Benchmarking against global gene pools best strategy for beef seedstock

March 14, 2018 9:07 am

At the recent Meat and Livestock Australia Livestock Genetics Forum in Brisbane several speakers indicated that genetic evaluation in the Australian beef industry should move to an across-breed platform, similar to Sheep Genetics evaluation.

Drawing parallels between what has apparently been achieved with genetic evaluation in the sheep industry and what might be appropriate in the beef industry can be misleading.  The Sheep Genetics evaluation is an isolated within-country analysis, which may make a lot of sense in an industry where Australia dominates the global gene pool.

In the beef world, irrespective of what breed you look at, Australia contains is a relatively small proportion of the global gene pool.  Consequently, to maximise genetic progress in Australian beef herds it is arguably more important to pursue effective international genetic benchmarking rather than diverting our energy and investment into within-country across-breed evaluation.

Even if across-breed genetic evaluation options were available at some point in the future, Australian breeders would need to decide if it is more important to compare their genetics with other breeds within Australia, or to continue to benchmark against global gene pools.  Our market research indicates that, at least in the Angus breed, most breeders view the latter as far more important for driving future genetic improvement and for pursuing future export opportunities for Australian Angus genetics.

Documented genetic trends show that Angus breeders in Australia have historically made world-leading rates of genetic gain through commitment to performance based selection coupled with the use of BREEDPLAN and effective utilisation of the global Angus gene pool.

Angus BREEDPLAN already includes a multi-breed component with the calculation of EBVs for Angus-influenced crossbred and composite animals.  This relies on having a network of genetic links among animals included in the analysis. The lack of genetic links between different breeds (almost by definition) will make broad-scale across-breed evaluation very difficult or impossible to achieve without substantial investment in research to benchmark breed differences and quantify heterosis (hybrid vigour) for inclusion in the analysis. This research would take many years to complete and would absorb much of the available genetics R&D budget.

Rather than committing massive investment into across-breed evaluation, Angus Australia believes that R&D effort may be better directed at improving the existing genetic evaluation model and more rapid incorporation of genomics and related technology.  Unless continuous improvement of our existing genetic evaluation technology is not pursued then it will no longer be world’s best practice or the method of choice for future evaluation.

The availability of across-breed EBVs would not necessarily change breeding decisions made by commercial producers or impact rates of genetic progress. Even in commercial crossbreeding programs, animal selection decisions are usually made on a within-breed basis.  The combination of breed attributes in a structured crossbreeding program is a proven way to enhance profitability. However, this does not necessarily require the ability to directly compare genetics across breeds, but rather to select the most suitable animals within each component breed included in the cross-breeding program .

Incorporating data from commercial industry databases can increase the amount of useful information included in genetic evaluation. However, proprietary ownership of data and legal restrictions around access to public databases currently make this very difficult to achieve on a broad scale.  Nevertheless, through mutual partnership arrangements with other participants in the supply chain, a considerable amount of useful commercial data is already incorporated into Angus BREEDPLAN.

Angus Australia is committed to expanding the genetic evaluation opportunities available to commercial breeders.  For example,  the Angus HeiferSELECT tool released in 2017 enables commercial breeders to utilise genomics testing to assist in selection of heifer replacements.  We are currently exploring options for the development of similar tools for use in selecting feeder steers for different finishing programs.  As genomics testing becomes cheaper such tools are expected to have widespread application in the commercial sector.  But, by the very nature of genomics, this will be highly breed specific and will rely on having strong breed based genomic reference populations.

Peter Parnell, CEO Angus Australia