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UW researches potential of genomic testing

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“At the Wyoming Stock Growers Association meeting a few years ago, we received some feedback from producers noting heifer selection and feed efficiency were two of their greatest concerns from a genetic standpoint,” explains Dr. Chris Bastian, professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wyoming (UW).

            After working with colleague Dr. Nicole Ballinger, who was interested in genomic testing, Bastian explains they, with other colleagues, put in a proposal for a small competitive grant with UW’s Agriculture Experiment Station (AES) so they could perform an analysis on the economic potential of genomic testing on cow/calf operations. 

 “Genomic testing technology has been adopted in the seedstock sector, but because it is so expensive, it generally isn’t utilized in cow/calf operations. Therefore, we wanted to perform an analysis on its potential in the cow/calf sector of the beef industry,” he explains. 

Data collection

“After Dr. Ballinger retired, I felt like feed efficiency was a bigger concern for the cow/calf industry because there is more of a chance for profitability improvement,” Bastian says. “The problem was, there was a lot less data, in fact there are no data on the topic, so we started piecing together information on feeding trials and looking for data on feedlot cattle.”

             Bastian explains his analysis looked at data gathered by Dr. Steven Paisley at UW’s James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Goshen County.

            “They collected the data with a GrowSafe system, which logs the animal through an electronic identification tag and measures how much they eat each time they go up to the feed bunk. They coupled that with frequent weighings,” he explains. “We took data on their feed intake, average daily gain, calculated their average feed efficiency and sorted them into above average and below average groups.” 

The analysis

            From the data collected at SAREC, Bastian explains they found an average improvement of 13 percent for animals that performed above average, which is the number they used in their analysis.

            “We then analyzed steers and set up a feedlot budget that would be representative of the Intermountain West. Then we analyzed the potential profitability,” Bastian explains.

            “Assuming we could improve all animals by 13 percent, we wanted to understand what it would do in terms of profitability, so we worked backwards to figure out what it would cost a cow/calf producer at a normal replacement rate,” he continues. 

            Therefore, Bastian notes they set up the analysis to measure the improvement in profitability after seven years of using the feed efficiency marker to select heifers with the end goal of 13 percent improvement in the herd’s feed intake. 

            He also notes their analysis looked at two different herd sizes – an average ranch with 200 cows and an average ranch with 521 cows. 

            The analysis lasted a year and a half.

The results

            “Keep in mind, there is absolutely no data out there linking the genomic marker for feed efficiency to performance, but we did come up with some numbers that offer really great insight,” Bastian says. 

            “If producers started the selection process out by testing their entire herd, then only testing heifers every year, selecting for feed efficiency wouldn’t show positive returns until year eight or year 10 for the 200 cow operations,” he explains. 

             For the cow/calf herds with 521 cows, Bastian says they would potentially see positive returns by year seven. 

            “The research shows if we can improve herd feed efficiency by 13 percent, it would take a long time to pay for current genomic testing costs,” he notes. “This is why it is economically wise for cow/calf producers not to spend money on genomic testing right now. Instead, they are better off selecting for traits they have been selecting for all along using other data such as EPDs.” 

            He continues, “Until the technology gets cheaper, I don’t see the benefit from an economic standpoint, and until it becomes profitable for the cow/calf producer, I don’t think we will see widespread adoption of genomic testing.” 

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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