Lotsa different cattle to love
By Jaime Pullman
There are more than 1000 different cattle breeds on earth. Only about 250 of those thousand are considered beef breeds. Some we know well, like Angus or Hereford. Some you may never have heard of like Caracu (from Brazil) or Bazadaise (from France). According to Virginia Cooperative Extension (Virginia Tech, Virginia University), there are more than 60 different beef breeds found in the United States, but most of the genetics utilized for commercial beef production come from only about 20 of those.
Each of the breeds represent some impressive biodiversity, and each breed around the world developed in their own particular way due to environmental pressures and, for the last 10,000 years or so, human selection. Heat or cold tolerance, differing parasite resistance, as well as different forage abilities and body size, all reflect the environmental conditions under which they developed.
“I’ve been interested in animal breeds all my life, and that sort of history, even as an undergrad at NDSU,” shares Dr. David Buchanan, Professor of Animal Science and Associate Dean for Academic Programs for the College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources at North Dakota State University. “I was at Oklahoma State University for 28 years and I helped to start a website, well known now, which is used by members of the livestock industry, but also by teachers. We got emails from teachers in places like Philadelphia and Boston letting us know that they were using the site for teaching their students about agriculture, so it’s something really good,” says Dr. Buchanan.
The site, a directory of livestock breeds, includes details and descriptions of hundreds of cattle from the U.S. and around the world, from Akaushi to Gelbray to White Park. Comprehensive sites like this are vital for recording information about each of the many breeds and distributing that information to the industry and public. One of the things we can learn is how the same breed of cattle differs in various locations on earth.
“I wrote a book chapter on breeds of cattle along with a European co-author,” Dr. Buchanan recalls. “In the chapter, we provided large tables that list breeds and various physical characteristics such as color, along with performance information for what is considered standard for the breed. I pointed out that in the U.S., breeds that are traditionally red elsewhere are black, like Gelbvieh and Simmental, and my co-author was startled. They’re predominately black here in the U.S., in part because of the success of programs like Certified Angus Beef. Not only the color, but also the conformation is also different for these cattle than the same breed in Europe. This makes me wonder about what has happened to breeds in terms of genetic diversity. There is more opportunity for understanding this with molecular investigation and look at what is true now versus just a short number of years ago.”
That molecular knowledge has given us a better understanding of not just how breeds differ, but also how they are the same. The two primary types of cattle, Bos taurus (taurine) and Bos indicus (zebu), both derived from the wild aurochs at the end of the last Ice Age. Aurochs, extinct since 1627, were found across Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the Sahara (then green). Evidence has shown that they were about one and a half times the size of modern domestic cattle and their domestication happened in multiple locations over many years. Human influence directed significant portions of each breeds’ development from there, but things like war, disease, and human migration further changed how some cattle breeds mixed—or didn’t—and impacted their future survival.
New world, new survival tactics
Genetic research in the last decade revealed that those cattle from southern Europe were both of the taurine lineage as well as significant African genetic influence, thus their New World descendants were, as well. The Texas Longhorn’s ancestors, cattle that came off the Spanish ships in the late 1400s to colonize the Americas, escaped or went untended and became semi-feral. The research showed that those Longhorn ancestors went through multiple generations of predominantly natural selection, compared with the human-directed selection of Old World cattle. The influence of hybrid ancestry probably helped them survive and adapt to the New World environment.
It stands to reason that hybrid cattle would have a better chance of survival in the new land, and fortuitous that some of their ancestry prepared them to survive in heat and challenging foraging environments. Today, breeders admire the Longhorn for those same attributes.
We can respect the incredible diversity natural selection has created and the unique abilities of each of these cattle to survive in their environments while looking at our own cattle and consider the possibilities. How can they be better? How could heterosis help me? How do I improve my ability to identify those cattle who seem to perform best? Maybe you’re in a situation where you’d be willing to experiment a little with something new. Maybe you’re not. But at least as beef producers we can be willing to be open minded and recognize the value of different breeds in different places.
“For the most part, I would say the industry is raising breeds that it should,” states Dr. Buchanan. “The commercial cow-calf herd in most of this country is Angus, including Red Angus, and Hereford, with some other breeds added in like Simmental, Limousin, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Maine Anjou and Salers. The MARC Germplasm study did include eared breeds which would be used in states along the Gulf Coast. There isn’t a breed that stands out to me as missing from the U.S. beef market, though it’s conceivable that Sanga-type breeds could also work well in the Gulf States.”
Sanga breeds offer heat tolerance, in addition to disease and parasite resistance, much like the Brahma-influenced cattle, which have gained acceptance in the U.S.
“Disease resistance has always been an issue but has been difficult to make positive genetic change. Some recent research in pigs has focused on genetics of disease resistance, but it’s always been a different issue in cattle—really more management focused. But with new molecular techniques the opportunities to examine disease resistance may increase. I don’t think that we have fully explored the considerable genetic diversity that exists among the several hundred breeds of cattle from around the world,” says Dr. Buchanan.
Like with the Longhorn, evolving technology is allowing us to discover more about the genetic history and genetic potential of our cattle and be thoughtful about the opportunities.
“It’s conceivable that genetic variation in disease resistance or some other characteristics exists and that we’ll identify benefits to genetic diversity that we don’t currently know about. And we’ll have to figure out how to incorporate them appropriately, not necessarily simply with crossbreeding, to take advantage,” Dr. Buchanan suggests. “Where might there be diversity with genetic potential that we can’t see right now? It’s something to think about.”