Animal Science Department


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Snelling,W.M.; Thallman, R.M.; Spangler, M.L.; Kuehn, L.A. Breeding Sustainable Beef Cows: ReducingWeight and Increasing Productivity. Animals 2022, 12, 1745. ani12141745


Copyright: © 2022 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license


Programs for sustainable beef production are established, but the specific role of beef cows in these systems is not well defined. This work characterized cows for two traits related to sustainability, cow weight (CW) and cumulative weight weaned (WtW). Cow weight indicates nutrient requirements and enteric methane emissions. Cumulative weight weaned reflects reproductive performance and avoidance of premature culling for characteristics related to animal health, welfare, and worker safety. Both traits were evaluated with random regression models with records from a crossbred population representing 18 breeds that conduct US national cattle evaluations. The genomic REML analyses included additive and dominance components, with relationships among 22,776 animals constructed from genotypes of 181,286 potentially functional variants imputed from a low-pass sequence. Projected to 8 years of age, the additive heritability estimate for CW was 0.57 and 0.11 for WtW. Dominance heritability was 0.02 for CW and 0.19 for WtW. Many variants with significant associations with CW were within previously described quantitative trait loci (QTL) for growthrelated production, meat, and carcass traits. Significant additive WtW variants were covered by QTL for traits related to reproduction and structural soundness. All breeds contributed to groups of cows with high and low total genetic values (additive + dominance effects) for both traits. The high WtW cows and cows above the WtW mean but below the CW mean had larger heterosis values and fewer bases in runs of homozygosity. The high additive heritability of CW and dominance effects on WtW indicate that breeding to improve beef cow sustainability should involve selection to reduce CW and mate selection to maintain heterosis and reduce runs of homozygosity.

Simple Summary: Improving the sustainability of beef cows involves reducing feed costs and enteric methane emissions and increasing calf production while addressing concerns including animal health and welfare and worker safety. Reducing cow weight can favorably impact feed costs and methane emissions. Cumulative weight weaned observed throughout a cow’s productive life directly addresses calf production and indirectly addresses other concerns—cumulative production is higher for cows who wean healthy calves and avoid culling because of reproductive failure, unsoundness, and dangerous behavior. Using functional variant genotypes imputed from the low-coverage whole genome sequence, this examination of cow weight and cumulative weight weaned in a herd of crossbred cattle resulted in additive heritability estimates of 0.57 for cow weight and 0.11 for weight weaned by 8-year-old cows. Corresponding dominance heritability estimates were 0.02 for cow weight and 0.19 for weight weaned. All breeds were represented by cows projected to have high and low cow weights and weight weaned. Heterosis was higher and genomic inbreeding, measured by runs of homozygosity, was lower among high-weight weaned cows. These results suggest selection should be effective in reducing cow weight. Selection to increase weight weaned will be slow but can be hastened with crossbreeding. Especially when pedigree is not available to estimate heterosis, runs of homozygosity may be a useful indicator of heterosis and a predictor of cumulative productivity. Beef cow sustainability can be improved with appropriate crossbreeding and selection, and may be accelerated by incorporating functional variants associated with sustainability-related traits.