Note: Justin Sexton is vice president of strategy for Performance Livestock Analytics.
A recent Journal of Animal Science article from Rebecca Poole and others at North Carolina State and Clemson Universities looked at proven and new technologies to address fescue toxicosis while raising an interesting implementation question. You need not have fescue pastures for this to be relevant, stay with me.
Fescue is a persistent and drought tolerant forage that causes reduced weight gain and reproductive performance due to toxicosis. One characteristic of toxicosis is a rough hair coat and increased heat stress. Despite these detrimental traits, producers maintain fescue pastures because of drought persistence.
Poole and her co-workers compared a novel endophyte which has the beneficial agronomic traits of traditional fescue without the downside of toxicosis. Yearling heifers fed novel endophyte forage were faster to shed their hair and maintained a slicker hair coat. This likely contributed to the reduced body temperatures ultimately reducing heat stress.
The interesting part of the study was the use of Angus and Senepol crossbred cattle with a slick-hair gene mutation to address heat stress using the animal rather than forage. These Bos taurus cattle have similar heat tolerance characteristics as Bos indicus due to their slick hair without the challenging temperament and delayed maturity found in Brahman influenced cattle.
Cattle with the slick hair gene were faster shedding, maintained this slick haircoat and exhibited reduced skin temperatures, leading to slightly greater body condition and improved reproductive rates. While there were not enough heifers in the study to determine if the traits were additive, the study affirmed novel endophyte forages or selection for slick hair offers producers options to address fescue toxicosis and/or heat stress
Some may suggest these technologies are not novel as we know novel fescue enhances performance and cattle that shed quickly are better equipped to handle heat stress. Yet both technologies require considerable time investment to implement.
For those looking to renovate fescue pastures now is the time to begin the process by establishing a summer smother crop with the goal of complete renovation by next summer. Selection for hair shedding begins now by scoring cows as they transition into summer coats. Incorporating slick hair into your selection program will show progress over the long term.
Now imagine if that process or another desired trait was accomplished in a generation.
A recent example from salmon offers us a look to the future of genetic change. This rapid change only took 30 years to develop. The AquAdvantage Salmon cleared the final policy hurdle for production and sales in the US this March. This salmon combines the flavor of Chinook salmon with growth rate of an ocean pout, reducing days to market by half.
What does the first US approved genetic modified animal have to do with fescue toxicosis and slick haired cattle? AquAdvantage is an example where the time production barrier was overcome by technology, combining favorable traits from two fish into one product. However a new time barrier to product adoption was introduced, policy.
Regardless of your interest in politics, there are several reasons why policy should remain an area of interest. Today the US produces the safest and highest quality beef supply in the world. Such a safe and affordable food supply tends to favor food policy with an abundance of caution.
Consider a commodity beef producing country or region that lags the US in high quality beef production. Their new technology focused policy allows genetic modification to enhance the carcass merit of their environmentally adapted native cattle. This region could make years of genetic progress in a single generation by adopting technology when others do not.
With restrictive genetic technology policies in place elsewhere there emerges a new beef supplier in the market or at a minimum becomes self sufficient, no longer needing to import high quality beef.
To some the policy example sounds far fetched, to others not impossible to imagine. What you need to guard against is making sure the policy of “We’ve always done it that way” isn’t limiting your operation from adopting technologies that are better, cost effective and easy to implement.