May 2009
On the Edge of Common Sense

How Now Future Cow

Amidst the calls that there should be a Greenhouse Gas Tax on ruminant animals (meaning cows; NOT meaning goats, rice, termites or water buffalo), exciting research is being done genetically to address the issue.

Purebred breeders have long kept track of individual animals. Many qualities are examined. Average Daily Gain (ADG) is a prominent marker used to evaluate the performance. But, even more critical is Conversion (pounds of feed per pound of gain). A ‘good Conversion’ means it takes less feed to produce a pound of beef.

The significance of using less feed correlates directly to producing less methane and carbon dioxide. Studies in fed cattle have shown the difference between the top third of the pen and the bottom third can be as high as 40 percent! Forty percent less feed to produce that same pound of beef, thus 40 percent less greenhouse gases expired in the atmosphere.

Is that a reasonable trait to search for when selecting breeding stock? If it were within reality, it would be the equivalent of hybrid cars, quadrupling our nuclear reactors or capturing all the hot air coming out of Congress to turn windmills on the Washington D.C Mall.

At present we can envision selectively breeding to increase cattle converting more efficiently. But how ‘bout finding the gene or chromosome affecting digestive efficiency? Does it exist? Is cloning raising its hand in the back row?

Genetic manipulation will probably be the driving force for medical miracles in the next 50 years. We have achieved miracles in plant production since Booker T. Washington tickled his first sweet potato. It is a science that is scary yet breathtaking.

In 50 years the questions of ‘man-made’ global-warming may be proven or forgotten like Global Cooling and Worldwide Famine or the Y2K collapse. Regardless, being able to use less natural resources —- be they oil, grain, coal, trees or grass —- just makes sense. Agricultural research, private and public, is at the forefront on finding the answers. Agriculture can’t put a man on the moon, but we can feed China.

All this high-minded thinkin’ gives me confidence and pride in our way of making a living. Even when I’m slogging out into the lot to check on a calvy heifer. We may not have methane on our minds but . . . somebody does.

Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website,