The fact that a number of cavernous former wool stores around Geelong have now been converted into wool museums says a lot about the need for the livestock industry to maintain and build momentum in genetic improvement.
The observation was made by respected geneticist Dr Rob Banks while addressing Wagyu breeders attending their annual conference in Victoria’s bayside city of Geelong on Saturday.
Dr Banks, himself a prominent sheep geneticist earlier in his career, is now director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit based at UNE, Armidale.
While his comments were directed at the Wagyu segment of the beef industry, his message has equal resonance among other breed types where uptake of objective genetic selection technologies has been slow.
While there was no question that the Wagyu breed had a big opportunity ahead of it, it could not afford to get complacent about genetic progress.
‘Everybody in the beef world knows about the opportunities available through the combination of genomics and objective measurement – it’s just that others can’t necessarily put them together, as easily as Australian Wagyu can,” Dr Banks said.
One of the advantages held by the Australian Wagyu industry was that it was already very close to the point of routinely getting lots of data from the feedlot and abattoir level.
“For most other beef breeds in this country, that’s really hard work at the moment. Most of the data is collected in the stud sector, which is much less related to feedlot or butcher shop performance.”
“You people are already collecting this information, quite routinely. It allows you to put the data and genetics together to put the link back up to allow you to select the best animals, so that the genes filtering down are better and better over time.”
“That is the Wagyu breed’s unique opportunity: this combination of data that is readily and simply available through the feedlot and abattoir, and using genomics to make sense of that data. It’s an extraordinary opportunity, and if the breed can get the business model right for that, it will be very exciting times ahead.”
Other breeds, other countries and other sectors were also making rapid progress, however.
“In Japan, the Wagyu breed is making progress in growth and carcase traits, recording some 30,000 animals each year. Whatever marbling level the Japanese industry is at now, they will be a full marbling score higher, on average, in a few years’ time,” Dr Banks said.
“In this country, there’s no question that Wagyu cattle for eating quality traits are significantly superior to any other breed. It’s a great situation to be in, but other breeds are starting to collect the sort of feedlot data we’re talking about, to change that aspect of their product.”
Angus, the nearest competitor in marbling and eating quality, was seeing a strong positive trend in marbling, based on data collection.
“Whatever the gap between Wagyu and Angus is now, if Wagyu breeders do nothing, the Angus will have caught you within ten or 15 years, or perhaps less.”
Poultry and pigs were already putting heavy selection pressure on efficiency, to keep the cost of production as low as possible, while also selecting for eating quality traits, using latest genomic technologies, to make their product more desirable to the consumer.
“Don’t think that the good position that the Wagyu breed occupies today is going to automatically stay that way forever,” Dr Banks said.
Wagyu could continue to maintain a considerable advantage over other breeds, however – but it was a matter of getting large amounts of good data together and using it to define the very best animals to make progress on every single trait that impact profit along the supply chain.
“There’s a warning in industries like wool that for a long time thought their product was so good they did not have to do any work on cost of production or quality,” Dr Banks said.
“The reason those woolstores are now wool museums is that the industry – decade after decade – said their product was so good nobody could ever touch it – and all they had to do was market it.”
“The wool industry did nothing about genetic improvement until five or six years ago, and that was why those storage buildings are now museums,” he said.
Big task ahead for genetic selection
Dr Banks said the current Wagyu genetics project was about asking whether data collected from the feedlot, carcase and abattoir, could be put together with DNA information to develop genomic tools that would help breeders pick the better animals, and do it at a much, much younger age.
Data was being collected in the feedlot and from the abattoir, together with blood samples to secure the genomic pedigree of animals, and seeing what can be made of the data to understand the genetics for different traits which are important in the Wagyu breed to produce EBVs for sires, and develop a genomic test for use in bull breeding and feedlot management.
“Although it is looking promising, there’s no absolute guarantee the project will work,” he warned.
“The issue with feedlot data is that from a geneticists viewpoint it can be quite messy – there’s lots of things going on that can impact on the data analysis. One of the purposes of the project is to better understand the extent of that in the sort of data that is typically being collected.”
The project was about bringing objectively measured data and DNA testing together in order to deliver an ability to test very young Wagyu animals for genetic merit.
“You’re going to soon be in a position to screen very young animals and be able to identify the ones that are best for whatever traits you’re interested in, from those recorded,” Dr Banks said.
There were two parts to the project: the DNA technology, and the objectively recorded data, and it had become increasingly apparent in the last ten years that DNA technology without data was “complete rubbish.”
Another key element of the project is using recently developed Japanese camera carcase assessment technology to look at aspects of the Wagyu carcase that hitherto have not been able to be gleaned using conventional assessment methods. The focus in this area is how much more information the camera system is providing above technologies like scanning, and whether it is of any real value. The heritability of the camera-measured traits is also under scrutiny.
“This project is not an easy walk in the park: it’s research because there is uncertainty about those things,” Dr Banks said.
He used an example comparing two Wagyu sires – one with progeny producing an average marbling score of 8.5, and the other at 6.5. Typically there would be a big range on the marbling performance of progeny for both, from 6 to9+ for the first, and 4-8 for the second.
“From that, we can estimate the value of the sire’s genes, and it comes down to a difference, in this example of just under one marbling score – +0.8 for the better bull and -0,8 for the less one. That can be distilled down to the value of the sire’s genetics. Because the sire is only passing on half the genetic makeup of the progeny, what is seen is the superior bull passes on just under half a marbling score better than average, and the second, just under half a marbling score worse than average.”
The example reinforced the message that there is a huge spread in what is seen in marbling performance within the Wagyu breed. Both sires had some progeny that marbled at quite high levels, but it was their average performance that was trying to be distinguished, to determine what they were passing on to their progeny.
“The whole game is not about saying, ‘I produced some progeny with marbling scores of 9 from this bull’ – it’s about finding bulls and their females that have superior genetics which can move the Wagyu population forward,” Dr Banks said.
So far, the project had recorded carcase weights and AusMeat marbling scores on 1850 progeny of 160 Wagyu sires. Average carcase weight was 425kg, and marbling score 7.4 (range from 3-10). About 200 of those had been DNA-tested for genotype.
Camera-measured traits included marbling score, marbling coarseness, meat colour, marbling percentage, number and fineness of marbling particles and eye muscle area. That data is being subjected to genetic analysis.
“From the genetic analysis viewpoint, the first issue is to try to find out whether there are genetic differences detectable in the data – consistent patterns of sires having better or worse progeny than average,” he said.
“If we can find detectable patterns like that, we will look at the heritability. From initial results, the data is telling us that carcase weight in Wagyu is about 33pc heritable, which is consistent with other breeds and other estimates for Wagyu. It gives us some confidence that despite some problems with the data, we are picking-up genetic differences.”
For AusMeat marbling score, heritability is around 40pc, while the range of camera-assessed traits range from 25pc to 75pc.
“It’s telling us that we are making some sense of the data, that might be useful,” Dr Banks said.
“The heritabilities tell us immediately that those traits can be improved by selection. For example if we want to improve carcase weight at a constant age, we can do it – there are genetic differences, we can pick them, and pass that superiority on. The same for marbling score – there is genetic material there to work with.”
Some patterns were also being picked up in the genetic relationships between traits – growth rate and marbling for example. Encouragingly, overall positive genetic relationships were being seen between EBVs for AusMeat marbling score, and Japanese camera-assessed marbling score.
“We’re still cautious, at this early stage, about those genetic relationship estimates, but it looks reasonably promising, and it’s a pretty strong relationship,” Dr Banks said. “It looks like the relationship holds-up for scan IMF as well – it’s an interesting and potentially very valuable result.”
A sheet of initial ‘research’ Estimated Breeding Values was distributed among the conference attendees, for a range of traits and sires, including carcase weight, AusMeat and camera marbling score, rib eye area, and a marbling fineness index.
Dr Banks picked out a couple of examples from the list to illustrate the results. Concentrating on the marbling score EBV, he highlighted a sire and his son – both on the test- that were superior for marbling, but the son was also shown to be significantly better for carcase weight EBV – as much as 10kg genetically better, on average.
“That’s a nice example of what we’re trying to find: we’re analysing all these animals, but we’re looking for places where sons are better than their sires for one desirable trait, while being at least similar for others.”
“The real core to the project is to try to find sons that are better than their fathers, and heifers that are better than their mothers for these desirable traits,” Dr Banks said. “It’s the key to making genetic progress, and reinforces the importance of the data being the key to finding superior animals.”
So where might the early project findings lead?
“Sometimes when geneticists talk about where things might lead to, they are talking in timeframes of 10 or 20 years or more,” Dr Banks said. “In this case, we’re talking within a few months’ time. But these opportunities are all within the Wagyu industry’s grasp.”
“The first thing this project tells us straight away is that there is no question that genomic tests for this breed, for the traits of highest interest, are possible. The technology is working well – it’s just a matter of getting enough of the right data to drive it.”
“It’s also important to learn from this project about how to make sure that the data is really robust. Data harvesting causes all sorts of problems for analysis, and if it can be minimised or avoided, it makes the genomic test much more reliable.
A key to success within the Wagyu industry would be uptake. Geneticists had put a lot of effort into trying to determine how much data was necessary to make genomic technology test was reasonably accurate.
Logically, as the number of animals in the reference population grows, it improves the accuracy of a genomic test – for both less and more heritable traits.
Dr Banks suggested the ‘sweet spot’ for cattle populations in Australia could be for genomic tests that had an accuracy range of 50-60pc, requiring a reference population of 2000-5000 head, depending on the heritability of the trait.
While Wagyu at the moment was still way below that, it was still very early days, Dr Banks said.
“Where the breed needs to be – basically as soon as possible – is to get to 4000-5000 good records on animals, that are also recorded for DNA genotype,” he said.
“That will put the breed in the position to be able to use the genomic tests to pick animals, basically at any age they like, at around 60pc accuracy. Once the breed reaches that level, it needs to keep topping-up with a thousand or more new records each year, which I suspect is eminently do-able.”
Once the genomic test process was working well – which would not be that far off – breeders would be in a position to screen very young animals using genomics and performance data and make decisions about them for breeding or production purposes, as young as they wanted.
“It might sound like a geneticists dream to have all these good things in one package, but it will be possible to screen young bulls that are really good for early growth, growth efficiency, and then having all the carcase traits as well,” Dr Banks said.
“Equally cattle intended for slaughter will be able to be screened going into the feedlot, allowing their performance to be predicted with some confidence. That will save an enormous amount of money for the feedlot sector, in not feeding cattle beyond a certain point that do not have the genetic ability to produce high marbling.”
He said it became extremely clear with the project work that the absolute most precious resource available to breeders was the data.
“For that reason, the cost of collecting the data needs to be recognised, and I think that’s is going to change the way that all beef breeds work, because it is the phenotypic data that is the raw material for your future profits.”
“If you haven’t got it, you’re stuffed,” he said.