just around the corner, and soon, mailboxes will be full of catalogs for upcoming sales hosted by seedstock producers across the country.
For commercial cattlemen, the challenge is sorting through the wealth of information provided and making accurate comparisons from one breeding program to the next. This becomes even more difficult if comparing and contrasting an Angus bull to a Limousin bull, for example, because expected progeny differences (EPDs) vary for each breed.
To address this issue, multiple beef breed associations have come together to work with International Genetics Solutions (IGS) to update and implement a new software system called BOLT to replace the Cornell EPD evaluation system, and ultimately create an EPD system that is more accurate and comparable from breed to breed.
The breed partners include the American Chianina Association, American Gelbvieh Association, American Shorthorn Association, American Simmental Association, Canadian Angus Association, Canadian Gelbvieh Association, Canadian Limousin Association, Canadian Shorthorn Association, Canadian Simmental Association, North American Limousin Foundation and the Red Angus Association of America.
“IGS represents an unprecedented collaboration between multiple beef breed association with a common goal to improve the National Cattle Evaluation and provide commercial cattle producers with the tools needed to make informed selection decisions,” said Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) beef genetics specialist.
In the single-step process, the Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT looks at the DNA marker genotypes that are directly incorporated into the genetic evaluation, as well as the phenotypes, performance data and the pedigree. As a result, the genomic data impacts not only the genotyped animal but also non-genotyped relatives, essentially improving the accuracy for all.
According to IGS, “The Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT uses a subset of weighted markers based on a research study performed by Drs. Mahdi Saatchi and Dorian Garrick, while they were scientists at Iowa State University. Drs. Saatchi and Garrick first used the 50,000 markers to determine a subset of weighted markers that are highly associated with economically relevant traits in beef cattle with consistent effects across breeds.
“Because the IGS evaluation is for multiple breeds, it is important to remove markers with inconsistent effects or no effects in different breeds. The Saatchi and Garrick research also found that utilizing genotypes on animals of multiple breeds consistently increased the accuracy of prediction within a particular breed when compared to limiting DNA utilization to only animals of a particular breed.”
Bruce Golden, is the CEO and president of California-based company Theta Solutions — the company that developed this new series of genetic prediction models and the BOLT software. Following his 19-year career as an animal breeding professor at Colorado State University, Golden is now putting his animal breeding and genetics knowledge to work to elevate and streamline the way ranchers evaluate and understand the performance potential of their cattle.
“BOLT allows these collaborating breed associations to own a relatively low-cost computer with our software systems and models on it, and it automatically dumps data into it and runs the evaluations and produces EPDs,” said Golden. “No longer do breeders have to wait to get their EPDs updated twice each year; now they have the results with a week, and that’s a big feature of this technology. This work through IGS allows these breed associations to improve the accuracy and predictability of their EPDs, and because they are pooling their data, it enhances the information and allows for easy comparisons of animals across breeds.”
The American Simmental Association (ASA) was the first of the IGS partners to roll out the new and improved EPDs using the BOLT software.
“We’ve been working with this new system for several months now, and the transition has been pretty smooth for two reasons; first, it’s thanks to incredible effort and work that went into testing things out ahead of time, and second, our breeders have been on board with this from the beginning,” said Chip Kemp, ASA director and IGS commercial and industry operations. “Our membership, as well as the IGS population, have known this evolution was a necessary step to staying on the cutting edge, and this has allowed producers to really improve the accuracy and predictability of our EPDs.”
One major difference many breeders have noticed is a distinct shift in some of the EPDs as outliers and extremes have more accurately aligned and the EPDs have compressed.
“EPDs are more accurate, but the numbers appear to be lower, so seedstock producers will need to reconcile with the fact that accuracy for traits have declined even though they are more accurate than before” said Spangler. “With the change to a single-step system, the EPDs have shifted, and it’s going to take some time for seedstock and commercial producers to retrain their minds to understand the new parameters. As bulls move to new rankings, producers need to be cognizant of the adjusted thresholds and percentile rankings, and I encourage folks to peruse the breed association websites to learn breed specific details about these changes.”
The IGS partners aren’t the only ones working to improve the accuracy of their EPDs. In mid-2017, the American Angus Association (AAA) began to incorporate genomic information into EPDs using the single-step approach. The AAA also updated the underlying statistical models to estimate EPDs.
In addition, the American Hereford Association (AHA) also relies on the BOLT software, and released its new evaluation system in December 2017. At the same time, AHA also updated its economic indices to include more Economically Relevant Traits, as well as new economic assumptions.
Throughout 2018, the IGS partners have slowly began to release the new EPDs derived from the updated BOLT software, with more to come. Most recently, the American Gelbvieh Association released its BOLT-powered EPDs, and Kemp anticipates new breed associations will join the collaboration in the near future.
“All of the partners are really invested in this and have been instrumental in helping this effort move forward,” said Kemp. “The biggest piece of this has been the willingness of all of these breed associations to share the best information possible with commercial producers. No single breed is the answer, but responsible, thoughtful crossbreeding adds merit — not only in carcass traits, but also in cow longevity, durability and functionality. It’s amazing to see these breed associations work together to tell this story.”
“It’s really pulling back the curtain and allows these seedstock producers to be totally transparent and straightforward with their commercial producers,” added Spangler. “Commercial producers have been marketed at and repeatedly told what they need, but now this switches the model around, so they can evaluate from breed to breed and make decisions for themselves. It takes a remarkable level of humility to work together that collaboratively, but that’s what has made the BOLT method really matter.”
Now when producers evaluate sale catalogs, they can now directly compare the EPDs of a Simmental to a Gelbvieh to a Limousin with ease. Moving forward, genomic-enhanced EPDs will certainly help make meaningful genetic changes for both commercial and seedstock producers; however, Kemp urges cattlemen to keep other factors in mind as they make breeding decisions.
“Should we be leveraging DNA information as aggressively as we can?” asked Kemp. “Yes, absolutely. DNA is a sexy topic right now, but if we don’t tie that information to phenotypes and actual physical measures, we risk disconnecting these traits over time. Resist the temptation to select solely on the DNA data. Now, more than ever, we need to really look at the whole picture. And now with these BOLT-powered EPDs, producers can ignore the propaganda and selling points and closely examine the bulls and their data to make the best decisions for the operations.”
“There is still so much untapped potential here,” added Golden. “We are in the first step where we are getting the genomic data up to date, but now it’s up to producers to use the information in a sensible way to make the right decisions that maximize progress while managing risk.”