Most in the beef business will agree it's a quality of life that brings people back to the farm. More importantly, it is the drive in each that braves drought, snow storms and other road blocks to create the best product. This inner competitive nature is willing to take the challenge to breed a better animal. It is this kindred spirit that approaches the task at hand with a “blue collar” effort and CEO's mind.
Since barb wire allowed breeders to segregate their herds, cattlemen have been willing to employ new methods to improve the stock. British breeds crossed with indigenous Longhorn cattle were the first step to genetic improvement, but at a very slow pace. The Continentals came across the big water and revolutionized the industry. It still was not good enough for a group of fast charging quick thinkers.
Artificial insemination was the next step. After identifying superior sires, it was time to make these genetics available to a broad spectrum of producers. Embryo transfer came next. This technology allowed producers to mass produce offspring from their best females. Both were deemed “cutting edge” when they were introduced to the industry. Breeders were happy because these useful tools allowed genetic improvement to advance at a more rapid pace.
The competitive edge always brings an eye to the future. “Status quo” or standing still is usually not too profitable in the beef business. As breeders take the next step with identical genetic replicas or clones, is this cutting edge or Star Wars? Several forward thinkers have embraced the technology, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
“We have used cloning for pharmaceutical purposes. Now we are bringing the technology to our beef and dairy customers. Embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization are excellent tools for producers, cloning was the next logical step in advanced reproductive technology (ART),” says Diane Broek, Product Manager Cloning Department, Trans Ova Genetics, Sioux Center, Iowa.
A comprehensive study released December 28, 2006 by the Food and Drug Administration supported sound science rather than public opinion. This study showed milk and meat from cloned animals does not pose a risk to the global food supply. Certain ramifications may follow, but this opened the door for cloning to become part of breeding programs across the country.
“The FDA found no difference in the meat and milk of clones versus the conventional population. We are now in a 90 day period, during which anyone can go to the FDA website and offer an opinion on cloning. The FDA will decide if there needs to be a separate label for meat and milk from clones at this time,” Broek says. “The offspring of cloned animals are no different than any other animal. Cloning gives producers another tool in their toolbox for genetic improvement.”
“Since the technology was formally approved and embraced by the FDA, it allows breeders to find animals that have tremendous value and establish a cell line,” says Don Coover, SEK Genetics.
Obviously, the nature of the industry and associated costs will play a role in how many producers use this technology. At this time cloning seems best suited for the club calf industry and these breeders have already taken advantage of the ability to replicate outstanding individuals.
“The club calf industry is very aggressive. The innovative personalities are always looking at new technologies to gain the competitive edge,” Coover says. “Cloning offers the same genetic combination. Phenotype could be expressed differently depending on environment, nutrition, weather and many other factors. Producers have to identify superior animals to possibly clone. I don't think it's practical to clone a champion steer and expect him to win next year.”
“The club calf industry has always been an early adapter to any ART. They are very receptive to anything new because they understand that new technology can help them achieve their goals, at times, more rapidly,” Broek says. “So far we have seen its greatest use in bulls that are selling extraordinary amounts of semen. It's supply and demand. The clone allows more units of semen to be available to the market.”
Every breeder looks to take that next step. Identifying and maximizing the value of top producers is the goal of any operation. Proven donors and breed changing herd bulls do not come along everyday. Establishing a cell line is a way to preserve genetics that could help the industry move forward.
“We suggest an ear biopsy from the center of the ear including the cartilage. From this pea-sized sample we build a cell line,” Broek says. “This cell line contains anywhere from 10 to 20 million cells that are exact replicas of that individual's cells. These cell lines can be stored in liquid nitrogen and maintained indefinitely. Many of our customers are taking samples on living animals as an insurance option. We have also had some degree of success establishing cell lines within 24 hours of death.”
“I have established cell lines on some of my donor cows in case something happens to them. I want to preserve that proven breeding piece. If lightning strikes and she's not preserved I have lost a lot of value. It is a great way to save proven genetics,” says Jirl Buck, Buck Cattle Co., Madill, Oklahoma.
“Cloning is a way to preserve, protect and extend genetics of a uniquely valuable individual well past its normal lifespan,” Coover says. “Right now it's in the infancy. Down the road there are probably futuristic developments we have no clue about now.”
Cell lines represent tremendous value and genetic material on elite individuals. Producers may need to do more than brand or tattoo these genetics to preserve ownership.
“Because of the potential value, we store all cell lines for our customers in bio-secure rooms with limited access,” Broek says. “We understand there is extreme value associated with these cell lines and in some cases, it is the only genetic material that remains on elite animals.”
“Producers may have to copyright their genetics,” Coover says. “A cell line is an established genetic code and cannot be reproduced without authorization.”
Once the cell line is established, then through an expensive process a clone can be developed. As with any new or young technologies, there is a lot of room for improvement from an efficiency standpoint.
“Every year we take a step forward with this technology. As we have larger data sets we will continue to make improvements in efficiency,” Broek says. “Initial conception rates are around 40 to 50 percent. Approximately eight to 10 percent of the embryos put in cows will result in live calves, with some variation between individual cell lines. At this point, it is not as efficient as embryo transfer. As efficiencies increase, this technology will become more economical.”
“Not all cell lines will produce a clone. On average eight percent of the embryos placed in cows result in a live calf. Generally speaking, if I put in 40 embryos, I will get three calves,” Coover says. “There is a learning curve associated with the technology. There will be advancements made as problems are found and taken care of. Cloning has a lot of potential and will become more economical.”
The debate, at this time, has ET in one corner and cloning in the other ready for a heavyweight showdown. Consistency has always been a key to success. Mating decisions present unique challenges. More times than not breeding one Denver champion to another, or individuals with superior Expected Progeny differences mated together, only sets the stage for disappointment. Cloning removes the guesswork, because it's an exact genetic replica.
“We can predict with certainty exactly what's going to come out of that cow with a clone. ET matings still have variability because there are many genetic combinations,” Coover says. “If you could predict the outcome, you would buy a lottery ticket. Cloning takes out the guesswork.”
“A calf produced via cloning has the genotype of the original animal. When a breeder decides to clone that elite animal, he is going to preserve a copy of the same genetic code,” Broek says. “Even though the clone is genetically identical, it may vary some in phenotype, particularly as it relates to spot pattern.”
The great thing about the beef business is there is a large number of differing philosophies when it comes to production strategies. Cloning will be a highly discussed topic. Because the technology is so young, breeders are trying to decide how it best fits the operation. Is it to preserve genetics until it becomes more affordable to make clones; cloning the ultra popular herd bull before his popularity runs full course, or is creating a cell line just another insurance policy for elite members of the breeding program. All these questions will be answered by outfits who choose to embrace the technology.
“For me, establishing cell lines on proven donors is how this technology best fits the industry. From there, I can decide to make a clone or not. Many factors would influence this, but at least I have the option as that donor gets older and maybe slows down on embryo production,” Buck says. “I always thought a great bull produced a better son. As long as it takes to get a clone old enough to produce semen, something better is usually available.”
“There are many reasons to clone elite livestock. Sometimes individuals with great value aren't discovered until later in life. Cloning and genetic preservation gives producers a chance to capitalize on this value,” Broek says. “Cloning also allows producers to take advantage of the fertility of youth through the young calf, when cloning older animals. More recently, genetic preservation packages provide additional opportunities for marketing genetics.”
“There is some apprehension cloning will narrow the gene pool, which we have been doing for years. I think it will allow for more consistency. If you need outcross genetics build a clone and introduce the genetics when you need them,” Coover says. “I think we will see a transition of collecting huge amounts of semen on one bull, to collecting just enough to prove him. If he is truly a breeding bull, then a clone will be made from an established cell line.”
Everyone likes to improve their odds to achieve success. In a tradition laden industry, some could mold the idea that cloning is some form of genetic engineering and next we'll be producing cows on assembly lines with interchangeable parts so we can get a great one every time. Clones are not genetically modified critters; they are an exact copy of the DNA.
The beef business will never be easy. It will still be challenging. Just like with any other ART, just because a clone is made does not mean it will be the right decision. What if you clone the wrong animal? Even though the clone has proven highly valuable what happens if you mate them wrong? There is no “silver bullet”; however, the cloning option could add another opportunity for producers to take advantage of technology and add value to the operation.
“Establishing a cell line on truly elite individuals is very affordable. It may not be cost effective to make cell lines on ordinary individuals or cattle with no proven track record,” Broek says. “A clone is genetically identical to the original and has the same possibility to produce great ones if the mating is right. The challenge of mating them right still exists. The major reason our clients use cloning is to provide additional genetics; i.e. more semen or embryos through the increased useful life of an elite bull or donor female. Most producers do not use cloning to make show cattle, nor do we encourage them to do so.”
“When the decision is made to clone an animal, it is all based on dollars and opportunity costs,” Coover says. “In the future, we will be able to design specific genetic packages for our customers and use cloning to maintain genetic variability. Even though cloning seems expensive, it is the best way to propagate the elite genetics.”
“Cost is the major issue and the percentage of live calves needs to improve. As costs get more realistic there will be a lot of animals cloned,” Buck says. “If you have a great one, it is not very expensive to establish a cell line. This is the only way I have to preserve those genetics in case of an accident. If a bull gets hurt I usually have a semen bank built up, but there's no way to replace a great female unless you clone her.”