Sponsored By

Genetic test possible for hillside-preferring cowsGenetic test possible for hillside-preferring cows

Hillside grazing alleviates pressures on lowland meadows and streams, which could help improve rangeland management.

January 7, 2017

4 Min Read
Genetic test possible for hillside-preferring cows
A University of California-Davis researcher is helping to develop a genetic test that will aid ranchers in breeding cattle that prefer to graze on hillsides, alleviating pressure on lowland meadows and creeks.Photo: Douglas McCreary/UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.

Most of the 5 million cattle that graze on California’s rangelands like to forage in the valleys and hang out by creeks, which can lead to overgrazing in riparian areas while letting perfectly good forage on hillsides go to waste.

However, some cows prefer to climb hills and mountains and eat along the way. If more cattle climbed the trail less traveled, rangelands would be more productive and sustainable throughout California and the West, according to the University of California-Davis.

That is why a team of researchers, including University of California-Davis animal geneticist Juan Medrano, is working to develop an easy, inexpensive genetic test to help ranchers improve cattle distribution by breeding hill-climbing cows.

“It’s very exciting research,” said Medrano, a professor with the department of animal science who is collaborating with scientists throughout the West. “DNA technology makes it relatively easy to test and breed for production traits like milk yield and growth rate. It’s brand new to identify genetic markers linked to animal behavior. This could have a huge impact on food security and rangeland management.”

Nature and nurture

One-third of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland. Most of it is mountainous or hilly and managed for livestock production. Rangeland grazing feeds livestock but also offers many environmental benefits, such as keeping weeds and other invasive species in check, providing water storage and carbon sequestration and supporting habitat for animals and plants found nowhere else in the world.

Problems arise, though, when rangeland is overgrazed and cattle spend too much time near running water, where manure and calving can create water quality risks for people downstream.

For decades, researchers have been working with ranchers to keep cattle from overgrazing and congregating by creeks. They build strategic fencing, for example, and provide water and salt licks on ridgetops away from running water. Cowhands often herd cattle from low-lying pastures, but that is labor intensive and is only a temporary fix.

A few years ago, Medrano's colleague, New Mexico State University professor of range science Derek Bailey, had an intriguing thought: What if we combine nature and nurture?

“I’ve been watching cattle for years, and there are always some cows that just take off for the hills, like they didn’t know they weren’t elk,” Bailey said. “They could be belly-deep in green grass and just bolt for the hills. They like it up there. We can breed for other traits. Why not select for hill climbing?”

Bailey joined forces with Medrano and a team of researchers that includes animal genetics expert Milton Thomas at Colorado State University. Funded by a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, the group is close to developing a genetic test for whether a bull is likely to sire daughters who like to climb hills.

Spatial learning

To identify hill-climbing cattle, Bailey and his crew put global positioning system (GPS) collars on 180 cows on seven ranches in three western states and took measurements every 10 minutes for months at a time. They tracked the cattle’s slope use, elevation gain and distance traveled from water.

They also took blood samples that Medrano and his team analyzed for chromosomal commonalities. Medrano found overlap in genes linked to locomotion, motivation and spatial learning.

“Results so far are very encouraging,” Medrano said. “Soon, we will be able to test and breed for hill-climbing behavior.”

With both plants and animals, breeding for one trait can sometimes produce unintended consequences like predisposition to disease or low calf weight. Researchers are looking closely at that possibility and have so far found no correlation between hill-climbing behavior and undesired traits.

“We’ve looked at calf weaning weights, pregnancy rates, blood pressure, even disposition,” Bailey said. “We had one theory that hill-climbing cows tended toward the meaner end of the scale, but that’s not the case.

“Some cows just prefer to climb more than other cows,” Bailey said. “If breeding can move the bell curve in that direction, management tools like fencing and herding will be much more effective.”

California ranchers are intrigued by the possibility.

"I can see many ecological and economic benefits to breeding for cows who like to travel," said Clayton Koopmann, a rancher and rangeland management consultant who runs cattle on hilly ground throughout the San Francisco Bay Area of California. "Forage would be consumed more evenly, and that's good for livestock production and for the environment."

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Feedstuffs is the news source for animal agriculture

You May Also Like