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Annual Tucumcari Bull Test breaks down genetic markers in cattle

TUCUMCARI, N.M. - DNA does not lie. When the bovine genome is completely mapped, beef cattle producers will have more accurate tools to make genetic advancements in their herds.

Cattle sold at the 48th Annual Tucumcari Bull Test Sale for an average $2,088. Manny Encinias, Extension livestock specialist with the Clayton Livestock Research Center, said the bulls, fed on a diet high in forage, gained an average of four pounds a day. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

At the 48th Annual Tucumcari Bull Test, seed stock producers of the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association have embraced the most current advancements in DNA-marker technology to better understand how their breeding programs stack up with already defined markers for some of the more economically important performance and beef quality traits.

In the last decade, the validity of centralized performance testing facilities, like the Tucumcari Bull Test, was questioned. However, the emergence of commercialized DNA-marker technology and escalating feed costs has revived interest in performance testing to further identify superior genetics that will excel in traits to improve the bottom line for commercial cattle producers.

This year, 122 bulls were brought to New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari to undergo the 112 days of testing, up from 73 bulls last year and the largest in many years.

"That suggests to me that the idea of performance testing has not become a thing of the past," said Manny Encinias, the Tucumcari Bull Test director and Cooperative Extension Service livestock specialist for NMSU.

Historically, the objective of the bull test, held annually at the science center at Tucumcari, has been to compare the gainability and feed conversion of registered bulls, which are offspring of leading sires in the industry.

"We're much more than a 'feed'em and weigh'em' facility today," Encinias said. "Our group of genetic suppliers strives to evaluate the genetic merit of these young bulls using multiple technologies, like DNA and ultrasound, but more importantly focuses on growing bulls that will perform well once they are turned out to breed cows."

Cattlemen, Encinias said, are not afraid to pay good money for good genetics as the money can translate into dollars from future calves. The bulls gained more than four pounds a day on average on this year's test and a few gained upwards of six pounds a day.

For decades, performance-testing facilities strived to maximize gains using corn-based diets. Adapting and evolving to customers' needs is a major focus of active producers in the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association. As a result, major changes in the diet have occurred in the last two years.

"In order to develop a healthy rumen, the base of our diet is grass hay," Encinias said. "While the concentrate, or grain, portion has not been completely removed from the diet, it is no longer the basis."

"At our sale you're buying more than just genetics. You're buying animals that have been objectively evaluated for their performance merit," he said. At the annual performance sale, held March 20, the bulls sold for an average price of $2,088. "Across the barn, it was probably the deepest set of bulls we've had on test in many years."

Though the bull testing facility sits idle now that the bull testing season has come to an end, understanding the relationship between the results of the commercialized DNA-markers and the actual performance data collected on each bull will be where Encinias and his doctoral candidate, Francisco Loya, from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Mexicali, Mexico, will focus their efforts before the next set of bulls enters the facility next fall.

Encinias said the DNA-testing has identified superior, breed-leading genetics at the Tucumcari Bull Test over the last two years, opening up marketing opportunities not only within the United States, but abroad as well.

"The DNA-revolution has surfaced in the global beef cattle industry" Encinias said, "and I believe it is here to stay."

The Tucumcari Bull Test is sponsored by the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association, Cooperative Extension Service and the Agricultural Experiment Station of NMSU.