Bovine mutation frustration

By Andrea Menard

Special to Tiger Media Network

At first glance, Angus cattle may not be perceived as strikingly beautiful in any particular way. With their dark black or red coats, compact figures, muscular mid-sections, and charming bellows, they seem like an average bovine animal. However, they are more strategically put together than you think. Angus cattle originated from Scotland and were introduced to the United States in 1873. They are typically black coated, naturally polled (dehorned), and bear a muscular frame. Angus cattle may also possess a red coat. Their coat color separates them into two categories, Black Angus and Red Angus. So, what happens when the genes that come together to create this hearty creature alter their unique characteristics for the worst?

Genetic defects can occur as a result of spontaneous mutations in the genome. There are many different deformities that can occur, but only a handful are directly monitored by the U.S. breed associations. These include autosomal recessive mutations only, this means two copies of the altered allele need to be present in order for the defect to be expressed. Dwarfism was the first abundant mutation discovered in Angus cattle in the 1950s. This is caused by both parents passing on one recessive gene linked to the disorder in the offspring. Other common genetic defects are Neuropathic Hydrocephalus (calves born with enlarged heads and fluid filling the cranial cavity) and osteopetrosis. Osteopetrosis is a recessive mutation that only affects Red Angus cattle. The calves are either born prematurely or they are born dead. Any calves that are born alive live only less than 24 hours. Their bones are delicate and their jaws are shorter than normal, causing their molars to be packed in.

New mutations can occur when we least expect it, and often when we are the least prepared. In 2008, Arthrogryposis Multiplex was discovered in Angus cattle. Also known as “curly calf” syndrome, this abnormality causes the calves’ legs and spine to appear twisted and their joints are fixed in place. This causes limited muscle development and the calf is rather thin. Calves diagnosed with this condition are often born deceased or die shortly after birth. The newest defect was recognized in 2013. A condition called Developmental Duplication, where calves are born with extra limbs. The limbs are usually duplicates of the front legs and protrude from the neck or shoulders. Calves with this disorder are often unhindered by their condition and can survive normally. If the extra limbs can be removed safely, then it is even better.

So, now you are aware of what can go wrong with your cattle, how about prevention? Modern technology has saved the cattle industry by providing tests for most of the recognized mutations. These tests detect whether or not the animal carries the gene for each disorder and is a wonderful tool when implemented into an operation. If any of the animals in your herd test positive and are active carriers of the gene, refrain from breeding them at all costs. Eliminating the source is the greatest preventative measure. Practicing outcross breeding can also help with this issue. This practice allows their genetics to become more uniform, but is only realistic for commercial (non-purebred) operations.

Growing up in a rural community, you would think you have seen or heard about every curveball that could possibly occur when it comes to cattle. However, after pursuing a degree in Animal Science, I have quickly discovered that this is not the case. Being a college student in the agricultural field has greatly broadened my knowledge and understanding of the severity of these defects. The most difficult aspect when learning about each mutation is not how to prevent it, but it is convincing older farmers and ranchers that have been actively involved for generations to change their methods of production. Many of them have the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mindset. Justification for new methods must be made with clear and effective communication in order to be considered. Open minds are the key to improving the health of our cattle and allowing them to flourish.

Genetic mutations are a random act of nature and can happen at any time, any place, and within any cattle breed. Some of them are more lethal than others, and there is a strong possibility that more will be discovered in the future. Angus cattle play huge roles in the beef industry and maintaining their health and well-being is a top priority. With proper planning and management methods of genetic mutations, they can become a thing of the past.

Andrea Menard, a 2018 Kinsley High School graduate, is a junior majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. She is the daughter of Bre Bland and Jake Menard, Kinsley.

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