Breeding more resilient cattle

Researchers have their sights set on improving the resilience of Australian beef cattle through a project which looks at the benefits of ‘immune competency’ across different breeds.

Immune competence is the strength of an animal’s immune system and is expected to become increasingly important in the face of a changing climate.

Through a new MLA-supported project, CSIRO researchers will use this factor to predict the ability of cattle to cope with disease challenges with minimal impact to growth and fertility.

This ticks the important boxes of animal production and welfare, which are core goals for the Australian red meat industry, and producers will have the chance to hear more at a free Livestock Genetics Forum in Adelaide on 5–6 April.

The Southern Multibreed Immune Competence Project – which also involves cattle from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and the University of New England (UNE) Southern Multibreed – builds on previous trials into immune competence with cattle and sheep.

The project will investigate resilience traits across different breeds of beef cattle.

It won’t assess which breed is more immune competent, has better temperament or improved stress coping ability.

Rather, it will identify attributes of a particular breed which make them better able to cope with specific challenges in their production environment and investigate if such attributes can be targeted in other breeds to improve their resilience.

Dr Brad Hine – a Research Scientist in CSIRO’s Livestock Health and Resilience Team – said a primary aim of the research will be to provide livestock producers with a genetic tool to help reduce disease incidence and lessen their reliance on antibiotics to treat disease.

“The great thing about the livestock industry in Australia is that it’s very proactive when it comes to improving animal health and welfare,” Dr Hine said.

“For example, we’ve been working closely with Angus Australia on identifying immune competent animals and developing estimated breeding values for the trait.”

Climate resilience

The research will also contribute to cattle which are more resilient to a changing climate.

“Climate change may create scenarios where animals are exposed to diseases that they haven’t seen before, and we need to help them to be better able to cope with these new challenges.

“Like how COVID has impacted humans, it takes time to vaccinate populations, so strategies where we can improve the general disease resistance of animals can help protect them against emerging diseases,” Dr Hine said.

Economic benefits

As well as environmental benefits, breeding immune competent cattle is expected to provide economic benefits for seedstock and commercial Australian beef producers.

“For example, in feedlot cattle that we classified as being high immune competent animals, we saw fewer health-related mortalities and incurred significantly lower health-related costs than did their average or low immune competent counterparts,” Dr Hine said.

“Healthier cattle result in a higher quality product for consumers. Cattle producers across all breeds should look to balance immune competent traits with production traits in their breeding. We are hoping to provide the tools and knowledge for them to do that through this project.”

Contributing breeds

Cattle for this immune competence project will be drawn from the wider Southern Multibreed Project, with data from 1,500 steers and heifers a year for two years feeding into the research.

These cattle are the progeny of NSW DPI Southern Multibreed herds at Grafton, Glen Innes, Trangie, Tocal and Camden (Elizabeth MacArthur Agricultural Institute) – Angus, Hereford, Wagyu, Brahman, Charolais and Shorthorn (plus crosses) are included in the trial across a range of environments.

This project, among other interesting developments in genetics will be discussed at the Livestock Genetics Forum which will be held in Adelaide on 5–6 April 2022.

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