Has cloning research produced the ideal beef carcass?

Has cloning research produced the ideal beef carcass?

Research and innovative technology bends the curve in beef quality.

Throughout the history of the modern beef business, the holy grail of genetic improvement has been to produce the “curve-bender” bull. Cattle producers have invested a lifetime, perhaps several lifetimes, in finding the perfect genetic combination that will not just nudge the quality of beef forward, but catapult it.

Researchers at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) in Canyon, Texas, in a public-private partnership, have accomplished that feat in one generation and just a few years.

The initial results of WTAMU’s research involving cloned cattle demonstrate that it is possible to improve both carcass quality and yield simultaneously, which means higher value beef can be produced without wasteful trim fat. That’s a breakthrough because conventional wisdom holds that the quality of beef suffers as the yield—the amount of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts—increases and vice versa.

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“This outcome indicates that the antagonistic relationship between beef carcass quality and yield can be overcome by crossing rarely occurring animals,” says Ty Lawrence, professor of meat science and lead researcher on the project.

In 2012, WTAMU successfully cloned a bull, which they named Alpha, from the carcass of a steer that graded Prime, Yield Grade 1—the best combination of quality grade and yield grade in the USDA beef evaluation system. Such a rating is only achieved by about 0.03% of all beef carcasses. Three heifers—Gammas 1, 2 and 3—were cloned from another Prime, Yield Grade 1 carcass.

While not clones themselves, the 13 calves of Alpha and the Gammas were the first bovine offspring ever produced from two cloned carcasses. Last month, seven of them were harvested. The seven steer carcasses were evaluated by a third-party USDA beef-grading supervisor and graded significantly above the industry average. One of the seven achieved the Prime grade, three graded High Choice, and three were Average Choice. The industry average is Low Choice. Industry-wide, less than 5% of all beef—fewer than one in 20 carcasses—grades Prime.

All seven of WTAMU’s steers produced a Yield Grade of 1 or 2. The industry average is a 3. Compared with the average animal reported in the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit, the offspring of Alpha and the Gammas have 16% less trim fat, 9% more ribeye and 45% more marbling.

“By finding, cloning, and crossing these rare genetics, we have demonstrated the ability to create exactly what the market desires: high quality taste fat without unnecessary waste fat,” Lawrence said.

These findings have been five years in the making and the ongoing project has included numerous partners. WTAMU teamed up with ViaGen, a private company based in Cedar Park, Texas, to develop the initial clones for the purposes of breeding them.

Collaborating with their industry partners, animal scientists from WTAMU were careful to raise the offspring of the clones in the same way that cattle would normally be produced for commercial meat production.

“The calves were raised by their mothers while grazing our native pastures, in the herd with our other commercial cattle,” said David Lust, a research team member and associate professor of animal science. “They were weaned at a normal time and then fed at the WTAMU Research Feedlot for 185 days on a typical feedlot diet. They have been treated just like commercial cattle throughout the industry.”

 The research team is encouraged that the data thus far points toward a new way to improve beef production efficiency.

 “I think the biggest innovations will be the intersection of technology and biology,” said Gregg Veneklasen, a research team member and veterinarian at Timber Creek Veterinary Clinic. “West Texas A&M University will be at the forefront of this cutting edge technology, and our students will be the ones who benefit.”

Following these initial results, the team plans to conduct a commercial-scale trial with future Alpha-Gamma calves that are cattle bred, born, raised, fed and harvested outside the controlled University research environment. Additional trials will also proceed with Alpha alone—they want to know how he compares to top sires of multiple breeds selected through traditional ways. They also plan to continue to find and clone exceptional carcasses. 

 “This project is an example of a public-private partnership that produced great results,” said Dean Hawkins, research team member and dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. “West Texas A&M University is thankful to Blake Russell and the team at ViaGen, Dr. Gregg Veneklasen at Timber Creek Veterinary Clinic, Jason Abraham at Mendota Ranch and many others who propelled this idea to fruition.”

“We anticipate this to be the beginning of a long relationship of positive research outcomes,” he said.

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