A BEEF cow that gives birth to twins is providing a bonus, but most cattle producers see it differently, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of animal science Brian Kirkpatrick.
"Some problems come along with twinning," Kirkpatrick said. "(The cow is) more likely to lose the pregnancy; you're more likely to lose twins at birth; you're more likely to have problems with malpresentation at birth, and beef producers talk about issues with getting a cow to take care of two calves and with labor concerns."
While he understands these concerns, Kirkpatrick said he is confident that in the not-so-distant-future, the industry will see benefits from his long-running research can the genetics and management of beef cattle twining.
He acknowledged that successful twinning in the beef business could become a boon to increased efficiency, and in the face of a declining national beef herd, it could help increase numbers of marketable cattle.
Kirkpatrick has isolated a genotype that regulates ovulation rate -- the number of potential embryos being produced by a cow.
"In the case that we're working with right now, we have a single gene that has a very large effect on ovulation rate," he said. "We have mapped that gene to a narrow area, although we still haven't figured out what the gene is that's causing that effect. Hopefully, in the near future, we'll figure that out. We have identified genetic markers that can be used to track inheritance of the gene."
Kirkpatrick's team also is working to understand the many complexities related to twin births to be able to help producers capture the efficiencies of cattle that have two calves per year. The study will begin to sort through information about which cows maintain pregnancies, calving ease, calf survivability and the genetic markers associated with positive economic outcomes.
"Along the way, there's a good chance we'll uncover other important information that'll be useful and interesting for the beef business," Kirkpatrick said.
"My hope is that, in another 10 years, we'll have some basic information about genetics that relate to success in carrying twins to term so that, for the beef cattle industry, the twinning would not be viewed as a negative but as ... a positive," he added.
Cattle ranchers may experience information overload when trying to make genetic purchasing decisions.
"There is an abundance of information available to ranchers to help make them genetic decisions. The number of traits for which we have expected progeny differences (EPDs) has increased to include carcass traits as well as traits such as 'stayability' and disposition. All that information doesn't make the selection task easy," Warren Rusche, a cow/calf field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, said.
He added that one challenge when using EPDs is balancing among different traits and what kind of trade-offs cattle producers can afford to make.
"Perhaps there are two bulls you're considering: one offers excellent growth performance and acceptable carcass traits; the other just meets your target for growth, but the bull's marbling EPD is exceptional. Traditional trait EPDs don't do a very good job of telling us which one of these two bulls will be more profitable to own," he said.
EPDs also don't address costs.
"We all know that selecting for more growth and more maternal milk in the sires of our replacements can increase our weaning weights," Rusche said.
He explained that producers can use selection indexes to evaluate the value of the outputs and also to consider input costs.
Selection indexes use the trait EPDs in an economic model to put a dollar value on an individual bull, he said.
If you can't kill them, trap them. Such is the fate that scientists are assigning to pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli. These bacteria may contaminate meat in abattoirs, when small traces of excrement on the hide come into contact with the carcass.
"Some microbial contamination of the carcass, including foodborne pathogens, can occur even when best hygiene practices are followed," Laura Wyness, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said.
The foundation is a partner to ProsafeBeef, a European Union-funded research project designed to advancing beef safety and quality.
To eliminate bacteria and improve the safety of beef meat, project scientists have developed a system in which carcasses are sprayed before skinning with a liquid product called shellac. This is a natural resin produced by the female lac bug. When dissolved in ethanol, shellac forms a sticky glaze that is used to cover the hide, thus trapping dirt and bacteria and preventing them from contaminating the meat.
According to the announcement, shellac, a sort of natural plastic, has been used for more than 3,000 years and is still employed today in liquid solutions to coat furniture and musical instruments, besides being edible.
"Shellac may be a better alternative to disinfectants such as lactic acid, which is used in some countries to wash the carcasses but is not permitted in the European Union," Geraldine Duffy said. "Indeed, our data show that immobilizing bacteria with shellac is more effective than other hide decontamination methods."
Duffy is the head of food safety at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Dublin, Ireland, which is coordinating the ProsafeBeef project. Current rules in the EU provide for a "clear cattle" policy, which include visual inspection, clipping dirt and water washing of carcasses.
"Disinfectants are not allowed on the rationale that they may mask unruly practices," Duffy said.
To date, researchers have tested the shellac solution in abattoirs in Serbia and the U.K. They found that it reduced the amount of bacteria in meat up to 100-fold -- better than what they could achieve with disinfectants.
Duffy cautioned that further steps are needed before shellac becomes a commercially viable strategy in the meat industry.
"We will need to develop this treatment into a cost-effective solution and figure out the best way to fit it into the abattoir line," she said.
Aubrey Mendonca, an associate professor with Iowa State University's department of food science and human nutrition, said the shellac-based "technique represents a paradigm shift from killing the microorganisms on the hide to actually immobilizing them. ... It has good potential for improving the microbial safety of beef."
In the future, this approach should be considered along with other technologies, according to Timothy Bowser, a food process engineer at Oklahoma State University. However, he pointed out that moisture may limit the efficacy of the treatment.
"In the winter, many cattle would often enter the plant covered with about 5 cm of frozen mud. ... Moisture control, or finding an immobilizer that is more effective in the presence of moisture, may be a key to future success," Bowser said.