Watch a video interview with Jonathan Beever here.

Sending cattle to mountain pastures can turn disastrous in a hurry, says Manny Encinias, New Mexico State University Extension beef cattle specialist. That’s because grazing cattle at high elevation comes with inherent risk due to their susceptibility of developing hypertension, leading to high altitude disease, he says.

High-altitude disease (HAD) affects cattle living 5,000 ft. or more above sea level and is most commonly observed above 6,800 ft., he says. The disease is characterized by pulmonary hypertension resulting in congestive heart failure.

“The scientific literature has described that cattle either selected for or native to high altitudes may experience a 0.5-5% incidence of HAD, whereas non-adapted, low-altitude cattle moved to high altitudes for grazing may experience rates as high as 40%,” he says.

What’s more, most cattle producers don’t know if individual animals will have problems grazing at high elevations until the animals show clinical symptoms. Unfortunately, in most situations, the discovery and disease confirmation comes only after the animal dies. Death and performance loss associated with HAD annually add up to more than $60 million in the Rocky Mountain region, he says.

All breeds are susceptible to HAD. However, some breeds and pedigrees within breeds appear to be more naturally resistant. Given that genetic connection, Encinias is part of a multi-institution research project to further define genetic variables for HAD and evaluate the physiological, environmental and nutritional interactions suspected to affect susceptibility to HAD.

For the past several years, this research has been conducted at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, which at 8,500 ft., is the highest centralized facility in the U.S. focused on studying HAD. Jonathan Beever, a University of Illinois molecular geneticist, is analyzing DNA samples gathered from cattle to determine the genes that influence susceptibility to the potentially deadly condition.

Beever is doing that by comparing genetic information from animals suffering from HAD to those not showing signs when given a pulmonary arterial pressure (PAP) test. “The PAP test has become relatively straightforward at identifying animals having problems,” Beever says. “This disease is clearly a genetic issue and with today’s technology, we have the potential to identify the gene or a group of genes where a variation of genes might influence the animal’s disposition to not have high-altitude disease.”

Beever is already seeing some promising results in identifying some genetic factors and thinks a marker test can be developed.

“With DNA marker information we would be able to test any animal regardless of where it is raised, or its pedigree, and be able to say whether or not this animal will survive when you take him to a higher altitude,” he says.

To see a video of Beever’s remarks, click here. For more on high-altitude disease, see “Brisket Disease In Cattle.”