Beef cattle get a genetic makeover for a warming world


Marc Heller, E&E News

May 13, 2019


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For Raluca Mateescu, the battle against climate change involves an unusual task: breeding a better steak.


A researcher at the University of Florida, Mateescu is tweaking cattle genes to try to unlock one of the mysteries of Southern agriculture: developing a breed that can withstand the hot, humid weather that has become more pronounced due to climate change while still producing high-quality beef.


That's not so simple, said Mateescu, a native of Romania who came to the United States to study animal agriculture and is herself a fan of a good rib-eye.


Mateescu's work, funded in part through grants from the Department of Agriculture, is one example of how climate science and agricultural science are coming together to help livestock and crops adjust to warmer conditions.


The cattle industry attracts plenty of headlines for contributing to climate change, from cows belching greenhouse gases to ranchers converting land for carbon-consuming livestock and feed production, but it also stands to suffer where hot, dry weather stresses animals and stretches water supplies.


For decades, livestock breeders have crossed a prized beef cattle of Scottish origin — Black Angus — with the white Brahman, which has roots in India and a reputation for heat tolerance. But while the resulting animal, called a Brangus, can take the heat, it doesn't always produce meat with good marbling, a mark of a good steak.


"They do the crossbreeding. The problem is that's not always a very precise process," said Mateescu, who tends to about 3,000 cattle on the university's research pastures. "The genetics would allow you to be very precise."


Clues about the cattle are easy enough to spot by looking at them. Mateescu visited some on a warm, sunny afternoon, attracting a crowd as she approached the barbed-wire fence at one corner of a pasture. A mix of Black Angus and white Brahman cattle gathered under a small live oak tree at the pasture's edge — cattle prefer the shade — and poked their faces through the fence, sticking out their tongues as if expecting a meal. She petted them.


Mateescu pointed to one of the Angus, with a black and woolly coat that looks wrong for Florida. "That's not going to reflect the light," she said.


But one Angus looked different from the others. Its hair was short and sleek, and the animal had a hump on its back, like a Brahman. That's a crossbreed, Mateescu said, the first step toward the climate-resilient animal she's trying to perfect. Animals wear yellow numbered tags on their ears, and they're closely monitored for how much they sweat and for their internal temperature, which implanted devices record every five minutes. Normal body temperature is between 98 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit, with the top threshold at 102.4 degrees for beef cattle, she said.


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