Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Getting cozy with bull semen

This article, Genomics Hits The Farm, over on Forbes, is really sticking in my craw. In it, they describe how mapping the cow genome has made it much more effective in selecting bulls for raising cows that produce higher quantities of milk.

It's similar in theory to the method that we've been using for the last 50 years or so, just a whole lot more accurate. In the year and a half since this new technique was introduced, this genome testing has completely replaced the previous method, which was quite successful in its own right. Over the past three decades, the previous breeding methods had boosted the annual milk production of the Holstein cow (the predominant dairy cow) by 30 gallons, or 8%.

Farmers and genetics companies use testing to select the best bulls for breeding. And, because one selected bull with high-quality semen (producing offspring with higher milk rates) can have lots of offspring, it makes financial sense to breed from a small pool. The end result is that in the U.S. only 500 bulls are bred, using artificial insemination, with 9 million Holstein cows.

On one hand, it's pretty damn amazing that we are able to select for higher production rates, but at what detriment? Much like the chickens that are bred for faster meat production, turkeys that are bred for huge breasts and every other selective breeding that goes on, there are potential problems.

An interesting point that Abbie brought up when I posted this on Facebook was this gem: "According to my uncle, who is a cow endocrinologist, the pregnancy rate is only about 30% from insemination and you're much more likely to get a pregnancy from the natural way. Not to mention that cows have been bred for milk production, not pregnancy rate, so that's part of the problem."

Today, I wanted to bring up the issue of genetic diversity, because when you are working with a narrowing gene pool, problems can arise. I'm sure Greenpa can educate us all on this much better than I (and hopefully will in the comments of this post), but the basic takeaway lesson here is that the smaller gene pool you have, the bigger risk of disease there is, either genetic or acquired.

So, your population of critters (cows in this example) are at higher risk for not surviving or procreating or otherwise serving their purpose if inbreeding a disease comes along or a mutated pathogen infects the whole lot. You see this issue crop up more often in severely depleted populations (like in those species that are endangered), so it's rather tragic to artificially create the same problem in such large populations. The potential for huge die-off may not necessarily be high, but if it does happen, it would be catastrophic.

What do you think? Is it better to selectively breed for highly desired traits at the risk of smaller population diversity? Or is it just better to leave well enough alone and go back to more traditional method of breeding that results in a lower "yield", but leaves more genetic diversity? Or do you even care?


Oldnovice said...

I'm commenting on the only thing I know about this. In the late 1960s (can't remember whether it was 1968 or 1969) I was newly married and my husband and I went with our dog to Montana to meet his cousin, Carolyn, who was married to a real-life cowboy.

They worked on a ranch owned by a corporation and the corporation had decided that all the cows that year were gonna be artificially inseminated by an extra-large bull. I want to say the bull was from Great Britain, but my memory isn't what it once was.

Anyway, we wrangled all the cows several days in a row and got to see artificial insemination up-close-and-personal. Was a great experience for us until we got a letter from Carolyn that most all the cows died because the calves were so big they couldn't accommodate them.

I can't say I really know whether a giant bull trying to woo a normal-sized cow would have resulted instinctively in the cow shying away, but I've pretty much been against cow/bull AI ever since.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Yikes! That's horrible. I guess there were no cow c-sections back then? :)

How many cows were inseminated?

e4 said...

No-brainer. Diversity is better than production.

Remember, we have so much food that we feed it to animals (even those that aren't built for it).

And focusing solely on production has caused most of our current problems in agriculture.

e4 said...

Logsdon always puts these things better than I ever could:

Greenpa said...

Aw. Bless you Crunch.

You are addressing here something that has become a central war in my life, in fact. I'm currently at war, pretty literally, with 5 Universities; 1 NGO, and the Dept. of Agriculture.

I'm going to win the war- but it will take decades before the outcome is clear. I actually lecture on this stuff.

One tiny quib; "species diversity" and "genetic diversity" are not the same thing. Both are priceless, and in jeopardy; but unrelated. Species diversity refers to the number of species in an ecosystem, or sub unit of an ecosystem; genetic diversity, which is what you're talking about here with the cows, is the size of the gene pool for a single species.

And you're totally correct here; current mainstream cow practices are drastically cutting the genepool down- which is well known among evolutionists to be a recipe for extinction. Not that the cow corporations give a darn.

My own war is regarding this; you know, I'm SURE ;-) that ALL 'Granny Smith' apples are genetically identical; actually clones; or grafts of the original tree. Every body knows that, huh?

All of "Modern Horticulture!" is based on clonal, grafted orchards. It's the only business model that works- they will tell you. Clonal orchards make it efficient and profitable; all the fruit can be handled in identical ways; the trees are identical- etc.

Except for the occasional oops. Like the fact that there was essentially no peach crop in Georgia in 2007.

Hey, it was a late frost, man. That happens. Cost of doing business!

No, it was because virtually all the peaches in Georgia were selected for a limited number of characteristics- and had no genetic diversity for cold tolerance.

If the peach orchards there had been based on genetically diverse seedlings- they might well have had a lot of lost fruit- but not a lost crop.

I knew this ahead of time- but the Kazakhs have already done and proven this- apples, in their country, are propagated by SEED. And it works great- because they've developed their gene pool in that way.

I am loudly contending, at meetings, that they day of clonal horticulture is actually OVER. Because of global warming. More erratic weather is going to leave clones helpless- you'll get massive collapses of clones no longer adapted to this region- because the region is now different.

What is needed, desperately, are intelligently assembled collections of diverse plants/animals- with abundant variation; so adaptations can happen.

The citrus industry in Florida is in dire danger- both from weather and disease. Seedlings will not be so profitable as the old clonal orchards. We're just going to have to get used to that.

Not that hard, really; if you think in 20 year time blocks.

Clonal, year by year: Profit, Profit, Profit, Profit, Even, Profit, Profit, Profit, Profit, Profit, Loss, Profit, Profit, Profit, Profit, Dead, Dead, Dead, Dead, Dead.

Seedling: Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Even, Loss, Even, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Small Profit, Even... Not dead.

Take your pick, folks. Works with cows, too.

Anna in Atlanta said...

Another question is why in the world do we need that much more milk anyway? Prices are low because production is so high, and dairy (though wonderful, delicious, and probably too high a percentage of my diet) is problematic in the sustainable farming world and possibly in the human diet. Would cows that produce more milk decrease the overall number of cows in US factory-farming (and the poop, overcrowding, sanitation and methane issues)?

Just wondering about the point of more milk in the first place.

Brad K. said...

My neighbor has a cow-calf herd, producing feeder calves. He and his sons used 5 bulls last year, to breed about 150 cows.

Since the boys got involved a couple of years ago, there has been a lot more computer printouts, a lot more changing ear tags (ID numbers) from one color or system to another, and a bit less attention to each bull's legacy. They appear to rotate the bulls almost annually, and not keep them for many seasons (so they don't get so very large).

Before that, they used three bulls for about 100 cows. Each of the bulls was kept with the same portion of the herd for a couple years, then rotated so they wouldn't breed back to their own daughters.

The thing is, they bred (until the boys got computer happy) for small calves. The research shows they grow to the same mature size, more or less, but small calves don't stress Mama as much. Duh! And a lower stress birth makes the calf better prepared to thrive.

Crunch, about the C sections for cows - I think the important part of the story was the days spend doing the insemination - that is, large numbers of cows - and Montana - limited facilities. That, and vet costs get atrocious real fast. Unless there is an excellent prognosis (which there isn't, with too-large calves), the decision comes down to cost vs. benefit. Since a ranch is in business to be in business, even the painful choices must be respected.

I imagine that enough cows died to ruin the year's profits, but enough calves and cows survived to be useful.

The argument about AI and draft horses surfaced a few years ago. The population of draft horses is much smaller, of course, but the concern of using so few bloodlines about the nation really is a serious problem there, too.

Of course, the reverse of the problem is also a concern - haphazard backyard, amateur breeding to any available intact (and cheap) stud. A visitor to my blog at the time commented that it isn't the planned matings that improve the herd, but the culls. What the 500 v. 9 million figure does, is cull some 4.5 million or so bulls. Which seems extreme.

I can recall a Wallaces Farmer article Mom clipped for me (I grew up on Dad's [pastured] hog farm in NW Iowa) about 15 years ago, about how AI was changing the industry. I found it a hoot at the time, as there were some aspects of my software engineering work at the time, with Artificial Intelligence (AI), and it was only late in the article that AI was clarified as Artificial Insemination.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Greenpa - Thanks for the clarification - I fixed it. And, I figured you would have an opinion on the subject. Thanks for your always valuable input.

Anna - Good point about the reduced number of total cattle if they produce higher quantities of milk.

Although I would still argue that it would be better to have more genetic diversity in the cows, even if it means more "output" in the poop arena. If people focused on consuming less milk products and only from organic or sustainably raised cows that would be better.

Brad - Thanks for your comments. It's always great to get a different perspective. The closest I get to a cow is the Cave Aged Gruyere I'm eating for New Years :)

Unknown said...

Isn't it the same basic principle as the Irish potato famine? And the same way that corn, soybeans, etc. is already? It seems like it could turn very bad down the road and since these practices make up so much of our food supply it could be devastating. And this concern for production is unnecessary, just as the use of BGH, our problem is overproduction, not underproduction.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Not to mention, the life expectancy of these cows is greatly decreased due to the hard lives of milk production that they lead.

As for Old Novice's comment, it's my understanding that they use a bull that produces smaller offspring the first time a cow is bred, so that they calf will be easier to deliver.

If you really want to get in touch with my uncle, I can get you his email address. He's kind of a big wig in the world of animal science. He could probably give you more info than what I just remember from our conversation over the summer, which was really focused on our horse, but I'm pulling out what I remember of him talking about cows.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Oh, and dog breeds are the perfect example of the problems that can arise from close breeding. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Speaking of endangered species, I just read that there are only 750 mountain gorillas left in the world. This just makes me sick to my stomach, we have so few living relatives left. Sigh.

Hanley Tucks said...

Reminds me of the Irish Potato Famine.

They had just one family of spuds, and that was about all they ate. Along came a disease, and everyone starved.

Not perhaps the ideal outcome they were hoping for.

By contrast, when the same potato blight reached South America, they were alright - some of the spuds died, but they had a zillion other varieties that did alright.

Diversity gives resilience.

I think also of Third World farmers who have happily trundled along with grain crops yielding 1t/ha every year regardless of flood or drought. Westerners came in and brought in new varieties that yielded 7t/ha!... if they used 200kg/ha artificial fertiliser, plus pesticides and herbicides, and if they had a steady water supply, which of course they could only get with diesel water pumps.

So when the floods or drought came, or when someone in the farm lost their job and couldn't afford the fertiliser, they had... nothing.

Put in Greenpa's terms, it was 1t, 1t, 1t, 1t, 1t... vs 7t, 0t, 0t, 0t, famine. I'm sure they were very grateful for our help.

Perhaps we ought to have realised that if people have been living somewhere for 3,000 years and feeding themselves without destroying the land, maybe they know something.

But them dirty brown people don't know a thing!

Brad K. said...

Farmers Daughter,

You might check - usually cows are first bred, as draft horses are, a couple of years before they reach physical maturity. Ideally a young, smaller bull just starting to breed is chosen for the younger, smaller cows, so the act of mating is less likely to injure the cow.

Choosing a bull, and bloodlines, that tend to throw smaller calves reduces risks at calving for cows of all ages.

jewishfarmer said...

This is a great post, Deanna! And a really important issue. One of my close neighbors keeps a bull, and says he's the only guy left who does, but he doesn't think his cows get pregnant as well on AI. He still does some AIing as well, to breed diversity into his herd, but he keeps and replaces bulls as well. But it is hard for him to do - because so few other people are selling and using bulls. You can't keep using the same bull over and over, and you don't want one related to you, so he often has to truck them long distances. There are so many pressures leading him to AI that it is amazing he's resisted.

We're about to get a buck goat for our Nigerian Dwarves, and this is a concern for us as well, since the imported stock originally used isn't hugely diverse. We're breeding for good udders and milk production, but also for thriftiness and diverse genetics - we want animals that produce with less grain, but maintain their good health. We get less milk this way - but we're not necessarily looking to maximize production over one season, but perhaps over many years by breeding for long life and health kids and minimal inputs.

This also means that many of the conventional bucks are not exactly what we're looking for, or their owner doesn't really know whether they are what we're looking for - they can tell us that the buck's mother milked X lbs, and about his conformation, but not necessarily on what ration she milked it.

So it may take us multiple generations even to figure out what we need in bucks, and before we really get it.


Elisabeth said...

I am no expert, but from the genetics and biodiversity classes I took in college while studying anthropology, I know that genetic diversity is far more important. It also seems so common sense to me. Don't mess with nature.

kidk4m said...

Farmer's Daughter beat me to it..but I was also going to mention how selective breeding has put more than one breed of dog in jeopardy.

Count me in as a supporter of genetic diversity.

It amazes me how this lesson just never seems to get learned.

Greenpa said...

Kiashu: "Perhaps we ought to have realised that if people have been living somewhere for 3,000 years and feeding themselves without destroying the land, maybe they know something.

But them dirty brown people don't know a thing!"

While I'm in absolute total agreement with all of that- and that ignoring folk traditions and wisdom is cosmically idiotic-

It's worth noting that not all folk traditions are actually the most effective.

The example I love most at the moment is rice production using "SRI" techniques; "system of rice intensification".

It's very much counter to traditional rice culture - was invented by Jesuits (not professors!), working on the land with the people in Madagascar, who just set out to see, scientifically, if everything about traditional rice practices were actually the "best". They noticed at the outset that some "deviant" farmers got better results-

Turns out if you: transplant the seedlings much EARLIER; and transplant ONE seedling per clump, instead of 4-5; further apart; and use LESS water- and do a good deal MORE weeding- you can like QUADRUPLE the yield. With less fertilizer; less water, less chemicals.

It's still "controversial" - and it DOES require more intelligent farmer input- but it's spreading around the world. Here's Cornell's take:

(I'm not at war with Cornell, incidentally.)

Maintaining the balance between respect for local people and traditions, and useful scientific inquiry- seems to be too difficult for most people. Which is so very sad- since it can be outrageously rewarding, for all concerned. Too bad they don't teach it.

So far, proponents say it takes more attention; but less money in; way more out, and seems to hold up under wet and dry variations- but it's only 25 years old. Another couple hundred years of experience, and we'll start to understand it.

Paul said...

It's striking to me: as a species, particularly here in the West, we don't seem to be able to get up in the morning without making profoundly poor choices on very important matters. That said, bear in mind that corporate-minded strategic analysis is based on short term (fiscal year, generally) profit and loss. Long-term health of the herd is probably cataloged as a business risk, but the remediation cost of that risk exceeds short-term loss should the risk trigger. Because that trigger has a low statistical probably in any given fiscal year, the current strategy remains in place. Yet another problem with allowing our corporations to do the thinking on our behalf.

Brad K. said...

@ kimk4m,

Paul said it well - corporations and people living in an industrial/consumer kind of world look for results on the grocer shelves this week, or the quarterly stock dividend rates. Those invested in strategy are more likely to manipulate interest rates and new press releases than to question current practice.

You almost have to leave that kind of society before you can grasp there are important, better, choices.

It seems that not everyone has ignored localized, sustainable efforts in farming. Monsanto (I hope you know who that company/monopoly/international corporate giant/agribusiness protection racket is) helped the US Congress write the impending Food Safety Act, to apply "approved food production procedures" for the "safety" of the American food supply. The Senate version currently doesn't cover farmers markets and roadside stands; the House version does, so what the "compromise" bill affects is to be seen. Both versions enforce, and tremendous penalty, registration of everyone that produces, transports, or stores food - or anything that could be a component of food for people or animals. Federal registration, federal inspection, federal audits and warrantless, unannounced surprise audits. With fines. Wanna bet Monsanto products make the "approved" list? No, not everyone is ignoring better choices. I also note that Monsanto and a couple other companies have bought up and closed down all but a very few competing seed corn companies. Seed corn biodiversity is now established by the Monsanto board of directors. I hope your spring matches their prediction for you.

I see the eagles are back here in north central OK - enjoy the new year.

Greenpa said...

Paul understands the process.

For those with a little bit of tendency towards conspiracy theories-

I'm about 85% convinced that "Risk Analysis" and "Risk Assessment" and "Risk Management" - which you can now get a PhD in- were designed from the outset to be academic disciplines created for the sole purpose of justifying ignoring long-term risks, and proceeding with short term profits.

It's way more convincing to legislatures to have a PhD up there with hours of deadly Power Point charts; rather than a business exec scoffing "look, you guys, you're talking about a one in a million chance! This is business!" Ignoring the fact that one in a million is equal to certainty- in big operations and in the long run.

And as anyone who has studied the development of the "Science of Economics" (that phrase should be getting laughs for millennia) can tell you- it's very easy indeed to develop pseudoscience and pseudostatistics to highly erudite and obfuscatory levels- with the practitioners completely unaware that it's all based on fallacy.

Robj98168 said...

I don't know. with so many Couples/Women trying AI to become pregnant, It is possible for me to repopulate the entire NOrth west. Imagine 10's of thousands of children who can't type worth a shit!

Katy said...

A very interesting topic! A completely agree that diversity is better for over all health of the species. We humans, sadly, have a tendency to be short sighted when the outcome of breeding animals has some sort of profit.

My personal experience is in the horse world. Breed types tend to shift each year as new stallions and mares win major awards in their sports; i.e. racing, jumping, western equitation, etc. Since that trait is winning money, the demand for offspring from that line increases.

The desire to perfect runs so strongly, soon horses with very similar genetics are being bred to one another. This is called line breeding. Interestingly enough, we are now seeing defects connected to certain lines.

For instance, in the Quarter Horse breed there was a sire named "Impressive" who carried the recessive gene for HYPP or Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. The popularity for his body type led to many breedings and many of his offspring started having muscle tremors, paralysis, or even death.

Other breeds have had retained testicles, combined immune deficiency syndrom, Equine hyperelastosis cutis (can cause skin sloughing, making them unrideable), and overo lethal white syndrome (where foals are born with non-functioning colons and pass on shortly after birth) as examples.

Good news is many breeds that have these disorders now require horses to be tested before registration. The technology of artificial insemination can help add diversity, but sadly can also help cause an explosion of a problem with recessive genes. The goal now should be to take things slow and see the animal as a whole being. Our jobs as stewards should be to encourage the health of the animals and to use our abilities wisely.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I can only speak from my experience with cattle being raised in a natural setting. What is missing these days with the focus always being on production is that animals are never culled properly anymore. It used to be that traits like longevity, good mothering instincts, reproductive health, AND milk and meat production were all weighed before keeping a cow or her sons for future breeding. Some pre 1960's references cite not keeping a cow's calves for breeding until she herself passed the 10 year mark. These days it is rare to hear of cattle living that long unless they are allowed a somewhat natural life. Sadly most modern cattle do not reach that milestone, due to poor breeding, feeding and care. Most feedstuffs available organic or not, are so skewed minerally that it is a wonder that livestock actually survive as long as they do.

As for the AI, I use it on my dairy cow when only I want to start a replacement for her. Her breed is on the watch list with the ALBC - so what to do? Use the limited gene pool or dilute the breed further with natural service by another available breed. AI stinks, the cow has to be bred after she is out of heat, and it is not the most pleasant experience for the cow. Plus my AI guy has an eye looking all cattywumpus, so I always hope he grabs the right straw out of the container ;)

Emily said...

As a dairy farmer's daughter, I wanted to add one more consideration. Raising bulls is a risky business. Prior to AI being prevalent, hundreds of farmers in the US were killed each year by bulls. Just more food for thought.

Gold Coast Landscaping said...

I'd definitely go for traditional method of breeding that results in a lower "yield", but leaves more genetic diversity. I can't imagine forcing any bull nor cows to mate just for higher quantities of milk.