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Improve Grazing Distribution Genetically

Researchers are generating genetic data and tools to help cattlemen improve grazing distribution.

by Megan Silveira, editorial intern

LOVELAND, Colo. — Milt Thomas, professor at Colorado State University, said he believes we are in the age of genetics. Thomas explored “Genomic Approaches to Improve Grazing Distribution” during the Emerging Technologies breakout session June 21 at the Beef Improvement Federation Research Symposium and Convention in Loveland, Colo.

“A lot of the things we need our cattle to do are not easy to measure,” Thomas said. “It’s just the nature of the beef industry.”

Thomas said grazing distribution is one of those traits difficult to track. The behavioral-type trait varies greatly from animal to animal, and it is a measurement crucial to the success of cow-calf operations. One of the things Thomas said makes grazing distribution difficult to track is that it is a polygenic trait — multiple genes and alleles control the way a single cow grazes.

“There’s not one single magic gene or magic marker that will tell us why a cow climbs hills to graze or stays on flat ground,” Thomas explained. There are a few, however, that appear to be important.

In research focused on five genes, Thomas said he has found “markers” on chromosomes helping him to identify whether cattle are “bottom dwellers” or “hill climbers.”

Thomas said he has been paying particularly close attention to GRM5 — a specific gene affecting grazing distribution. Thomas said this gene controls appetite in an animal, their locomotion, motivation and spatial memory. While Thomas said he does not yet know how this gene plays into grazing distribution, it has a significant role in where cattle go to graze.

For the five main genes Thomas has been studying, he said, they have found markers for 10 specific genotypes. He hopes to discover if these genotypes can help ranchers predict how cattle will graze.

The main goal Thomas has for his grazing distribution studies is to learn how to find and breed cattle that harvest forage the most efficiently. With all this new genomic information, Thomas sees a breeding value for grazing distribution in the future.

Thomas said by finding genotypes and combining them with what cattlemen already know about phenotypes, an expected progeny difference (EPD) for grazing distribution might be eventually created. While this potential EPD could help ranchers make breeding decisions, it does pose a few challenges. It will not be able to be tracked like other EPDs. Thomas is, however, hopeful that with more research, the EPD will become a reality for ranchers.

Despite admitting he does not yet have the answers to a lot of questions about genomics’ role in grazing distribution, Thomas said he is eager for the future. Since this is the “age of genetics,” Thomas firmly said genomic tools and data will play a large role in helping ranchers better understand grazing distribution.

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