WOOSTER, Ohio – Animal scientist John Wagner and his team recently set out to answer the question of is there potential application for DNA technology in the feedlot? Completed by Colorado State Univ. (CSU), the research concluded the answer is yes.

“We know precious little about the cattle when we go into a feeding situation with them,” Wagner said. “We all know that millions of dollars have been spent to map the bovine genome and tools have been developed to help with selection of breeding stock.”

However, adopting DNA technology has been somewhat limited to purebred producers.

DNA from 1,100 yearling steers was collected by the CSU team, and 360 of them were selected based on results and then sorted those into one of four groups: low tenderness with low marbling, low tenderness with high marbling, high tenderness with low marbling or high tenderness with high marbling.

The group predicated to have lower quality had an average marbling score of 437, which compared to a 464 score for the high-marbling group.

“That’s almost one-third of a quality grade,” said Larry Corah, vice president of supply for Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB). “That’s significant when you look at the value difference between grading Choice over Select or premium Choice versus Choice.”

The high-marbling group graded 80 percent Choice and higher, while only 64 percent of the low-marbling group met that threshold. ‘This proves that DNA technology works to sort cattle into predictable outcome groups,” Corah said.

The low- and high-tenderness groups confirmed this theory. Using the industry standard Warner-Bratzler shear force test, the low tenderness group had a higher score, 3.92, compared to more desirable 3.59 rating for the high tenderness group.

Wagner suggests the biggest limitations to widespread use right now are turnaround time and cost, but some producers might already be set up to easily implement it.” There are some producers who are on a revaccination program or who are doing a delayed implant program,” he said, noting they could get samples upon receiving and re-sort cattle during that second trip through the chute.

He envisions chute-side tests someday taking place. “That would have been unheard of several years ago, but I think the sky’s the limit as far as what technology will be available to us in the future,” Wagner said.

One more key will be reaping a reward for the investment.” You’d have to get some kind of value-based marketing program to receive benefits,” he said.

It might help determine which cattle are sold on a grid rather than a flat, live price, Corah said. It could also assist with management decisions made on a pen-by-pen basis.

Feedlot-oriented DNA test applications aren’t limited to feeders, Wagner added. Cow-calf operators might be able to use the technology as a marketing tool.

“They could test cattle and put together packages of high-marbling or high-tenderness calves,” he said. However, they’d face the same issues of time and money, and would also need to be rewarded for that extra information.

“It’s an exciting age, to think of all we can learn about cattle before harvest,” said Corah, who expects to see more commercial-level DNA tests made available in 2012. “This just shows DNA is one more tool that producers can add to their toolbox.”

Funded, in part, by the by The Beef Checkoff and commissioned by the industry’s Joint Product Enhancement Committee, Merck Animal Health and Merial Limited also provided financial support.