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Producer uses DNA to improve bull sales

With improvements in genetic testing and computer software, beef seedstock producers are able to fine-tune bull performance data to commercial cattlemen’s needs.

“My job in the seedstock business,” says Joe Gelling, a Buhl, Idaho, Saler producer, “is to produce bulls that are predictable.” For the past four years, Gelling has used DNA testing to augment traditional performance data.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the gospel, but it’s a tool I use to select my replacements and sell breeding bulls,” he notes.

Gelling collects DNA samples from newborn calves at his Sunken Valley Ranch. “I use an ear tag that punches a plug from the ear as it inserts a numbered tag,” he says. “The plug is sent to the lab, and in two weeks I know the genetics of that calf.”

Gelling’s report gives a snapshot of the performance of his Saler cattle. “We test for calving ease, docility, homozygous color [black or red], tenderness and weaning weight,” he says, “I’m not sure if it adds more money to our bulls, but with proof of homozygous black genes, we are able to compete with Angus breeders.”

Individual samples are analyzed for marker genes.

Key Points

• Idaho cattle breeder uses DNA testing to improve bull predictability.

• DNA testing identifies coat color, as well as disposition.

• DNA tests are used to supplement traditional EPD and ultrasound testing.


According to Alison Van Eennaam, a University of California-Davis Extension biotech specialist, scientists can identify regions of DNA molecules that influence beef production. These marker genes can also be used to identify genetic defects such as dwarfism and curly calf syndrome in breeding programs. Although not a genetic disorder, Persistent Infection, or PI, a bovine viral diarrhea infection, is also tested in this program.

Gelling uses DNA tests in conjunction with traditional methods. “I do like ultrasound for rib eye and carcass quality data on the bulls I sell; it gives me a good picture inside the animal.” He combines this with traditional Expected Progeny Differences, or EPD, such as calf birth and weaning weights, to measure his stock’s performance. “Although the cost is more, I’m leaning towards DNA because of the broader spectrum of information I can get.”

Cost and return

The bottom line for management is cost and return. Geller can’t put an exact value on his testing. “I feel that it makes my bulls more desirable, especially if I can prove they are homozygous black.”

He has a better understanding of his cost. “Tags cost $2, and the basic DNA test for color is about $25,” he says. “If you add tests for calving ease and some other management issues, the cost is pushing $50 a head.”

Gelling likes the certainty that DNA testing brings. “If you buy a bull from me,” he says, “you can be pretty certain of the genetic performance.”

Tews writes from Shone, Idaho.

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READY FOR SHOW: Joe Gelling of Buhl, Idaho, prepares a Saler heifer for the Denver Stock Show. “Companies that sell genetic testing need to educate the commercial bull buyers, like the old cowman in Nevada, to the advantages of these tests.”

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.