South Dakota beef producer Jerry Hofer implemented a genetic program for his Lakeview Piedmontese that could become a new driving force in the beef industry.

Hofer, who oversees cattle development at the Lakeview Hutterite Colony outside Lake Andes, has worked the last decade to develop genetics that maximize carcass value as it relates to muscle yield, while still delivering tenderness and flavor. He found his answer in the Piedmontese-specific myostatin-allele mutation, a naturally occurring DNA sequence that dramatically impacts carcass quality.

In 2001, USDA's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, published research results related to the effects of the Piedmontese myostatin gene on meat tenderness:

“The effects of Piedmontese inheritance on meat tenderness were due entirely to the myostatin gene. All four cuts from heterozygous animals with one copy of the myostatin gene were more tender and had less connective tissue than normal animals. Only the bottom round cut was further increased in tenderness with two copies of the double-muscling gene relative to one copy. Piedmontese bulls homozygous for myostatin could be used as terminal sires to produce heterozygous progeny with improved tenderness in the four muscles studied,” the report concluded.

Hofer has utilized Piedmontese in his cross-breeding program for eight years now; he's currently running 150 Piedmontese cows in a seedstock program and 150 commercial cows in an embryo transfer (ET) program. Lakeview has also developed a network of producers utilizing Lakeview bulls in their commercial herds to generate a supply of value-added heterozygous offspring.

“We finish about 1,500 Pied-montese-sired calves each year,” Hofer says. “We consistently see a significant increase in carcass value from this program. In today's marketing world, it's the difference between profit and loss.”

Hofer says Lakeview's goal was to develop top-line Piedmontese seedstock, both traditional Italian full bloods and composites. His team's gene-mapping program was designed to build on the homozygous state of Piedmontese-specific myostatin-allele mutation and then focus on enhancing the cattle's convenience traits such as solid red or black hides, polled heads and calving ease.

He was also determined to build terminal-cross bulls that deliver hybrid vigor into F1 progeny by not relying heavily on the Angus cross to obtain the genetic pool. So he utilized South Devon and Salers genetics in crossbreeding, resulting in a line possessing all the traits his team identified in its genetic quest.

“We wanted cattle that consistently produce lean, tender, flavorful and nutritious beef along with abundant carcass yield and the phenotypic appeal commercial breeders require,” Hofer says.

Calving problems

The traditional rap on double-muscled breeds is their tendency toward hard calving, but Hofer says Piedmontese used as a terminal cross on non-Piedmontese females produce calving-ease results similar to other breeds. In fact, research demonstrates Piedmontese as a terminal cross posted 92.5% unassisted births and an average birth weight of 80.2 lbs., he says.

“It's important to understand that, as seedstock breeders (Piedmontese to Piedmontese), there is increased management at calving time because of how the myostatin gene is passed to offspring,” he says. “Therefore, commercial cattlemen should buy their replacement females and treat the Piedmontese crossbred as a terminal animal only.”

After Lakeview weaned its first Piedmontese composites in 2003, DNA testing was done to ensure their compatibility with the existing gene map. Hofer produced ET calves in spring 2006 he hoped would possess the genetic package he sought.

“From that group of calves we identified a bull, Protrend, or Trend as we call him, who is now a large part of our program's foundation,” Hofer says.

Under test, Trend recorded an average respective daily gain of 5.1 lbs. and actual 11-month weight of 1,268 lbs.

“He has the full gene map we've been looking for,” Hofer says. “We're tracking his offspring to the rail, and his results on calving and weaning weights are very encouraging. We plan to run the Piedmontese composites parallel to our full-blood Piedmontese breeding program.”

A hungry market

Ralph Peterson, CEO of Montana Ranch Brand (MRB) Natural Meats, believes Hofer's genetics will instigate “the next big change” in the beef industry. MRB markets Certified Piedmontese Beef.

Peterson says Hofer's accomplishment in developing Piedmontese genetics is comparable to the incorporation of the polled gene into most mainline beef breeds. He says people have to taste Piedmontese beef in order to realize how it differs from other breeds in terms of tenderness and flavor.

“Consumers today want the same product time after time because they enjoy the eating experience,” Peterson says. “I expect to see a bigger push from consumers over the next 10-20 years for a beef product that consistently delivers that experience. We're building our company around that projection and finding consumers will pay more for such a product.”

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MRB hopes to expand availability of its Piedmontese beef beyond the East Coast and West Coast markets, but supply is the biggest challenge. Only 10,000-12,000 head of Piedmontese are harvested annually, and MRB is responsible for 75-80% of them.

“As people develop more awareness of the product, we think Piedmontese will begin sweeping the beef industry because the quality and consistency are so much better,” he says.

In addition, he says research indicates Piedmontese beef cooks more quickly and is significantly higher in Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (a powerful anticarcinogenic) than other breeds. It's also lower in calories and cholesterol and higher in protein than traditional beef, he adds.

“Ranchers who want to start producing Piedmontese beef can do that just by putting Piedmontese bulls on their existing herd. They finish out in 14-18 months, marble nicely and do well on grass or in the feedlot. There's a ready market for them because we need to dramatically expand our supply of Piedmontese beef all year round; our consumers demand it,” Peterson says.

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.