Stepping out: Researchers seek genetic information in cattle that travel to graze
June 14, 2018
Derek Bailey and his cohorts have been wondering – do your cows like to hike in the mountains?
This is just one aspect of research that the New Mexico State University professor and researcher, along with others has worked on since the 1990s to help determine if there are genetic variances between cattle that are willing to "work for their dinner" and those that aren't. He will present his latest findings at the Beef Improvement Federation annual convention in Loveland, Colorado, June 20-23. Fellow grazing distribution researcher Milt Thomas with Colorado State University will also talk to BIF attendees.
Bailey uses GPS collars to record the movements of cattle in rugged terrain to learn which cows exhibit one or more of three characteristics:
1. willingness to travel to higher elevations to graze
“I tell my students, ‘Not all cows are created equal. Some will travel and some don’t.’ If we can select for it, we can make a difference.” Derek Bailey, New Mexico State University professor and researcher
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2. willingness to graze steeper slopes
3. willingness to graze areas further from water
Bailey said that throughout the west, but particularly on federal lands, cattle that are willing to spread out and travel to graze, can be valuable.
"A lot of areas don't get grazed – some are too far from water. And then some areas get grazed too much, the close to riparian areas." When large pastures aren't fully utilized, ranchers lose the opportunity for income, Bailey said. Additionally, when cattle use the entire pasture, they are less likely to put too much grazing pressure in any one area.
"I tell my students, 'not all cows are created equal. Some will travel and some don't.' If we can select for it, we can make a difference."
In his first study, Bailey observed cattle grazing mountainous range in Montana and gathered up the approximately half that traveled to the further reaches of the pasture. Then he split that bunch in half to see if they showed the same characteristics again.
Visual appraisal of the pasture revealed that indeed, the cows were willing to travel when grazing. "With that bunch of cattle, we saw a lot more forage in riparian areas, and more even use of steep slopes." Bailey said it is possible cattle could be trained to do the same thing, but that if ranchers can choose bulls will sire offspring that are likely to be genetically predisposed to "hike," they might reap financial rewards without any extra labor.
Now, Bailey's research is higher tech – involving GPS collars that record a cow's location every 10 minutes. "We're hoping to have 144 positions per day. That's a bunch. They aren't going to fool you about where they've been."
Bailey said the studies are a team effort and he appreciates that fellow researchers Milt Thomas, Mark Enns, Scott Speidel, all with Colorado State University and Juan Medrano with the University of California, Davis and Larry Howery with the University of Arizona share his interest and passion for the topic.
Some cattle in California just got fitted with some new collars. Cattle in Montana, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico are still in the study, too. Bailey and others involved in the research are taking data on about 400 cows in total this year.
The collars are placed on a random sampling of cows in big, rugged areas – obtaining genetic information from the cows that don't travel is just as important as the information from the ones that do, in order to determine just what the genetic differences are.
Bailey said that out of about 770,000 different genotypes, they have already identified genetic markers in chromosomes number 4, 8, 12, 17 and 29. Cows have 29 chromosomes plus the x chromosome, he says. While the collars originally cost about $4,000 each, Bailey has worked with an acquaintance who sells collars he developed for about $250. "He's now selling them to fund his own research," Bailey said.
Chromosome number 29 shows perhaps the most association to the three traits Bailey is studying, and researchers have also found that the same chromosome in rats can carry genomic information linked to spacial recognition. At this point, Bailey hopes
The research, three times funded by the USDA Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program, will hopefully return dollars to ranchers pockets, said Bailey. "For maybe $30, seedstock producers can hopefully someday send in a blood sample and get DNA genotyping to see if their bull will throw daughter that will show these three characteristics."
"This research might not be as accurate as some traits because there are so many variables. But it should be a lot better than nothing," Bailey said some characteristics like weaning weights are much more straightforward, and data collection is simpler. He pointed out that while some regions of the country – where pastures are relatively small and flat – probably wouldn't use the data, it might offer significant economic benefits to western producers.