The beef industry is speeding toward one of its biggest goals -- finding the genetic keys to high-quality beef. The expected breakthroughs will shake the industry to its core and require feeders to fundamentally change how they feed cattle.
Two research projects offer a glimpse of the future. The first is a long-term effort to find the genes that make beef taste good. Scientists at Texas A&M University and other research centers have begun to zero in on these genes.
Second, scientists at Texas A&M and elsewhere are developing sophisticated tests that would allow feedyard operators to conduct on-the-spot tests to determine which feeder cattle have the genetic traits for quality beef.
The implications are startling. *By knowing which cows and bulls have the best traits, cattlemen may begin to change the makeup of their herds. The catch is that ranchers will want to be paid more for feeder cattle to cover their investment in better breeding stock. Feeders, packers, supermarkets and ultimately the consumer will be expected to foot the bill.
*If feeders can run a simple genetic blood test at the feedyard to determine which feeder cattle will taste good and which won't, they may pay less for lower quality. If that happens, the new price structure will help speed the shift to better genetics, but could cause severe financial discomfort for certain ranchers.
*Feeders could change the way they feed cattle if they could quickly sort winners from losers. Feeders could shorten the feeding period for cattle that won't benefit from longer feeding, thereby scoring big savings in feed and labor.
Improving taste is but the first in a long line of potential genetic breakthroughs that could transform the feeding and ranching industries. There may be genes that offer resistance to certain diseases, genes that allow some cattle to handle the heat of Texas summers or genes that influence rate of gain.
But, the industry has targeted its limited resources on the industry's main problem -- slumping consumer demand for beef. Industry officials believe gene-driven improvements in beef quality could reverse the downward slide.
'The work we're doing is essentially a response to the beef industry and its number one issue -- carcass quality. It doesn't make any difference how healthy the cattle are if the beef market continues to shrink,' says Scott Davis, associate professor of genetics at Texas A&M.
The strategy makes sense to many in the industry. 'What we're really finding out is that tenderness and flavor are the key to acceptability,' says J.O. 'Bo' Reagan, executive director of science and technology for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
'When you look at some of the data, in Select grade one out of every four steaks you buy could lack tenderness,' he says. 'In Choice grade, it's maybe one out of every six. By identifying cattle with superior carcass traits, it might be one out of every 20 or 30.'
This allows a quantum jump in the likelihood of getting a good steak and could keep consumers who might otherwise stray to pork or chicken.
Still, the genetic revolution faces hurdles. There is no system to reward ranchers willing to invest in improved genetics. 'How do you make ranchers do that, especially if there is no way for them to get their money back now?' asks Gary Smith, a meat scientist at Colorado State University.
Another problem -- how do you convince part-time ranchers, who make most of their income from in-town jobs, to join the movement to better beef genetics?
But those are short-term obstacles. In the long term, genetic breakthroughs could force most players in the industry -- ranchers, feeders, packers and supermarket chains -- to make major changes.
'Is it possible the magic bullet would be created and nobody would use it?' asks Smith. 'I don't think so. I think if we ever find one, virtually all of the industry will use it.'
'One thing that has the potential to be investigated using genetic mapping is feed conversion -- the amount of gain per pound of feed,' says Roger Stone, a researcher at the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. 'We know there's variation there, but we don't know anything about the genetics of it. It's a wide open area.'
In an ideal world, ranchers could give a simple test to determine which cattle had the best genes for flavor, then clone those cattle. That dream became more plausible when Scottish scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, a few years ago. Today, efforts are underway to create genetic tests for flavor-related genes. Adult cattle have been cloned in Japan, New Zealand and France. But roadblocks to widespread cloning abound.
Many cloned pregnancies end in miscarriage. And, cloned calves carried to term are often very large, the journal Science reports. That presents calving risks.
The bottom line is this: Cloning adult animals holds enormous promise because it offers a way to create numerous copies of the best bulls, cows and feeder calves. But many of the scientific problems associated with cloning have yet to be resolved.