Red Polls use modern genomic techniques to assess cattle for the potential to pass along many inherited characteristics. Red Polls current service provider is Neogen. Members wishing to avail themselves of the generous discounts should see the genomics page within the members area for details.
Genomics and Your Red Poll Herd
There is a new tool in the arsenal for understanding your herd. Traditionally, eyeballing cattle for assessment was the only method available. This has moved on to including some additional easily measured traits (age weight, scrotum size etc) and a small number of breeders add on some other traits that are measurable but more costly or difficult to do such as eye-muscle area, fat coverage and marbling. Virtually no-one assesses very difficult to measure traits such as food conversion efficiency, tenderness and other eating qualities.
These current methods are limited to traits easily, often externally measurable, are somewhat subjective and can not distinguish between contribution from the inherent characteristics of the animal, or the conditions the animal was raised in. Sure, there are statistical methods that can assist breeders to distinguish but they are expensive external services and require large numbers of animals to develop an accurate understanding of the genotype compared to the phenotype.
As seed-stock producers, ARPCBI members should be focussed on improving and marketing their herds' genotypes, for their desired markets, more so than an animals phenotype. In the past the pedigree has been the tool most suited to developing this understanding but pedigree alone has its limitations too. The law of independent assortment, discovered by the monk Gregor Mendal in 1865, means there is never certainty about which traits progeny will inherit from their sire or dam. A calf’s traits from good parent stock amount to somewhat better than a lottery, but by no means is it a consistently reliable indicator of a calf's traits. There is a way to increase your chances in this lottery.
The new tool I referred to above is, of course, genomic testing. The application of this science to beef cattle is relatively new but it is already very useful and is improving rapidly. It allows, with high confidence, to assess many traits very easily and cost effectively. This tells us directly what the animal is, rather than how the animal has been treated to date. In turn this gives us a better understanding of traits that it can potentially pass to its offspring. A single genomic test is a lifelong test that does not need to be repeated and it can be done on semen as well if a sire is no longer available for testing.
Genomics today can identify thousands of traits, but it has its limitations too. Presently it is limited to providing understanding of traits that are inherited from a small number of genes. However, as genomic techniques improve, detectable traits of interest will increase. This is not the case with other physically measurable traits which require development of whole new technologies and infrastructure before that could come online. For example one can't even imagine what machine might allow tenderness to be measured in a live animal.
Additional advantages that come with genomic testing include parent verification which obviates the risk of selling animals of an incorrect pedigree. Such mistakes can lead to massive lawsuits and severe reputational damage .
The myostatin example is a story that demonstrates the benefits of genomically testing your herd. Red Polls are known to sometimes carry a myostatin gene (nt821) that interacts with myostatin genes in some other breeds. Sometimes this gene has been seen as desirable because of increased growth rates  but having two copies of the gene (one from the sire and one from the dam) can lead to serious problems most notably calving dystocia. What can, and has happened, is that breeders have sold commercial bulls to beef producers who crossbred with animals that also carried the gene. This has led to calving problems and reputational damage to the seller, and to the entire breed. It is easy to imagine a beef producer, once bitten, saying ”I’ll never buy one of them again”. Genomic testing easily solves this problem, both for the breeder and the breed. By knowing the status of all animals, breeders can discuss the merits and otherwise with potential buyers who can then choose animals that best meet their beef producing needs. Some breeders will choose to eliminate the risk, others will choose to manage their breeding program carefully around the presence of myostatin genes in their animals.
Genomics can not yet tell you everything about an animal and this is why it is important to continue to use visual assessment, and measure other traits in addition to genomic testing. The days of those futuristic movies that tell you everything you need to know about an animal or human from one genetic test are still a long way off. However, the cost effectiveness of genomic testing your herd means that it is well worth the effort today to understand a whole lot more about your animals.
The ARPCBI has an agreement with Neogen to do the breed’s testing at a good price. All registered animals myostatin status will be recorded in the ARPCBI database as of 2023. Parentage verification and other traits will be included over time so both sellers and buyers will be able to be confident of an animal's status and pedigree. Details and further information on undertaking testing can be found at redpoll.org.au