WERA1: Coordinating Beef Cattle Breeding Research and Education Programs for the Western States

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WERA1: Coordinating Beef Cattle Breeding Research and Education Programs for the Western States

Duration: 10/01/2023 to 09/30/2028

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

The environment of the Western United States makes raising beef cattle challenging.  Land and forage resources are highly variable; and cows often need to thrive in an extensive production system with minimal human intervention.  The terrain of the Western United States has more hills and mountains than many other areas of the U.S., requiring cattle with sound feet and leg structure to facilitate foraging for food.  Further, supplemental feed and water resources can be scarce and expensive, especially in times of drought.  Exacerbating the challenge is that climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of droughts across the Western United States.  Beef producers in the Western United States are also faced with many of the same challenges as beef producers in the rest of the country, including changing market pressures, disease challenges, and the need to convert feed to beef efficiently.  While the environments of the western US are highly variable, the offspring of cow herds adapted to these areas are expected to perform efficiently in the feedlot ending in a highly palatable, nutritious beef product.


The W1 (a.k.a. WERA-1) Coordinating Committee has a long history of addressing these challenges.  The multi-decade history of this committee demonstrates that its activities positively impacted the genetic improvement of beef cattle in the Western United States, across the nation, and even internationally.  The membership of this committee includes scientists working across the Western United States to address challenges both unique to this region and to the national and international beef production community.  This multidisciplinary committee includes quantitative and molecular geneticists and thus is well-suited to meet beef producers' breeding and genetics needs.  In the past, the committee’s goal was to develop enhanced methods of genetic improvement using the latest quantitative and molecular techniques to increase the profitability of beef operations.  A second goal was to disseminate genetic improvement methods to the beef production community.  We propose to continue these two goals while collecting phenotypic population resources of novel traits that are important to beef producers in the Western United States and elsewhere.  This latter goal was added in response to the explosion of genetic tools available to beef producers in the past two decades and the current and evolving needs of beef producers.


The beef industry has more genetic tools available now than at any other time.  Dozens of expected progeny differences (EPDs) are available; the American Angus Association, the largest breed association in North America, has 22 different EPDs available.  Single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) panels are widely available across many North American breeds, and genotypes are often integrated into EPD calculations to increase their accuracy.  Genome sequencing has steadily decreased in cost; a bull’s genome can be sequenced for a fraction of the sequencing cost a decade ago.  Yet, the collection of phenotypes, especially lowly heritable and novel phenotypes, has not kept pace with advancements in genetic technologies despite the economic relevance of many of these traits.  These phenotypes are challenging to collect for many reasons, including cost, expertise or equipment required to measure the trait, and age when samples can be collected.  The potential of existing genetic tools will not be fully realized until sufficient numbers of these phenotypes can be collected so that these genetic tools can be applied to these critically important phenotypes.


The scientists on this committee have the expertise and equipment to collect many of these phenotypes. Unfortunately, each individual member of the committee cannot collect sufficient numbers of samples for quantitative genetics analyses of all targeted phenotypes.  However, pooling samples collected by all committee members will yield a phenotypic resource with many applications, including heritability and correlation estimates, EPD calculations, and genome-wide association studies (GWAS).  These applications will lead to the development of genetic tools for economically important, low-heritability and novel phenotypes.  Further, a hindrance of “omics” research is that biomarkers discovered in one herd may not be validated in other herds, partly because of genetic and environmental differences among groups of animals.  This collaboration will allow us to validate biomarkers one of our members found more easily, leading to faster adoption of predictive biomarkers to the beef industry.  Finally, research dissemination is an essential aspect of the work of animal scientists.  We will continue to disseminate research results to the beef production community.


  1. Create a phenotypic resource for genetic analysis of lowly heritable, economically relevant traits for the beef industry.
  2. Integrate quantitative and molecular research tools that contribute to the understanding of genetic prediction procedures and genetic associations among economically important traits and their indicators.
  3. Exchange information, discuss research results, plan new research, examine recent developments, discuss future problems, plan cooperative research, and share ideas for interdisciplinary involvement in beef cattle breeding research for the Western United States.

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1.  A population resource focusing on four lowly heritable or difficult-to-collect phenotypes will be developed: 1) feed intake, 2) water intake, 3) heart scores for pulmonary hypertension, and 4) feedlot disease treatment records.  Individual feed and water intake data requires expensive equipment that is only sometimes available to beef producers.  Fortunately, some research stations involved in W1 have this equipment.  However, the number of individual feed and water intake phenotypes that each experiment station can collect is limited by the number of individual feeders and waterers.  We plan to pool our data collection resources to increase the number of phenotypes that can be analyzed.  Further, heart scores for pulmonary hypertension and feedlot disease treatment record phenotypes are lowly heritable.  By pooling our resources, the accuracy and precision of genetic estimates for these traits will be increased.  We will also be able to measure these phenotypes in different environments in the Western USA, strengthening the applicability of our results to the Western US beef industry.


Experiment stations involved in W1 collectively have the equipment and resources to collect these phenotypes.  Insentec individual feed intake stations are available at South Dakota State University (n=48) and North Dakota State University (n = 48).  Colorado State University has SmartFeed individual feed intake systems for testing 200 head simultaneously.  The University of Wyoming has both the Vytelle SENSE (formerly GrowSafe) system and the SmartFeed system at two locations [Laramie Research and Extension Center (LREC) and James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC)] with capacity for individual feed intake on 200+ head.  South Dakota State University also has Insentec waterers (n=8) that can be used for individual water intake collection. Montana State University has 8 nodes of GrowSafe feeders.  Feedlots are present at many of our experiment stations, and disease treatment records are regularly collected at these feedlots.  Feedlot disease treatment records are available from South Dakota State University (Ruminant Nutrition Center, Brookings, SD; 50 pens), Colorado State University (Agricultural Research, Development, and Education Center), and University of Wyoming (LREC and SAREC). This relationship could be developed at North Dakota State University in conjunction with the Carrington Research Extension Center, which manages feedlot research. Montana State University Northern Agricultural Research Center collects feedlot data each year. Carcass phenotypes of many calves slaughtered at our facilities or in commercial facilities are routinely collected, and adding a heart score during data collection will not be a significant hurdle for many experiment stations. 


The W1 committee members have the expertise to collect and analyze these phenotypes.  Individual water and feed intake phenotypes have been used to successfully generate research publications by committee members (e.g., Yusuf et al., 2022; McDaniel et al., 2021).  R.M. Enns has routinely collected heart scores for genetic and phenotypic analyses (e.g., Heffernan et al., 2020).  Dr. Enns (CSU Experiment Station and the Breeding and Genetics Team) has agreed to teach other committee members how to collect heart scores on cattle at their experiment stations.  Calf disease treatment records are readily collected at feedlots at most experiment stations participating in W1.  Additionally, molecular geneticists involved in W1 have the expertise and experience to recommend appropriate tissue collection strategies for future molecular analyses (e.g., Engle et al., 2021; O’Shea-Stone et al., 2021).  Indeed, some committee members have been collecting DNA samples on animals and storing those for over 10 years.


At our first W1 annual meeting, committee members will discuss 1) the standardization of phenotype collection and 2) the expected annual number of phenotypes and DNA samples collected at each experiment station.  Each experiment station will collect data from their animals and standardize it as agreed to during the first W1 annual meeting.  The data will initially be stored internally by each experiment station.  However, when sufficient data has been collected for a publication or grant proposal, the data will be merged for analysis and dissemination.  The dataset may also be used as a population resource to leverage additional funding for W1 member experiment stations.  Further, tissue samples for genome, transcriptome, proteome, or metabolome analyses relevant to these phenotypes will be collected and stored by the experiment station that owned the animals.  The data and tissue samples collected by each experiment station will be presented at our annual meeting.


Objective 2.  Committee members have a long history of interdisciplinary collaborations to address this objective.  Interdisciplinary research is essential for understanding the molecular and quantitative genetics of traits of importance in nutrition, meat science, animal behavior, animal health, and reproductive physiology.  Our committee members have contributed to nutritional supplementation experiments and differences in energy density of feed (e.g., Linde et al., 2023; Block et al., 2022; Sprinkle et al., 2020).  The effects of weather on feed and water intake have also been investigated (Yusuf et al., 2022; McDaniel et al., 2021).  To improve health of beef cattle, we have contributed to an understanding of Brisket Disease and pulmonary hypertension (e.g., González-Murray et al., 2020; Heffernan et al., 2020; Zimprich et al., 2020) and susceptibility to Bovine Respiratory Disease (Abrams et al., 2023; Wottlin et al., 2020).  Members have collaborated to improve beef cow and heifer longevity (Bot-Steffl et al., 2023; Sánchez-Castro et al., 2019) and conception rates (Sánchez-Castro et al., 2020).  For the meat science community, we have worked to understand genetic differences in quality grade (Engle et al., 2021; Heiber et al., 2021) and environmental effects on ultrasound carcass measurements (Schmidt et al., 2020).  Finally, genetic and environmental effects on beef cattle behavior have been investigated (Yu et al., 2020; Celestino et al., 2019; Williams et al., 2019).


As illustrated above, our collaborations have resulted in tangible research outcomes and contributions to diverse animal science disciplines.  The population resources to be developed in Objective 1 will strengthen outcomes in Objective 2.  This population resource can be used by the W1 committee to answer questions related to beef cattle nutrition, health, and carcass quality.  The across-disciplinary collaborations each of us have cultivated can be leveraged for future projects.  The W1 committee includes animal geneticists with diverse backgrounds, including molecular and quantitative geneticists as well as geneticists focused on basic and applied research questions.  This diversity further enhances the interdisciplinary nature of this project and the likelihood of successfully completing Objective 2.


Objective 3.  Animal geneticists who are members of the W1 committee are often the only animal geneticist working for their respective experiment station.  These animal geneticists have limited opportunities to exchange information and interact with other animal geneticists.  The W1 committee brings these animal geneticists together to exchange information and discuss collaborations.  This exchange of information has improved existing experiments, developed new research ideas, and initiated and strengthened collaborations.  The W1 committee will continue to meet annually in-person, as allowed.  The annual meeting host rotates among experiment stations.  In 2023, the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station will host the W1 committee.  Hosts for future meetings are selected one year in advance.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • • Creation of a phenotype resource for feed intake, water intake, heart scores, and feedlot disease treatment records of beef cattle. Comments: W1 members can leverage this resource for research outputs (i.e., publications) and grant proposals.
  • • Effective outreach and communication to beef producers through peer-reviewed publications, bulletins, and direct interactions among beef producers, extension personnel, and scientists.
  • • Continued interdisciplinary research that integrates animal genetics with other animal science disciplines to further our knowledge of beef cattle and improve beef sustainability.
  • • Collaborative/cooperative research efforts involving economically relevant traits will lead to grant proposal development and publications among committee members.
  • • Information exchange will occur within the committee because of the knowledge of other members’ academic and research activities. Comments: This knowledge will also facilitate cooperative research efforts, student training, and extension activities.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

The W1 committee has historically been very active in extending scientific information regarding understanding beef cattle selection and genetics to livestock producers.  Our education plan has three components.  First, we will continue to develop undergraduate and graduate education materials for university students.  Many W1 committee members hold teaching appointments, allowing easier dissemination of research to students.  The knowledge learned as part of the W1 committee can be easily integrated into our respective classes.  Several committee members also teach online graduate animal breeding classes across institutions.  Thus, the knowledge we gain as part of the W1 committee can be disseminated nationwide.


Second, some of our members have Extension appointments.  Knowledge generated and exchanged through the W1 committee will be most easily spread to the beef production community through these Extension professionals.  This knowledge will be integrated into Extension factsheets and videos, popular press articles, interviews, workshops and conference presentations.  Although many of our members do not have a formal Extension appointment, all members actively disseminate knowledge to the beef production community through Extension/Outreach presentations, articles, and interviews.  Third, many of our members work closely with beef industry organizations and will disseminate knowledge learned from their W1 committee activities to these organizations.  Examples of these organizations include the Red Angus Association of America, American Simmental Association, Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa, Montana Stockgrowers Association, North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association, and South Dakota Beef Industry Council.


Before the conclusion of each annual meeting, a host for the next meeting is elected by vote plurality.  The host will automatically become the chairman of the W1 committee for the upcoming year.  A secretary is also elected by vote plurality.  No duties are duplicated within a year.  Participating institutions host the meetings, and the site of the next meeting is decided by vote at the annual meeting unless the membership votes to hold the meeting in conjunction with another regional or national meeting in the same timeframe.  Examples of this deviation include holding the meeting in conjunction with the Beef Improvement Federation or Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science.  The only budget requested for this committee is that the experiment station directors of the states from which members originate support the travel of specified representatives and the administrative advisor to attend annual meetings.

Literature Cited

Abrams, A.N., L.A. Kuehn, J.W. Keele, M.G. Gonda, and T.G. McDaneld.  2023.  Evaluation of nasal microbial communities in the upper nasal cavity of beef calves during pre-weaning outbreak of bovine respiratory disease.  Animal Microbiome.  Submitted.


Block, J.J., M.J. Webb, K.R. Underwood, M.G. Gonda, A.A. Harty, R.R. Salverson, R.N. Funston, K.C. Olson, and A.D. Blair.  2022.  Influence of maternal protein restriction in primiparous beef heifers during mid- and/or late-gestation on progeny feedlot performance and carcass characteristics.  Animals.  12(5): 588.


Bot Steffl, A.M., M.G. Gonda, M.M. Scholtz, and M.D. MacNeil.  2023.  The effect of the Afrikaner infusion project on longevity: A survival analysis.  South African Journal of Animal Science.  Submitted. 


Celestino, E.F., J.K. Hieber, C.R. Dahlen, D.G. Riley, S.A. Wagner, and L.L. Hulsman Hanna.  2019.  Differences in evaluators and genetic parameter estimations using subjective measurements of beef cattle temperament.  Translational Animal Science 3(Suppl. 1): 1769-1773.


Engle, B., M. Masters, J. Boles, and J. Thomson.  2021.  Gene expression and carcass traits are different between different quality grade groups in red-faced Hereford steers.  Animals 11(7): 1910.


González-Murray, R.A., M.A. Sánchez-Castro, M.G. Thomas, S.E. Speidel, and R.M. Enns.  2020.  Heterosis and its potential influence on pulmonary arterial pressure in beef cattle.  Translational Animal Science 4(Suppl. 1): S118-S121.


Heffernan, K.R., M.G. Thomas, R.M. Enns, T. Holt, and S.E. Speidel.  2020.  Phenotypic relationships between heart score and feed efficiency, carcass, and pulmonary arterial pressure traits.  Translational Animal Science 4(Suppl. 1): S103-S107.


Heiber, J.J., R. Endecott, J. Boles, and J. Thomson.  2021.  Identification of genetic markers and QTL for carcass quality traits within the American Simmental Association carcass merit program.  Animals 11(2): 471.


Linde, D.A., E. van Marle-Köster, M.M.  Scholtz, M.G. Gonda, J.L. Gonzalez-Hernandez, & M.D. MacNeil.  2023.  Differential gene expression in the Longissimus dorsi of Nguni and Bonsmara bulls finished on low and high energy diets.  South African Journal of Animal Science.  Submitted.


McDaniel, Z.S., C.L. Wright, M.G. Gonda, Z.K. Smith, W.V.A.H. Chathurika, and G. Djira.  2021.  The effects of weather, body weight, and dry matter intake on total daily water intake in beef steers.  Journal of Animal Science 99(Suppl. 3): 49-50.


O’Shea-Stone, G., R. Lambert, B. Tripet, J. Berardinelli, J. Thomson, V. Copié, and R. Garrott.  2021.  1H NMR based metabolic profiling distinguishes the differential impact of capture techniques on wild bighorn sheep.  Nature Scientific Reports 11(1): 11308.


Sánchez-Castro, M.A., M.G. Thomas, R.M. Enns, and S.E. Speidel.  2019.  Stability of genetic predictions for stayability using random regression models that include end points beyond 6 yr of age.  Translational Animal Science 3(Suppl. 1): 1678-1682.


Sánchez-Castro, M.A., M.G. Thomas, R.M. Enns, and S.E. Speidel.  2020.  Genetic prediction for first-service conception rate in Angus heifers using a random regression model.  Translational Animal Science 4(Suppl. 1): S43-S47.


Schmidt, B., M.G. Gonda, and M.D. MacNeil.  2020.  Partitioning variance in measurements of beef carcass traits using ultrasound.  Translational Animal Science.  4(3): txaa162.


Sprinkle, J.E., D.W. Schafer, S.P. Cuneo, D.R. Tolleson, and R.M. Enns.  2020.  Effects of a long-acting trace mineral rumen bolus upon range cow productivity.  Translational Animal Science 5(1): txaa232.


Williams, A.F., J. Boles, M.R. Herrygers, J. Berardinelli, M.C. Meyers, and J. Thomson.  2019.  Blood lactate and rectal temperature can predict exit velocity of beef feedlot steers.  Translational Animal Science 3(4): 1530-1542.


Wottlin, L.R., G.E. Carstens, W.C. Kayser, W.E. Pinchak, J. Thomson, V. Copié, G.P. O’Shea-Stone.  2020.  Differential haptoglobin responsiveness to a Mannheimia haemolytica challenge altered immunologic, physiologic, and behavior responses in beef steers.  Journal of Animal Science 99(1): skaa404.


Yu, H., G. Morota, E.F. Celestino Jr., C.R. Dahlen, S.A. Wagner, D.G. Riley, and L.L. Hulsman Hanna.  2020.  Deciphering cattle temperament measures derived from a four-platform standing scale using genetic factor analytic modeling.  Frontiers in Genetics 11: 599.


Yusuf, M., K.C. Swanson, L.L. Hulsman Hanna, and M.L. Bauer.  2022.  Understanding the relationship between weather variables and intake in beef steers.  Journal of Animal Science.  Accepted. doi: 10.1093/jas/skac423.


Zimprich, T.R., S.E. Speidel, D.W. Schafer, B. Lashell, T.N. Holt, R.M. Enns, S.F. Cunningham, and M.G. Thomas.  2020.  Repeated measures of PAP at different elevations in beef bulls in Colorado.  Translational Animal Science 4(Suppl. 1): S113-S117.


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