Genomics part of University of Nebraska beef systems research

Jack Whittier, director of the University of Nebraska Panhandle District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center, speaks to Rotarians about the genomics component of the Nebraska Integrated Beef Systems Initiative (NIBSI) at the Scotts Bluff Country Club on Tuesday, April 30.

SCOTTSBLUFF — A multidisciplinary approach to beef production at the University of Nebraska is using genomics to help better predict beef cattle performance, Jack Whittier, director of the University of Nebraska Panhandle District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff told Rotarians at the Scotts Bluff Country Club on Tuesday.

The Nebraska Integrated Beef Systems Initiative (NIBSI) was launched in 2016 in the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. It is designed to leverage the many systems-based efforts underway at Nebraska to advance science-driven innovation in development of resilient systems for food animal production, health and well-being, and to train the diverse workforce required. With broad capacity across research, teaching and outreach, this initiative hopes to take advantage of the state and university’s potential to lead the development of resilient, integrated systems for the production and delivery of nutritious, high-quality beef.

Whittier presented a program on genomics in-place of geneticist John Pollak, who had to cancel his presentation and agenda on Tuesday due to a family emergency. Pollak is the former director of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center and is now the coordination lead for NIBSI at the university.

Whittier said Pollak has contributed greatly to the development of expected progeny differences (EPD), an evaluation of an animal’s genetic worth as a parent. Traditionally, genetic selection for livestock that carry specific traits has been based on producer collected data, (weights, carcass values, and reproduction rates), as well as knowledge of a specific pedigree, with breeding decisions are mostly based on that information.

Enter genomics — the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes.

“Genomics is a tool in livestock production used for parentage testing, managing defects, and aiding in more accurate selection for complex traits in cattle in this case,” Whittier said.

Scientists will map the genomes found in the cells of animals in search of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced “snip”) markers. Millions of SNPs distributed across a genome, and allow for various applications. Large assays (laboratory assessments) have been developed which contain greater than 50,000 SNPs. Whittier said that by identifying SNPs that are associated with specific traits, geneticists and microbiologists can track genetics across generations of livestock.

While the adoption and use of genomics has mostly been isolated to the seedstock sector of the beef industry, the greatest value may be in using DNA information across all sectors for both selection and management, especially when it comes to looking at defects.

“When those genetic defects are understood by a specific sire or dam, there’s a way to control the matings,” Whittier said. “As a defect shows up, you can identify where it came from in the population.”

By pairing SNP information with production records, genomics have contributed greatly to understanding EPD.

“With the addition of DNA into this we’ve been able to systematically measure things supplied by producers,” he said. “It helps make those predictions more accurate.”

Identifying traits that are hard to measure, such as disease resistance, could prove to be a major boon to the cattle industry, and will be a part of NIBSI, Whittier said. However, genetics are just one part of the study.

A systems approach to livestock production involves GEMS — Genetics, Environment, Management, and a fourth category that looks at societal interactions.

“Society may be a little more reluctant to de-horning cattle than they once were,” Whittier said. “By using genetic tools, to turn animals into polled animals, where they don’t have horns, you can select for sires that are polled and overcome that societal issue.”

Part of NIBSI will also improve the flow of genomic information from the seedstock, to commercial, to the feedlot, to the product — and back to the seedstock.

“That flow of information is meaningful, and has some economic value, but has not been as mainstream as it could be, and that’s what this process is designed to do,” Whittier said.

Whittier clarified that the program does not involve the modification of genetic material, but rather analyzing the genetic information to select for and “breed the best to the best.”

NIBSI research will be conducted across the state, including at the PHREC Research Feedlot north of Scottsbluff, with the collection of data hopefully allowing for a more accurate prediction of how cattle in the lot will perform.

In other news, Whittier said that he has received clearance to advertise for the feedlot nutritionist position at the feedlot, which has been vacant since Matthew Luebbe resigned in 2017.

“It’s a position that we’ve been anxious to fill and we finally got approval,” Whittier said. “We’re up and running, and hopefully be interviewing candidates in the June or July time period for that position.”

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