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DNA tenderness tests gaining acceptance, driving profits
Indiana Correspondent

LOGAN, Iowa — Jim O’Neil’s family has been in the Angus seedstock business in Logan, Iowa for more than half a century. While their seedstock herd is relatively small, the O’Neil’s and a few of their customers are at the forefront of innovative uses of genetic DNA testing.

The O’Neil’s raise Angus with the commercial breeder in mind and have been emphasizing performance, efficiency and carcass traits for years. Three years ago, they began using DNA tenderness tests from Bovigen to learn more about their herd.

“A customer decided to DNA test a number of calves with our line breeding; we had good results,” said O’Neil, who began testing at his home farm and now tests for both tenderness and marbling.

“We’ve had tremendous interest in our tested animals,” O’Neil said specifically citing yearly increases in embryo values on a cow that has an 8-star for tenderness.

O’Neil said the cow’s embryos brought $750 each three years ago; $1,150 each last year, and this year were $1,850 each. He attributes this increase to providing customers with a good genetic package, including the tenderness star information.

In Freeman, S.D., Lance Pankratz, owner/operator of LaGrand Angus and Hereford Ranch, started using DNA tenderness testing in 2004 with plans to gain in the long term from his investment.

“We’ve tested both our Angus and Herefords and found Angus to be 66 percent better on the tenderness. We’ve been concentrating on improving Hereford’s tenderness scores since,” said Pankratz, who added that he is mating commercial Angus to his highest tenderness star Hereford bulls to create improved carcass traits in the F1 result.

“We’ve found that tenderness is highly heritable,” Pankratz said. “We’re planning to start our own South Dakota brand beef; people will pay extra for a steak they know is guaranteed to be tender.”

The cost of testing varies depending on the number of cows, and if both marbling and tenderness tests are combined.

The price range is basically $45-65 per animal with prices decreasing after more than 100 animals are tested.

“You only have to test an animal once in it’s life; their genes aren’t going to change. We test at weaning when we are culling for breeding stock,” Pankratz said.

Both breeders agree that culling based upon a positive or negative tenderness star score is not advised.

“You cannot sacrifice feet and legs, or things like fertility for tenderness, no matter what,” O’Neil said noting that single trait selection of any kind is not useful to a cattle operation.

Bovigen, based in Harahan, La., markets the widely used GeneStar tests for tenderness and marbling that both Pankratz and O’Neil use. They believe these DNA tests provide an excellent supplement to a producer’s in herd predictability.

“Quality grade has nothing to do with tenderness, that’s a misconception in the industry,” said Calvin Gunter, director of corporate development at Bovigen. “There is a correlation between marbling and tenderness, but it’s not perfect.”

The common use of marbling to predict eating quality is not precise nor always accurate, he said.

Gunter estimates that more than 3 percent of USDA Prime, for example, is tough when eaten. Bovigen believes the beef industry will benefit from a move to testing for tenderness genes in an individual animal.

“The industry needs a low cost, efficient way to pay for quality grade and yield grade, weight and tenderness,” Gunter said, commenting that Bovigen is in talks with most major packers to use tenderness testing at the packing level.

“We believe tenderness testing will be a part of grid systems at harvest soon,” he said.

Currently, demand for breeding stock that has a high tenderness star score seems to be increasing and bringing profits cattleman to cattleman.

“Our customers are reading about tenderness testing and saying they’re bidding on animals with higher tenderness scores,” Pankratz said.

“This is really helping to sell animals; I’m searching for a high quality, 10-star bull,” O’Neil said, noting that a 6-star bull - which is a solid tenderness score - topped the Iowa Beef Expo Angus sale this year at $27,000.

O’Neil believed the high tenderness score was one reason the bull sold for that amount.

While many seedstock producers are solidly behind the use of DNA testing for tenderness and marbling, the commercial industry is still evaluating its value.

“I think commercial breeders can afford it, but the only way this testing will really work is if premiums are paid for the guaranteed tenderness,” O’Neil commented.

Pankratz added, “Starting now and over the next 10 years, people will begin to demand better beef products. These are the tools we’ll have to use to provide it.”

This farm news was published in the May 24, 2006 issue of Farm World.