PENDLETON — Beef cattle selection may soon be as easy as looking at a cow’s genes.

Clemson researchers at the Simpson Research and Education Center are studying a group of Herefords to determine how they can use the bovine genome to make genetic predictions when calves are born. The bovine genome is basically a genetic blueprint of a cow.

Researchers believe having this information will have a major impact on livestock breeding.

During the Simpson Research and Education Center Field Day, Heather Dunn, a researcher, said knowing a cow’s genes can help produce healthier herds.

“For this study, we are following a group of Clemson Herefords from the time they are born until the time they die,” Dunn said. “We are learning how to make genetic predictions when a cow is born. By doing this, we can decide what to do with an animal based on what is found at birth. Having this knowledge will give producers the knowledge they need to make determinations about their own herds.”

Another study being conducted by researchers at the Simpson REC involves studying the impacts of toxic tall fescue on fetuses. Tall fescue is the primary cool season grass used to feed cattle. Most tall fescue contains a fungus which produces compounds  that are toxic to cattle, but beneficial to the plant. This study is being led by Susan Duckett.

Participants at the Simpson Research Farm Field Day observe sheep that are being used in studies at the farm.

Participants at the Simpson REC Field Day observe sheep that are being used in studies at the farm.
Image Credit: Denise Attaway / Clemson University

“Our hypothesis is that exposure to ergot alkaloids reduces fetal growth in cattle, which in turn, affects growth after the cows are born” Duckett said. “Once we have completed this project, we will be able to determine when tall fescue exposure is most critical to fetal growth and development. This will allow us to develop alternative management strategies that can decrease the impact of tall fescue on fetal growth and increase lifetime production efficiency.”

Duckett’s students are conducting additional fescue research. Marcus Miller of Texas is studying how tall fescue affects skeletal muscle development. Jessie Brit of South Carolina is studying what is going on with ewes while they are pregnant and what can be done before birth to ensure a healthy offspring for ewes who have grazed on toxic fescue. Sarah Adams talked about how her study has found some ewes that appear to have some resistance to toxic fescue.

Matt Burns, a beef specialist, said cattle producers may need to take their pregnant cattle off tall fescue.

“We’ve seen reductions in weight, most significantly during the last trimester of pregnancy,” Burns said. “If you’ve got something else for them to eat, it would be wise to take them off toxic tall fescue during the last trimester of pregnancy.”

Not all fescue is toxic. John Andrae, a forage specialist and director of the Simpson REC, said cattle producers can take tiller samples of their fescue, removed at soil surface, and send these samples to a lab for testing.

Olivia Hardee, 4, visits with the beef cattle during the 2016 Simpson Beef Cattle Field Day. She came with her grandfather, Chris Creamer, who said these types of events are very educational and informative.

Olivia Hardee, 4, visits with the beef cattle during the 2016 Simpson REC Field Day. She came to the field day with her grandfather, Chris Creamer, who said these types of events are very educational and informative.
Image Credit: Denise Attaway / Clemson University

Other studies discussed at the field day included marbling, cattle and feed management during a drought, as well as sorghum germplasm and genomics for feedstock, the Clemson Corn Genomics Program, pest issues in soybeans and production practices and dryland agronomic variety trials.

Chris Creamer brought his 4-year-old granddaughter Olivia Hardee to the field day. This was the first field day Olivia has attended.

“This is a great educational opportunity for Olivia and everyone else who attends,” Creamer said. “And events such as this let the public know agriculture is still strong at Clemson.”

The Simpson REC consists of all of the research farms located on and around Clemson University’s main campus, including: Calhoun Fields, LeMaster Dairy Center, Morgan Poultry Center, Musser Fruit Farm, Simpson Beef Cattle Farm and the Starkey Swine Center.

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