Adaptability traits are becoming more of a focal point in the cattle industry, according to Dr. Bob Weaber, a professor specializing in beef breeding and genetics at Kansas State University.

Weaber, who also works as an Extension specialist at KSU, said that identifying desirable adaptability traits is important in maximizing animal welfare, sustainability, productivity and profitability.

He, along with a few other experts in the field, discussed the topic during a Cattlemen’s College session during the most recent CattleCon.

“Researchers are currently zeroing in on which breeds of cattle possess the genomic tools to respond to two key challenges: heat stress due to climate change and consumer demand for high quality products with superior nutritive and health values,” he said.

Dr. Raluca Mateescu, a professor of animal science researching genomics in beef cattle at University of Florida, pointed out that a breed’s ability to weather heat stress is more important than ever.

“Over 50% of beef cattle in the world are raised and maintained in hot and humid environments,” Mateescu explained. “In the U.S. that figure is 40%.”

She added that 80% of global beef production is Bos indicus-based. B. indicus cattle, sometimes known as humped cattle or Brahmans, are a type of domestic cattle originating in South Asia. The species has been widely used in crossbreeding programs in both the U.S. and in beef production enterprises abroad. Her research studied cattle that were 100% Angus, 75% Angus/25% Brahman, 50% Angus/50% Brahman, 25% Angus/75% Brahman and 100% Brahman.

“The reason why this particular breed [Brahman] has been so valuable,” said Mateescu, “is that they are very well adapted to heat and humidity, or thermotolerance. This is due largely to their having larger sweat glands that are located closer to the surface of the skin. They have also demonstrated resistance, or at least a strong tolerance, to internal and external parasites.”

Her research concluded that hybrid cattle with a Brahman lineage also enjoy a marked improvement in fertility, the ability to gain weight and increased lifespans. The higher percentage of Brahmin ancestry the cattle had, the higher the degree of these advantages they experienced.

Cool genes for hot cattle

Dr. Raluca Mateescu with a Brahman, one of the breeds she studies. Photo courtesy of Raluca Mateescu

“Genomics is an energy efficient and sustainable approach to meet some of the challenges of global climate change,” she stated.

Dr. Jared Decker is the Wurdack Chair of Animal Genomics and an associate professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri. He wanted to drive home the point that while many cattle farmers are driven by tradition, which can be a good thing, that same devotion to the way things have always been can stifle innovation.

Decker asked, “What is the legacy we’re going to leave for the next generation of the beef industry? Are we going to make the difficult choices? Are we going to step out on that limb and use that new technology to make sure that there’s a strong and vibrant beef industry for the next generation?”

His approach to answer those questions has been to crowdsource “big data” when it comes to hair shedding. Specifically, he is working with both large and small producers and a number of cattle associations to document how early certain breeds shed their warmer winter coats. As temperatures increase, cattle who shed their winter hair earlier seem to enjoy an advantage.

Decker stated that hair shedding is important because it affects not only a dam’s fertility but also her calf’s performance. Dams who shed their winter hair earlier had a greater rate of conception and bore calves with a weaning weight an average of 48 pounds heavier than the offspring of the late shedders.

He added that selective breeding which takes into account genetic hair shedding tendencies can help position a herd maintained in a hotter and more humid climate thrive.

Mateescu summed it all up: “The cow of the future will be produced using genomic selection within breeds and gene editing technologies to rapidly incorporate genetic variants into non-adapted breeds.”

by Enrico Villamaino