New findings may help broaden alfalfa's range and productivity as a cut-hay crop or grazing-type forage, say Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers. Hardy new alfalfa cultivars that tolerate drought, frequent grazing, poor soils and other crop stresses may come from four germplasm lines that ARS researchers developed from the legume's wild Asian relatives.

Commercial cultivars bred from this germplasm could be particularly useful on dry rangeland typical of Western states like Oklahoma, Montana and Nevada. The wild alfalfa relatives also have potential as a stand-alone legume crop in these areas.

Researchers turned to a distant relative of today's cultivated alfalfa to improve the crop's stress tolerance and adaptability. The distant relative is an ancient but durable legume from the desert steppes, volcanic soils and grassland regions of Siberia, Tibet, Mongolia and China.

Last fall, researchers released several germplasm lines — their top picks — in the form of seeds sent to more than 100 universities, seed companies and organizations around the world. This followed nine years of plant breeding and evaluation to improve the wild alfalfa for desirable traits including dense, upright growth, early flowering, seedling vigor and leaf hopper resistance.

For more information, contact Austin Campbell, ARS Soybean Genomics and Improvement Laboratory, Beltsville, MD, at 301/504-5638, or e-mail

“Cow whispering” could become the latest grazing management tool. An ARS researcher has patented a computerized locator/controller device similar to those used to train or contain dogs to their owner's yard.

The collar acts as a virtual fence. It controls movement of cattle by whispering electronic versions of the commands “gee” (go right) and “haw” (go left) into the cow's ears. It also locates cows with a global positioning system antenna that receives and uses these satellite signals to apply bilateral cues.

The cues not only change an animal's location but also its direction of movement. If a cow ignores all sound cues, mild electrical shocks follow.

Ranchers can program future grazing locations based on sound ecological and economic data. The cues are then given autonomously for making the change only when the cow is on the move to minimize stress.

Before the device is available commercially, researchers must find a way to trim down the prototype neck collar to a smaller unit like an ear tag.

For more information, contact Dean Anderson, ARS Southern Plains Range Management Research Unit, Las Cruces, NM, at 505/646-5190 or e-mail

Applying a combination of tenderness-enhancement methods to certain beef cuts can reduce costs while adding value, a recent beef checkoff-funded study shows.

That finding has important implications for packers, processors and retailers who want to achieve optimum tenderness and maximum shelf life with their beef products.

Researchers at Texas A&M University examined the effects of high-voltage electrical stimulation and postmortem aging on various cuts of beef from the round, chuck, rib and loin. Their objective was to determine if the combined methods had a compounding impact on improving beef's palatability.

The research showed that cuts from the loin and rib responded favorably to a combination of the methods, with high-voltage electrical stimulation reducing aging time by as much as nine days.

From an economic standpoint, that finding has great significance. A shorter aging period means getting optimally tender product to market more quickly. In turn, that economy in time reduces inventory costs and extends shelf life.

“The research showed that high-voltage electrical stimulation of the carcass has major effects on most cuts,” says Jeff Savell, section leader of Texas A&M University's meat science section.

“Importantly, it showed that electrical stimulation helps loin and rib cuts achieve optimal tenderness in a shorter period of time. An added result is a longer shelf life in the meat case without compromising the effect of aging on tenderness.”

In this study, electrical stimulation decreased the postmortem aging time of loin cuts by up to nine days. The same process reduced the aging time of rib cuts by as much as six days. Both cuts reached satisfactory tenderness in the shorter time span when electrically stimulated, although longer aging would result in additional tenderness.

“This study, combined with a previous checkoff-funded study on the effects of aging, gives us postmortem guidelines on how to improve the tenderness of all economically important cuts of beef,” Savell says. “With the number of branded beef programs seeking maximum tenderness in their products, these methods offer real opportunities to increase value to the consumer while reducing costs to the processor.”

A hormone may indicate disease stress in livestock and make it easier to keep contamination out of meat processing, say researchers from ARS and the National Institutes of Health.

Involved in many physiological and pathological processes, adrenomedullin (AM) is a recently discovered, naturally occurring amino acid peptide hormone produced in lung, kidney, heart and other tissues.

Increases in AM appear to be associated with some forms of infection in cattle, pigs, goats and sheep. Both low-level, long-duration parasite infections and intense, short-term bouts can provoke higher AM levels, researchers say.

In ARS experiments, calves that harbored internal parasites had more AM in their pancreatic tissue and blood than healthy calves.

In the future, a rapid-screening test for abnormal AM levels may allow producers to identify questionable animals before sending them to market. In addition, monitoring AM levels may enable producers to help sick animals recover from illness and make them safe for processing.

For more information, contact Theodore Elsasser, ARS Growth Biology Laboratory, Beltsville, MD, at 301/504-8222 or e-mail

"Research Roundup" is compiled by Diana Barto. Contact her at 952/851-4678 or