Angus VNR: Cattle Health Via Genetics

Imagine a world where you could breed cattle that never get sick.

It’s not as far off as you might think. Ongoing research across two continents is uncovering genetic tools to help select for increased immunity.

“It’s really easy to assume that when you're selecting the most productive animals that they are also the ones with the most robust immune system because people think, ‘Okay. To get, you know, to be productive you need to have obviously not been too much affected by health issues.’ But the research tells us out of these actually, if we select for productivity alone we increase susceptibility to disease,” says Brad Hine, research scientist, Australia’s CSIRO.  

Hine says it’s time for cattlemen to rethink that bias…for themselves, and for the greater beef community.

“So I think there's obvious benefits for producers economically from breeding for improved immune competence. But I think the big benefit is in our maintaining consumer confidence in beef that they know that we're working towards. And we all know that we've been working towards it. It's just giving people the tools to do that,” he says. “The want to work towards better health and welfare has always been there. It's just, it's providing tools to allow that to happen is what we're trying to achieve here.”

The American Angus Association, along with Canadian scientists, plans to collaborate with the Australians to make advances in the ways cattlemen create healthy herds.   

Antibiotics have been the best tool, but genomic tools may let cattlemen create immunity in their herds—an important step in light of legislative and consumer concerns.

“So antibiotics have allowed us, in some ways, to have a Band-Aid over the problem for a while. But that Band-Aid is being removed, so we need to be ready for when that Band-Aid’s removed. And a really good strategy is to try and breed animals that have improved disease resistance, that don't get infected with diseases often, and so we don't require the same amount of antibiotics to treat them,” Hine says.

It’s no magic solution that will replace good husbandry, but instead works in concert with it.       

"So I mean obviously the genetic approach is just one part of the story. If we really want to make a difference, we have to think about reducing environmental load of pathogens in our production systems. We can breed the animals that are the most disease-resistant, but if we put them in a really bad high disease risk environment, then they will eventually succumb to disease. So that’s important,” he continues.

The research project is currently underway, with hopes of eventually giving cattlemen new genetic tools, such as an expected progeny difference or a genomic test for immunity.