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Searching for a Genetic Advantage | August 2023

By Cheryl Kepes

Photos courtesy Anova Biosciences website, Promogen™ website, and Soaring Eagle Farm


A new evaluation program aims to identify genetically superior animals.



Cattle producers utilize all sorts of tools to predict whether an animal will succeed or fail in their herd. Whether its reliance on EPDs, phenotypical appraisal, an animal’s past production record, or any combination of factors, livestock producers continually strive to produce healthy, efficient calves that are better than the generation before.


In the last few years, a new evaluation tool has emerged on the beef industry scene and its quickly gaining the attention of beef cattle producers. The scientists responsible for the discovery and application of the new evaluation program say it can help take some of the guesswork out of whether an animal will thrive in a herd.



Origins

The science and technology used to develop the evaluation program, named Promogen™, stems from years of work and research conducted by scientists at Anova Biosciences, located in Omaha, Neb. Twenty years ago, researchers at the University of Nebraska discovered the biomarkers which are now at the heart of the Promogen™ program. The initial research revealed a protein in the colostrum of dairy cattle that was thought to aid in the prevention of mastitis and pass immunological protection to calves.


In 2004, researchers at the University of Nebraska and Anova Biosciences received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work together to determine what role the newly discovered protein played in natural immunity. During their research they learned there were three proteins, not just one. Over the course of three years the collaborators developed the tools necessary to measure the presence and concentration of the proteins. This was the springboard for decades of research and new scientific findings.



Discoveries

Under the direction of Dr. William Julien, a scientist, veterinarian, and CEO of Anova Biosciences, the research ramped up with the newly discovered proteins. In the years to follow, researchers would gain more knowledge about the three proteins that they eventually named Defensins. “Defensin proteins are biomarkers for things that have to do with energy in the cell,” Dr. William Julien explained.


According to Dr. Julien, research indicates an animal’s Defensin levels are strong predictors of its ability to deal with stress, while stress resistance positively impacts everything from disease resistance to feed efficiency to productive longevity. The Defensins are measured through the Promogen™ evaluation program. The Defensin levels can be analyzed through a Promogen™ test conducted on samples of raw or frozen semen, saliva, uterine mucus, and freshly harvested colostrum. The animal’s Promogen™ score is a measurement of the concentration of the Defensins in an animal.


Testing

Dr. Julien and his team have tested hundreds of pigs, thousands of dairy and beef cows and bulls, as well as non-domesticated animals such as whitetail bucks, buffalo, and wild ox. “By now we have tested over 4,000 cows of all breeds between here and in Europe. The results reported from these tests are consistent as is the accuracy of the performance predictions made from the results of those tests,” Dr. Julien said. According to Dr. Julien, the animals topping the Promogen™ scale are more likely to exhibit traits that set them up to be sustainable in a herd.



One of the earliest experiments conducted by Dr. Julien and his team involved collecting samples from the colostrum of 375 dairy cows. “To make a long story short, we found that about one-third of the population tested, regardless of breed, didn’t produce these proteins in physiologically effective levels. These cows we called bologna cows. The thing that was not expected was that we found an additional one-third that produced these proteins at five to seven times normal. These cows were referred to as super cows,” Dr. Julien explained.


The researchers then followed the dairy cows for 180 days documenting productivity and incidences of mastitis. Their findings revealed the cows with the higher concentration of the proteins (Defensins), had significantly reduced incidences of treatable mastitis. Additionally, the cows with high levels of Defensins produced more milk compared to the other cows in the experiment. “What we found when we looked at the parameters (milk production and mastitis incidence) that we used as indicators of protein activity, the super cows out produced their herd mates by an average of 5,000 pounds, which is a lot,” Dr. Julien stated. “They also had a significantly lower incidence rate of treatable mastitis.”



Behavior

In addition to the quantifiable findings, researchers say they have observed behavior unique to animals with high Promogen™ scores. These animals picked up the name “super” cows or bulls from Dr. Julien and others familiar with Promogen™. One example of this observed behavior is the way the “super” cows interacted with the other cattle in the herd. “The super cows could move from group to group without any warfare, they had their snouts in the trough all the time, and you could walk into that area and touch them. Nothing phased them,” Dr. Julien explained.


Their behavior and ability to adapt to changes in their environment gave the “super” cattle another advantage over their counterparts. “The simple way for me to translate that behavior is that they are more stress resistant,” Dr. Julien said. “They are able to deal with whatever comes at them and they are able to do a better job of it.”


According to Dr. Julien, this behavioral characteristic coupled with the physiological advantages possessed by high scoring animals, gives them a solid foundation to be more productive, feed efficient, and disease resistant compared to animals with average or low Promogen™ scores.



Heritability

Defensins are inherent proteins in which activity and concentration are constant from birth. They are highly heritable, but about 75 percent of that heritability is maternal in origin, although the sire does influence the degree of expression. “This is why cow families are so important,” Dr. Julien said. “My grandpa always told me that the cow paints the picture, while the bull puts the frame on it.”


Advocates of the Promogen™ evaluation program appreciate the ability to collect a sample on a calf, bull, or cow and receive results that are consistent no matter the animal’s age or environment. “We know we can identify these animals at birth. We can pick the winners right then. And they stay winners the rest of their life,” Dr. Julien commented.


Dr. Jeff Gower, owner of Soaring Eagle Farms of the Ozarks, started to implement the Promogen™ genetic evaluation program on his Angus herd in 2020. Every animal in Dr. Gower’s herd has been tested to assess their concentration level of Defensins. “The bottom line is in my opinion Promogen™ takes the gamble out of raising these animals,” Dr. Gower said. “I am tight as the come, I don’t gamble. But Promogen™ allows me to spend money that I normally wouldn’t do because breeding animals is strictly a gamble. And I don’t want to wait four years to find out of the animals are any good.”


Some producers use the Promogen™ evaluation program as a tool to determine which animals to cull or keep. In the case of Soaring Eagle Farms of the Ozarks, Dr. Gower relies on an animal’s Promogen™ score to build up his herd and to guide breeding decisions. “You can use this test and you can cull your herd just by using Promogen™,” Dr Jeff Gower said. “I use it the other way – I identify the superior ones.”



Using with EPDs

Researchers associated with the Promogen™ program who are working alongside cattle producers say their findings indicate cattle scoring high on the Promogen™ evaluation scale also rank at the top of their breed’s EPD charts. “For the high scoring individuals, the likelihood of the EPD traits being fully expressed is much greater than for low scoring individuals. EPD expression is dependent on cellular energy availability, and cellular energy availability is what Promogen™ is measuring,” Dr. Julien stated.


Efficiency

The use of Promogen™ to identify feed efficient cattle is one application that Anova researchers have focused on, and over the past several years, several studies have been conducted to see if there is a correlation between feed efficiency and Promogen™ score. “These have been conducted in several locations across the country and all were done independently. Most of the studies employed GrowSafe equipment or systems that are comparable to measure individual animal performance. Several hundred bulls of all breeds were Promogen™ tested and their scores then related back to what their performance was in the monitored feeding trials. Once again, it was a linear relationship, just like in the dairy cows; the higher the Promogen™ score, the more feed efficient they were,” Dr. Julien stated.

Additionally, Dr. Gower states when he transitioned his herd to average to high scoring Promogen™ animals, he witnessed an overall healthier herd and subsequently a decrease in veterinarian bills. “With a focus on high scoring Promogen™ genetics my vet bills went down 42 percent,” Dr. Gower said.



Human Applications

Every day brings a new discovery and further understanding of these proteins. “There is a WOW moment every day,” Dr. Julien expressed with a smile. The research reaches far past the cattle industry. Anova Biosciences is working on several different research projects that involve these proteins in humans. “What you have to realize is we are breaking ground here. What we know about these proteins there is no prior literature, there is no peer review literature, there is no one you can go to talk about this. Because this is not genomics, this is not built on an algorithm, it is not a guess. It is something that is inherent in you, you are born this way,” Dr. Julien said.


Currently, the thoracic surgical group at Massachusetts General has an ongoing study on post-surgical recovery rates and have included the Promogen™ program as part of their research protocol. Additionally, Anova Biosciences is working with another group at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on the development of an analytical method to detect distinct expressions of mitochondrial disfunction as to relates to specific diseases.


The new findings and data keep Dr. Julien and his researchers moving forward with excitement and anticipation of what they will uncover next, whether it’s an application to help livestock producers or humans. “I don’t think Promogen™ is like magic, it is a physiological measurement that has an impact on everything else’s expression. It’s not a suit of armor but the benefits are there,” Dr. Julien said. And that coupled with what he has learned so far is enough to keep he and his team devoted to uncovering the Defensins full potential.


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