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How Prized Bull Semen And DNA Testing Are Reshaping America's Beef Herd

By Kristofor Husted

Beef cattle ranchers are getting wise to the science of genetics.

They have always known that making the best steak starts long before consumers pick out the right cut, or where an animal grazes or what it eats. The key is in the genetic makeup — or DNA — of the herd. And over the last year, those genetics have taken a historic leap thanks to new, predictive DNA technology.

This is playing out in rising auction prices for the best bulls as identified by genetic profiles or simply for their elite pedigree.

“The demand there is primarily because we have the best genetics in the world,” said Gordon Doak, president emeritus of the National Association of Animal Breeders.

Doak said the science is improving quickly.

“The bull (ranchers) used two years ago — they’re not going to use him again,” Doak said. “There’s new ones coming online all the time that have better genetics. That’s why (demand) has increased.”

Today, ranchers can shop for bulls or bull semen touting a very specific genetic concoction that’s prime for improving their herd. And those concoctions are becoming more valuable every day.

World record bull

Missouri rancher Brian Bell traveled to North Dakota for a cattle auction in February. Like many of the hundreds of attendees, he had his eye on a specific Angus bull named Elation.

Elation, raised at Schaff Angus Valley in North Dakota, is descended from a famous family of beef cattle and has the genetic recipe for efficient, meat-producing cattle.

“Perfect footed. Perfect uttered. Fertile,” Bell said. “You know these cattle have some longevity and will stay in people’s herd and allow them to be profitable.”  

Bell and Oklahoma rancher David Bogle teamed up so they could afford to bid on Elation.

“At the end there were three people bidding on the bull — one was from overseas and then two in the states,” Bell said. “And David jumped the last bid I think by $50,000. That was the deal sealer there.”

While some dairy cows have been auctioned for more than a million dollars, the final price for Elation —$800,000 — set a world record for a bull.

“It’s an investment in our herds,” Bell said, adding: “And then also we'll sell semen throughout the world and hopefully help pay for the bull.”

Yes, the semen.

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More than 2.5 million samples of beef semen were sold in the United States last year. That’s double from 2010, according to the National Association of Animal Breeders. Altogether, exports for dairy and beef cattle semen hit a record $170 million in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Trade data.

Bull semen is even sold on Amazon.

Elation demand

Brian Bell and David Bogle each hold 40 percent ownership of Elation, with 20 percent staying with Schaff Angus Valley.

And so far the investment is working out. While most Angus semen fetches $20 to $25 per sample (also called a straw), Elation’s semen is selling for $50.

Bell said they already have a waiting list from cattle ranchers across the world. As of April, Bell said he had already sold 4,500 straws and his investment in Elation could be paid off in one to three years, depending on how tasty Elation’s hundreds or even thousands of progeny turn out to be for beef customers.

That’s because he also plans to use Elation’s semen in about 450 of his own cows at Square B Ranch in Missouri.

“That's the most important part because ultimately that's our customer,” Bell said. “In the beef world, we're trying to grow beef whether it's at a high-end restaurant or they're picking it out of the meat department at a grocery store.”

DNA testing

About 85 percent of U.S. beef ranchers, though, still develop herd genetics the old-fashioned way — by setting a bull loose with cows in a pasture, according to estimates by the National Association of Animal Breeders.

In buying those bulls, ranchers traditionally have analyzed how a prospective bull’s progeny developed over generations, using genetic predictions called Expected Progeny Differences or EPDs. That shifted in November, when the American Angus Association introduced a genomic testing kit that drills down into even more specific traits.

For $37 a pop, ranchers can send a tissue or blood sample in and receive a readout on how that bull’s genetic makeup compares to others in the breed.

“Genomic testing allows us to basically find animals that are better for traits like marbling earlier that have a bigger tendency to pass down those traits later on in life as parents, so that we can create a better product for the consumer,” said Kelli Retallick, genetic services director for Angus Genetic Incorporated, the breeding arm of the American Angus Association.
 

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