Healthier and More Efficient Cows

MU team studies feed efficiency and participates in respiratory disease study

It’s tough raising cattle for a living. Cows can be fed, but they don’t always gain the weight hoped for. They can catch respiratory illnesses that create medical costs, delayed sales or even death of the animal.

With the help of two grants totaling more than $14 million from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, research teams led by the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University will focus on developing methodologies to breed cattle that more efficiently utilize feed and that are more resistant to Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD).

The potential impact of the research could be huge. The United States has the world’s fourth largest cattle population. More than 970,000 farms raise beef cattle, contributing to a $71 billion annual retail value. Farmers and feedlots spend millions of dollars every year feeding some cattle that grow inefficiently, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions and demands for land to produce feedstuffs. When cattle are brought together in feedlots, infected animals expose others to the pathogens which cause BRD, leading to significant economic losses and reduced animal well-being.

Jerry Taylor, Project Director

“Currently, we have no highly effective tools to improve feed efficiency,” said Jerry Taylor, Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and project director of a $5 million grant to study feed efficiency in cattle.

Beef Farm CowOne of the cows at the MU Beef Research and Teaching Farm at MU South Farm. | Photo by Keith Montgomery

“Historically, selection to improve the growth rate of cattle has improved the gross efficiency of production simply by reducing the time to marketing of an animal,” he said. “However, selection to improve growth rate does not tackle the fundamental issue of improving the efficiency of conversion of nutrients into beef which also has environmental consequences through the production of methane and manure.”

With the new grant, Taylor and his colleagues will study the feed efficiency of cattle using several techniques, including the development of DNA-based prediction models for genetic merit based upon genotyping up to 8,000 individually fed cattle, identifying the differences in gene expression within pathways that lead to differences in intake and efficiency and identifying the specific bacteria and microbes that reside in the animals’ stomachs.

“If we can identify and selectively breed the animals that have the best combination of genes for producing high quality beef with the least amount of grain, their progeny could reduce environmental impacts and save producers millions of dollars,” Taylor said. “Limiting the amount of feed used to produce beef could open farmland for other important crops, such as those best suited for ethanol production, which could decrease dependency on fossil fuels and foreign oil.”

Enormous economic benefit for Missouri

A significant decrease in feed costs could have an enormous economic benefit for Missouri. The state ranks second in the nation in total numbers of beef cows in production, with more than 2 million cows on 68,000 farms. Revenue generated from cattle production contributes nearly $1 billion to Missouri’s economy annually. Over a 10-year period, the value of Missouri cattle production is nearly tied with the value of Missouri soybean production as the number one commodity in the state. Beef enterprises are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in a global marketplace where large producers use economies of scale to become more profitable.

The second grant, worth $9.75 million, will be led by James Womack, Ph.D., W.P. Luse Endowed and Distinguished Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. Taylor will assist Womack in the study that will investigate BRD, the most significant health problem of the US beef and dairy industries.

Cattle that are stricken with the disease go off feed, lose production and require treatment resulting in significant economic losses. Womack and his colleagues will identify the pathogens responsible for BRD and will use a similar DNA-based approach to the feed efficiency study to identify cattle that are resistant to the specific disease-causing pathogens. Selective breeding of resistant animals will lead to increased animal well-being and reduced production losses.

Robert Schnabel and Jerry TaylorJerry Taylor, MU professor and Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics, and Robert Schnabel, research assistant professor, who developed a DNA assay device that can guide breeders to develop more efficient cattle. | Photo by Willie Hayes

Students will be involved in the research

Both grants also have significant outreach and teaching components. A demonstration project involving several farms and commercial feedlots in the Midwest will evaluate the DNA diagnostics developed to predict the feed efficiency of calves. Undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students will be involved in the research and learn about feed efficiency and disease resistance during the five-year projects.

The research teams will also use cattle within industry feedlots for research and demonstration projects to contribute to farmers’ and feedlot producers’ knowledge of the problems and how to implement best practices to improve feed efficiency and reduce the prevalence of BRD.