What’s an EPD without genomics?

Holly Martin
American Angus Association

Jared Decker’s grandfather was a cattleman. He taught Jared the right way to build fence. He taught him to value good cattle. And he taught him to respect the tradition of the cattle industry.

Decker is now assistant professor of beef genetics at the University of Missouri. While Decker continues to respect that tradition, he also recognizes the tools and technology of the modern-day beef industry.

The legacy of a strong and vibrant beef industry is dependent on recognizing new opportunities, Decker said, and in particular — technology adoption.

One technology that is commonly used today by cattlemen, is expected progeny differences (EPDs). Today, most beef producers don’t give a second thought to the validity that EPDs bring to their breeding decisions. Decker reminded breeders not to lose sight of what “expected” means.

“Not only is it talking about a prediction of the future, but it’s also meaning an average of a large group,” he said. “It’s a prediction about how the average of a calf crop is going to perform.”

Recently, cattlemen have a new tool — genomics — that helps add to the accuracy of those EPDs, but there remains a question of whether they are having too much influence on the resulting EPDs.

The question comes up when an animal’s EPDs change significantly after they are genomically tested. But Decker said EPDs without genomics are the average. Adding genomics ties specific genes to specific performance data measuring genetic similarity and increasing the accuracy of an EPD.

And yet, biology is still random. For the same reason that brothers in the human population are different, Decker said, so too are full-sibling bulls. One brother may be tall, lanky and fair-haired; and the other brother will be shorter, broader and have dark hair. The two are the result of the same mating, but the genetics they received are different.

“Consistency is one of those things that producers really crave,” Decker said. “They want to make sure they have that very predictable, very uniform calf crop, and biology just continues to smack us in the face and not give us that consistency.”

Genetic variation is always going to be there. The typical bell curve, regardless of selection will show consistently. While the shape of that curve stays the same, producers can slide that right or left based on the breeding decisions they make.

“For a long time in the beef industry, we would hear people market a set of flush-mate brothers,” Decker said. “There was kind of the implication there that these full brothers were carrying identical genetics, and in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Genomic testing actually allows us to identify those genetic differences between full siblings and allows us a much more accurate and a much more reliable estimate of those genetic merits, he said. That happens by using pedigree information to measure genetic similarity.

“So now the performance data that we collect and the contemporary groups that we report, the pedigree information and genomics — they’re all working together, pulling in the same direction, trying to make sure that we get as accurate predictions as possible,” Decker said.

We know adding genomics to the mix adds to the accuracy of an EPD and gets us there faster, said Stephen Miller, Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI) director of genetic research. A recent study conducted by AGI determined how well performance and genomics predict an animal’s underlying breeding value, since that represents his true genetic merit.

The study (described in more detail in this month’s By The Numbers column on Page 42) compared 178 genotyped Angus sires, born in 2015 and 2016, that have progeny performance records for Birth Weight (BW), Weaning Weight (WW), Yearling Weight (YW) and ultrasound IMF (IMF). Those records were used to calculate a classic progeny-based EPD without genomics as an indication of the sire’s true breeding value. AGI compared these classic progeny-based EPDs on those bulls with EPDs calculated with different sources of information including parent information and adding their own performance, genotypes alone and genotype and performance together.

“In all the scenarios, an EPD generated with just a genotype is better at predicting the future of a young bull’s progeny performance than an EPD that includes his performance data, but no genotype,” Miller said.

The results tell us that a relatively inexpensive genomic test can improve the accuracy of EPDs significantly, allowing breeders to more accurately market their cattle to their customers.

So should producers spend their resources collecting phenotypic data (or performance data) or spend that time and money on genotyping? Decker said the research shows you should do both.

“At the end of the day, if we stop collecting trait records, our genetic evaluations fall completely apart,” Decker said. “So, it’s so important that we get complete, accurate records turned in because that’s really what drives the bus.”