Ranchers Try to Breed Drought-Resistant Herds
By Carlos Morales
The national cattle headcount dropped by 2 million animals between 2011 and 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. And as the drought continues, ranchers are continuing to thin their herds to ease financial burdens brought on by the extreme dryness and heat. But Texas ranchers are looking at genetics to solve the problem.
Researchers at Texas A&M University have spent years studying how to develop cattle that are heat- and drought-tolerant. And while crossbreeding isn’t anything new, it’s becoming more prominent among Texas ranchers as dry, hot summers become more common. And for those ranchers, hybrid cattle can offer more advantages than just heat resistance.
“If you improve adaptability to a climate, you improve fertility, you improve growth, and so you improve overall profitability,” said Joe Paschal with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. “They grow more, they produce more, but generally at a lower cost because they don’t require as many resources.”
Paschal says that the reason people use crossbreeding in cattle and nearly every other livestock species is “hybrid vigor.” That’s the improvement of any biological quality, like heat resistance, in a hybrid offspring.
But it could take years to see the end results from crossbreeding. “One of the things that breeding and selection takes is a lot of time,” said Emily Jane McTavish, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. “With cattle it’s hard to kind of rush that process if you have to wait at least two years for every generation. That’s one of the advantages for natural selection, is that it has been happening for a very long time.”
But McTavish said the benefit of crossbreeding is that more is known about the genotypes of cattle now than ever. And as research continues to advance, Paschall said, hybrid cattle will become popular among ranchers in the future.
“Corn is high, transportation is high — all of our costs have increased,” he said. “So we’re going to have to rely more on breeding cattle to fit the environment, whatever that environment is, than on trying to modify that environment.”
To that end, researchers are looking to animals that have thrived in dry, hot areas around the world. Some cross-breeding uses the genes of cattle from Africa and India to create more heat-tolerant hybrids.