Genomics and “Joe the Dairyman”
As the U.S. presidential race began to wind down, Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain, introduced “Joe the Plumber” to the American public. Regardless of politics and the U.S. elections in 2008, the dairy industry has been in their own debates. Our topic, genomics, continues to be discussed both pro and con by nearly everyone involved within the dairy industry.
Having been encouraged to provide a simple and relative explanation of genomics, the purpose of this article is to do just that. Hopefully you will also gain a clearer appreciation for what genomics is doing or not doing for the industry. Remember it is important to accurately understand what genomics is and it is important to be realistic about what the contribution of genomics to the dairy industry can be.
Essentially, genomics is a fancy word for DNA. Most of us have watched the crime shows on television and watched as they used DNA technology to catch the criminals or link someone to a crime. I recently heard that scientists believe somewhere in the future they will be able to re-create extinct animals due to the use of DNA. Why? DNA is exact and specific to each individual. Each living thing has its own unique sequence of DNA. In our dairy industry, the use of DNA to determine parentage and more importantly, which characteristics from the family each offspring has obtained is now a reality.
“Joe the Dairyman”
Let’s use the example of Joe & Mary and their five children. Four of their children have similar black hair like their parents, yet one has blond hair. One would assume that since Joe and Mary have black hair, that all their offspring would have black hair as well. So, just where does the blond hair come from?
Here is one more example. Joe and Mary both stand 5’8” tall. Three of their children are also 5’8” tall, one stands at 5’2”, with the blond hair child being 6’5”. So again, where do these differences come from? The use of DNA or in the case of the dairy industry – genomics, can prove where these differences come from and also predict what could happen in the future.
Before the use of DNA or genomics, one relied on information passed on from generation to generation to find the stature and hair color answers. So where do these hair color and stature differences come from? The blond hair on the one child comes from John’s mother. Now in the case of the stature differences, all four grandparents are also approximately 5’8” tall. John also mentions that he doesn’t recall any of his ancestors being extremely tall or short, yet Mary recalls her mother mentioning that Mary’s grandfather was extremely tall and her grandmother was not so tall. Thus, it is the genetic contribution from Mary’s side of the family that influenced the stature of Joe and Mary’s children. If we take it a step farther, the use of DNA or genomics will allow us to predict with higher accuracy, the hair color and stature of John & Mary’s next child which is to be born next summer.
Genomics in Dairy Cattle
Through years of research and studying DNA sequencing patterns, scientists have determined the locations on bovine genomes for the various production, health and type traits in dairy cattle. Through this research, they can accurately determine which genomes each individual has received and as more individuals get tested, they can more accurately determine exactly where the specific traits are coming from.
Here is another example. We all have cows that we enjoy working with and owning. For those of us who enjoy breeding and studying conformation on cows, often times we come to the realization that cows are more than an equal combination of the fathers and mothers traits. For example, in the Holstein breed, think of the daughters of Regancrest Elton Durham. While many of his daughters have very similar characteristics, every now and then, there is one that does not. Via the use of genomics, we will be able to validate that her phenotypic make-up is due to a strong maternal influence and only a small portion of her physical appearance is due to the influence of Durham.
How will genomics influence “Joe the Farmer”?
On a day-to-day basis, I would expect there to be no change at Joe’s dairy. Every morning, the cows will still need to be milked, the calves fed and chores accomplished. It is when the sales-person from the A.I. company drives in the yard and wants to discuss that companies product, that Joe then may begin to gain from the use of genomics.
If Joe decides to buy semen on his favorite proven bull, the only noticeable difference after the January 2009 proofs could be a change in the reliability values for that individual. On the other hand, if Joe wants to purchase a new young sire to use on his herd, he may notice some changes in the information about the bull. Traditionally, a young sire’s promotional flyer would have pedigree information, parent average numbers for production and type, and a reliability value usually less than 40%. With the information provided by genomics, the promotional flyer will still include pedigree and parent average values, but will show a higher value for reliability. Why? Genomics simply adds more credibility to the information.
After the January 2009 genetic evaluations, information provided will change. For all unproven individuals that have been genomic tested, those values and only those values will be published. For individuals that have not been genomic tested, you will continue to see the same traditional information. Here is an example. In the case of a calf being registered from a genomic tested father and an untested mother, the parent average information you will receive on the pedigree will be a blend of the two values. The calf’s sire information will show his genomic values and the mother, her traditional parent average values.
For bulls that have received genetic evaluation information, and have been genomic tested, the information that is published will be a combination of his genomic values along with his daughters’ contributions. Those bulls that are 99% reliable, genomic results will not effect his genetic evaluation to any substantial degree.
Will Genomics change the industry?
Yes! I believe the genetic level of males selected by the A.I. industry will shift and become more intense. How? Here is a fictitious example. In 2008, the range of Holstein bulls sampled as ranked by parent average TPI was 1200 to 2400. Via the use of genomics, the range of TPI would have shifted to the right and that range would have been 1600 to 2500. The shift in TPI value is due to two simple facts: 1) The genomics tests that have been done on bulls born prior to 2003 and compared to their traditional parent average values validates the fact why they did not survive the sampling regiments. 2) The use of genomic testing will reveal which young sires have received the best traits from their parents and show that some of these values are actually higher than the average of their two parents, thus giving them higher parent average TPI value. So for Joe, the product he is purchasing today may be a better and more reliable product than the young bull he purchased previously.
Genomic testing will also reveal individuals that were not fortunate enough to get all the good traits from each side of the family. It will also identify individuals that been given preferential treatment, and thus inflated genetic values. We have all seen full brothers at A.I. centers that don’t have the same exact genetic evaluations. We have seen full sisters that are not identical in production and type as well. Genomic testing will unveil this information and allow bulls studs to save substantial expense in progeny testing bulls that won’t make an active status. It will also allow dairy producers to find the better of the full sisters at a younger age and allow them to capitalize on her genetics and not wasting time on the inferior siblings.
What does the future hold?
Those with vision and foresight may tell you that traditional young sire sampling programs may eventually disappear, as the need to sample bulls to find out who the best ones are will become less important. But just relax for the time being, over the next period of three to four years, the A.I. companies that have supported the genomic research will continue to sample bulls in the same traditional ways to validate what the research has shown. Dairy producers over the next couple of years will be merely involved in sampling more superior young sires than in the past, and receiving the benefits of the higher genetics offered.
Nothing in the dairy industry has changed, cows still need to be bred one at a time and calves are still born one at a time. As the industry changes, progresses and moves in a new direction, the use of aAa in your herd has never been more important than right now. The concepts of aAa have not changed since its inception in 1950 and the goal of every dairy producer to own cattle that are free from fault is still the top priority goal. Even if the traditional ways of sampling bulls disappears, rest assured that the accuracy of animal analysis on the male population will remain the vital link to properly using them on cows. Remember, aAa is still the only actual information about a bull that is published for use on your female cattle! From its inception, aAa animal analysis has helped producers make more profitable cows and its traditional time-tested values will not change.
Tim Baumgartner – author
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