By DNA testing each heifer, a commercial rancher can evaluate how his future replacements rank for “stayability,” a term that refers to the probability that a female will remain in the herd long enough to produce six calves, according to Jim Gibb, a technical services manager for Neogen.

By DNA testing each heifer, a commercial rancher can evaluate how his future replacements rank for “stayability,” a term that refers to the probability that a female will remain in the herd long enough to produce six calves, according to Jim Gibb, a technical services manager for Neogen.

Those six calves represent the breakeven the rancher needs to cover the cost of developing that heifer from weaning through her first pregnancy, estimated to be somewhere around $550 to $650 a head, he said.

Gibb addressed a recent meeting of the Bent-Prowers Bent-Prowers Cattle & Horse Growers Association in Rocky Ford after traveling from the Front Range city of Louisville.

Not only can ranchers use the test to determine which females to retain, it’s also a selling point when offering heifers for sale, Gibb said. At least one marketing program, Top Dollar Angus, also allows ranchers to use the tests to add value to steer mates from the same calf crop.

Cost of the test ranges from $25 to $40, depending how many traits are evaluated. Gibb explained that to get a DNA reading the rancher would need to either pull a hair from the tail head or draw a droplet of blood and place the material on a small card to send to a lab for processing. Buying the card or a full processing kit adds several bucks more.

He also talked about how his company’s genetic profiling works. The company evaluates a broad number of traits, such as calving easy, heifer pregnancy rate, milk and docility, and gives each animal a score from 1 to 10. Those scores are then used to calculate a production index — expressed as another one-digit number — associated with overall performance in large general categories like growth and performance, feedlot performance or maternal characteristics.

The cattlemen attending the meeting had some questions for him. How does a trait like “stayability” translate across different geographic regions? Who owns and controls the genetic material once collected? How much genetic material does the test actually take into account? Can test results be used to get a premium for feeder calves?

Gibb said the company’s genetic database includes sires scattered across all environments, and the computations are designed to remove environmental factors from the equation. His company stores the test samples and results, and he assured the group they could only be obtained with the cattle owner’s permission.

He added that the earliest genetic tests, done back in 2008, were based on 50,000 gene markers. By comparison, Neogen’s tests today take into account 250,000 markers. “We’re getting closer to the actual genes. It’s pretty powerful,” Gibb said.

Genetic testing is still not cheap enough or fast enough to be used for feedlot procurement, he noted. The current turnaround time is two to three weeks.

Nolan Stone, a general manager for JBS Five Rivers cattle feeding and the president-elect of the Colorado Livestock Association, recently appeared on a panel to discuss the use of genomics. He confirmed that DNA testing has a ways to go before it will be routinely sought by feedlots.

One reason might be that at Kersey’s Kuner Feedyard, which Stone runs, genetic differences are actually more pronounced when cattle are fed under a natural protocol, which at the current time represents only a small segment of the industry, he said. The modern technologies used in conventional feeding programs tend to mask genetic differences, he added.