February 23, 2018

Is Genomic Testing Worth The Cost?

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

If you head south on California’s Highway 99, just past the town of Tulare, you’ll find Four J Farms and Dairy. The Junio family has been farming in the central valley since the early 1920s. In 1996 the family decided it would be more efficient to feed their crops to livestock than to market them, so the family set out to build a dairy. Today Ryan Junio manages the 4,000 cows they milk on two facilities. The Junios are committed breeding high-quality Jersey cows. For that reason, they rely on genetic testing to make management decisions.

“I sell replacements on a monthly basis, and I need to know which ones to sell and which ones not to sell,” Junio explains. Another way he finds value in genomic testing is through diversifying his revenue by breeding for beef calves. “I take the bottom 25% of my herd and breed it to beef to diversify my revenue a little bit,” Junio says. “I have beef calves coming out of the low end of my herd.” The top 75% of his herd get bred with sexed semen, a practice that is becoming more common throughout the country.

According to Lyssa Seefeldt with the University of Wisconsin- Extension, dairy beef cross cattle have become an increasingly popular option for dairy farmers looking to capture additional market value on calves that aren’t needed for the dairy herd.

“Many dairy farms are selecting a percentage of their lower —potential or low—producing animals of the herd and breeding to beef sires,” she says. Paying for genomic testing. When margins are tight, producers scrutinize every purchase. Junio says the $38 test fee for each heifer is worth it. “From a commercial dairy standpoint, verifying parentage and just knowing what to sell and what not to sell, is more than worth the cost,” he says.

According to Micah Wallis, animal protein account manager with Neogen, Junio’s sentiment is a common one among producers who have a history of genomic testing. “For those producers who have been testing for a while, they haven’t backed off from testing at all,” he says. “They have seen the value in testing and want to keep going.” Parentage verification is one reason. “Probably 15% to 20% of parentage information on a dairy is wrong,” Wallis says. Most of the misidentification is from poor record keeping. The accuracy of genomic testing is another. According to Zoetis, the statistical accuracy of genomic wellness traits is about 70%, compared with 42% accuracy for parent average.

“Genomic tests aren’t right every time,” explains Kent Weigel, a University of Wisconsin dairy geneticist. “But they’ll be right seven or eight times out of 10, rather than five out of 10 with parent average.” While some producers might decide to quit genomic testing to save money given the milk price, Junio doesn’t plan to. “It’s an expensive part of my cost of production,” he says, “but it’s one that I won’t get away from.”