The Genetic Question

Author: Neil Vandendool

The elk industry is enjoying amazing results from selective breeding. The increase in velvet antler weights is truly phenomenal. How antler genetics actually work is still a mystery in my mind. Do antler genetics sometimes skip a generation? Do they sometimes follow through the female side? Why do some sires produce amazing sons, while others produce amazing daughters, who then produce exceptional grandsons? Why do some sires fail to pass on their genetics? Some genetic matches fail to produce significant gains, while others produce amazing results.

One truth is becoming evident; the dam is just as important as the sire in the antler genetics equation, if not more important. Is it possible that certain antler characteristics are passed down the female line? Human male pattern baldness works this way. Could it be that we are focusing far too much on the sires and not enough on the dams?

Is it possible for a sire to have a stronger influence on his daughters than on his sons? Can some sires have a 40% or 50% antler heritability in the daughters, yet only 20% in the sons? These kind of sex-based heritability variances have been seen in the horse racing industry. Breeders Three or Get-of-Sire awards may not be the best path for the elk industry. If the great bulls are a result of the dam, then we are misleading ourselves.

What about metabolic efficiencies? In a group of cows, have you ever noticed how some animals with the same sire outperform others? They pack on the weight. For increased antler yield, should we also be looking at the food conversion efficiencies?

I strongly suggest that a new breeder purchase cows with a proven track record. If you see her sons or brothers, then you have a good idea what you are getting. If they are cutting over 12 lbs. as 2-year-olds, you know you’re getting nice genetics.

We are becoming an industry preoccupied by fool’s gold. A buyer has to be very watchful; there are a lot of average cows being bred to great bulls. The calves have a great name, but generally no potential. Take that average heifer calf with a great sire, breed her through AI to another great bull, and you still are not going to get a champion. Take a cow with strong genetics and you may get that next champion!

NAEBA Gold registration does not insure a better quality animal. It is a way of insuring quality sometime in the future. For a true indication of quality, a Gold registration should require at least four generations (if not more) of registered trace-ability.

When we breed a line with long antler characteristics to one with heavy beams, what will we get? Short and thin, or long and heavy? Look at all the characteristics we can breed for: length, weight, beam circumference, density, color, big webs, tine length/weight, metabolic efficiency, and the sex ratio of calves. The only way to answer these questions is through careful observation. The only thing of which I can say I am sure is that there are more questions than answers involving antler genetics inheritability.

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