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Livestock

Heifer selection technology important for harnessing full power of genetics

Written by Saige Albert

As cattle herd expansion continues, many producers are focused on selecting replacement heifers – a process that is historically based only on visual appraisal. However, products are available today to improve the selection process.

“The premier heifer selection product on the market is called GeneMax Advantage,” explains Kent Andersen, Zoetis technical services specialist. “We’ve taken what we’ve learned after testing many thousands of registered Angus seedstock and developed a commercial-oriented product to help cow/calf producers augment selection based on phenotype.”

Andersen notes that GeneMax Advantage strives to help commercial operators look at selection, mating and marketing decisions within their herds using more comprehensive genetic information about traits in the unseen and often unmeasured world.

Making a game plan

“Using this genetic test helps to synergize Angus bull buying with replacement heifer selection,” Andersen says. “When we talk to commercial users of Angus genetics, we do so in the context of having a complete genetic game plan.”

Using the analogy of a football game, Andersen compares offense to buying the best bulls in terms of superior genomically enhanced (GE)-EPDs.

He continues, “The defensive part of the game plan is using a tool like GeneMax Advantage to pick the best replacements based on both traditional and new information.”

Utilizing a combined strategy allows producers to get an increased level of genetic gain and see faster progress.

“We can progress productivity on an annual basis more quickly if we use both of these tools wisely, as opposed to just traditional means,” Andersen says.

Testing procedure

Testing heifers is a relatively simple process, Andersen notes. Producers must first collect and submit a DNA sample.

DNA can come from blood samples on a blood card, hair samples or tissue samples.

“Blood samples can be pulled from the ear or tail head – wherever the producer is most comfortable getting it from,” Tonya Amen, genetic service director at the American Angus Association (AAA), says. “For hair, we need 20 to 40 good hairs out of the switch of the tail.”

It is important when collecting hair samples to ensure the root bulb of the hair is intact.

“The third way, Allflex® tissue sampling, is more recent, and we only take tissue samples for commercial, not registered Angus, cattle,” she adds.

Orders and samples are submitted through the AAA website at angus.org or by filling out an Excel ordering spreadsheet and emailing it, as well as including a printed copy with the samples.

After samples are received, they are tested, and results are compiled.

“We determine the genotypes and send the information back to Angus Genetics, Inc. (AGI),” Andersen says. “Reports are then distributed to the customer via an emailed report and link to their secured AGI member account.”

While results are often received within three weeks, Andersen and Amen encouraged producers to allow a month for mailing of samples. The extra time also allows for re-testing if a sample fails initial testing.

Understanding the information

When information is available, producers receive a report that ranks heifers on several simple, easy-to-use economic index scores that account for the costs and value of production.

“We rank heifers based on an index of maternal traits that we call Cow Advantage for combined genetic merit for heifer pregnancy, calving ease maternal, weaning weight, growth, milk production of the cow and mature cow size,” Andersen says.

A second index, Feeder Advantage, ranks combined genetic merit for all post-weaning traits, and Andersen notes that it picks up where Cow Advantage leaves off. These traits include feedyard gain, dry matter intake, carcass weight, ribeye area and marbling scores, valued on a Certified Angus Beef (CAB) grid.

“The third index is called Total Advantage, and it includes all of the above,” he says. “It ranks the candidate replacement females on everything – maternal, feedlot and carcass.”

GeneMax Advantage also identifies animals with outlier genetic merit in key traits that may impact keep or cull and mating decisions.

“Thanks to AGI, we also have Smart Outlier reporting, which flags animals that may be out of bounds for costs associated with cow size, milk, docility, marbling and tenderness,” Andersen explains. 

Recognizing that each commercial cow/calf operation is unique, cow/calf producers can also customize thresholds for identifying outliers to more efficiently achieve specific productivity goals. 

The final component of the GeneMax Advantage report is the identification of the sires for tested heifers, if Angus bulls in the battery are HD50K or i50K tested. This enables better management of outcross mating decisions and secondary evaluation of the bull battery.

Benefits of testing

Utilizing a heifer selection product offers a number of benefits for commercial cattlemen, Amen and Andersen explain.

Amen notes, “When we think about the information that goes into these products, I don’t know of any others that are like GeneMax Advantage that incorporate the performance data and all of the database information.”

With over 180,000 Angus genotypes in AAA’s database, she adds that the tool provides an opportunity to link genetic information with the dollar-value indexes available.

She also notes that testing heifers allows comparison of animals from year to year on an equal basis.

“It allows producers to compare apples to apples each year,” Amen explains. “Producers can set benchmarks and see how they are making progress.”

Revolutionary and dynamic

“The reason we are so excited about GeneMax Advantage is it is a dynamic product and  is synergized with HD50K and i50K testing by Angus breeders,” Andersen says. “Currently, AGI and Zoetis are working on the fifth version of HD50K. It includes upwards to 100,000 animals.”

Amen adds, “As we make changes at AAA, whether that is adding new traits or new data, we can update GeneMax Advantage. It is always current. We can count on accurate, up-to-date information.

“The more producers know about the cowherd, the better job they can do in the spring as they buy Angus bulls,” Andersen adds.

Genetic testing for heifers, connected to the bull battery, provides a new paradigm in the world of genetics, he continues, noting that the value return from better bull and heifer selection and breeding decisions is poised to extend into price discovery for feeder cattle that’s based on predicted performance in the feedyard and on the rail.

Andersen comments, “We think we are at the tip of the iceberg as far how this information is used in the future to impact beef supply chain profitability.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..