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Conceiving the future of cows

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Conceiving the future of cows

Say this five times fast: breeding better cows begins before birth. That tongue twister could be the motto of OSU research in Union on how to create cowherds with traits more valuable to producers.

First, researchers comb through catalogs filled with stud bulls with names like Thunder and Bolt and performance statistics listed like the back of a baseball card. Through artificial insemination, OSU can mate its herd with bulls carrying strong hereditary traits, like calf growth, longevity and the production of high-quality milk and beef.

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Beef is big business in Oregon, racking up more than $800 million in farmgate sales each year. Oregon State creates cowherds with traits more valuable to beef producers and desired by consumers. Decisions by OSU breeders will eventually affect what we find on our grills and dinner plates.

Decisions by OSU breeders could eventually affect what beef consumers see on their grills and dinner plates. Currently, researchers are focusing on the genetics of an Angus breed of grass-fed New Zealand cattle that, when bred into a herd, may better convert grass into saleable beef.

Ron Slater

Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center volunteer Ron Slater prepares semen straws that are loaded into an insemination gun used to artificially inseminate cows at the OSU research facility. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

“We’re able to cherry pick bulls that bring traits to the herd and provide guidelines for producers to make their own decisions,” said Chad Mueller an assistant professor of beef cattle systems. “We want beef producers to have designer cows that efficiently turn forage or feed into more pounds of high-quality beef with valuable characteristics, like marbling.”

This research could further improve the standing of beef cattle as one of Oregon’s top agricultural commodities, which racked up $800 million in farm gate sales in 2011. Dairy products added more than $520 million to the state economy.

Genetic-based bovine research can be tedious, taking five to 10 years from the first selections before researcher can draw conclusions.

Union researchers recently installed an electronic feed-monitoring system that will allow them to track exactly how much a cow eats and how food translates into weight and harvestable beef.

“We look at things that producers are interested in and we simulate what their actions are here with our genetic decisions. And then with our data, we can show them what will happen,” said Mueller. “If we can help them be a little more competitive and improve their profit margin while protecting resources, then we feel like we’re doing something good for the industry.”

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Published in: Innovations