Positive attitude helps Angus breeders make proper management decisions
A positive attitude is the best solution for the Jager family of southeast Iowa, because they recently received some not so positive news about their Angus cowherd.
"When we found out about the possibility of genetic problems in our herd, we had to totally reevaluate the herd and decide how to manage the potential problems in a positive manner," said Curt Jager of Eddyville.
The Jagers have about 270 Angus cows in their herd, consisting of both registered and commercial cows. In 2008, they realized they had a problem with Arthrogryposis Multiplex, a genetic disorder found in the Angus breed.
In late August 2008, the American Angus Association (AAA) became aware of a genetic defect affecting the Angus breed and Angus cross cattle. Even though, according to the association, they were contacted about the existence of a small number of calves born dead with bent and twisted spines back in March 2007, it wasn't identified as a genetic defect until August 2008.
The disorder, first dubbed "curly calf syndrome," is now known with the scientific name Arthrogryposis Multiplex (AM).
AM is caused by a simple recessive gene, according to University of Illinois researcher Dr. Jon Beever, who has developed a DNA test for AM and other genetic defects.
In April 2009, the Angus breed learned of another recessive genetic defect--Neuropathic Hydrocephalus (NH). Dr. Beever said the second came to light as more and more breeders were reporting abnormal calves.
"NH calves are born near-term and have 25 to 35 pound birth weights. The cranium is markedly enlarged (volleyball to basketball sized). The bones of the skull are malformed and appear as loosely organized bony plates that fall apart when the cavity is opened. The cranial cavity is filled with fluid and no recognizable brain tissue is evident. The spinal canal is also dilated and no observable spinal tissue is found," according to Dr. Beever.
The Jagers, being Angus breeders for many years, were greatly concerned when they realized they had a genetic disorder in their herd. They were not only concerned for their own cowherd, but also for the herds of their customers.
The Jagers initially turned in their affected calves to Iowa State University to see if they could find some answers. Eventually, the AAA assisted them with the concern and Curt said they especially have appreciated the help of Dr. Beever in determining the next steps for their herd.
"When Dr. Beever found out we had several full siblings to calves that were born affected by AM, he wanted to do more testing on them," said Curt.
The interesting part of their experience was that they had performed at least two embryo super ovulation flushes, in previous years, of donor cows that ended up being AM-carriers to bulls that were also AM-carriers and they didn't have any lethal results. However, the use of one other carrier was the sire of all of their AM-affected calves.
When the Jagers found out they had a problem with multiple cattle in their herd, Dr. Beever became a huge help.
"In August of 2008, Dr. Beever came to our farm to take samples from our herd," said Curt.
Since then, samples have been collected and tested on the remainder of the cowherd as well as the 2009 calf crop.
Nearly 95 percent of their donors and replacement heifers have been tested for AM and NH. They also tested all of their bulls to make decisions for selling breeding stock. Since most of their commercial cows are used as recipients, they have not tested all of those cows yet, but plan to in the near future.
Any bulls under a year of age, which were tested to be carriers, were sent to the feedlot. Older bulls that were tested as carriers were sent directly to slaughter.
"How could we have a clear conscience if we sold an animal that is not tested free of the defects or if we think there might even be a potential that they are a carrier?" stated Curt's wife, Lorrie.
Once the Jagers had test results, they then had to make some major management decisions.
"These decisions didn't only affect us, but they also affected our customers," said Lorrie. "We wanted to be sure to inform our past customers about what was going on."
With a large portion of their donor cows being identified as AM-carriers, the next decision was what to do with all the offspring, and those which had not been born yet.
"That was the hardest decision we had to make, as to whether we should sell some of the cows or wait longer for more information," said Regina Hoy, Curt and Lorrie's daughter, who together with her husband, Dan, works on the family operation.
Generally, the Jagers have a production sale in March, which they decided to cancel for 2009. Bull sales also generally begin early in the year, but this year they held off selling bulls until April 11, to ensure they knew the test results on the sale bulls.
"We lose enough calves to other things once we get them on the ground. If we can avoid genetic problems, we will do it at all costs for ourselves and our customers," said Curt.
The AAA has continually taken efforts to educate producers about the genetic defects, but the Jagers said it is their job to continue to educate the producers who purchase their cattle and might have commercial herds, thus not receiving access to the association education.
"We have answered questions from not only our customers, but also many producers from all across the country," said Lorrie.
Many of their customers didn't understand how, if they had carrier females and carrier bulls, that they did not have any affected calves. Science is then used to educate those producers using a simple Punnett square.
Explained by telling them if the normal AM gene is "A" and the defective gene is "a," mating a carrier bull with the genotype Aa for the AM gene to a carrier cow also with the genotype Aa for the AM gene will result in three calves that look normal at birth. One will be free of the affected gene (AA), but two of the three will be carriers for AM (Aa). The fourth calf will be born affected with AM (aa). Thus, mating two carriers gives a breeder a 25 percent chance of having an AM calf.
Mating a carrier bull or cow to a non-carrier cow or bull will result in 50 percent of the calves being AM carriers (Aa). A non-carrier would have the genotype AA.
"Sometimes we have to be blunt and tell producers that affected means dead. There is a difference between affected and carriers," said Lorrie. "And they also don't understand that calves out of carriers can be free of the defect and that carriers don't have to be slaughtered, just managed properly."
The difficult decisions the Jagers have had to make continued into breeding season. While it did not make sense economically to keep carrier donor cows in the embryo transfer program, they also didn't want to send an otherwise healthy cow to slaughter.
"One of our hardest decisions was putting embryos from a 'clean' mating into some of our cows who had previously been donor cows," said Regina. "That's not what they were intended to be used for, but that is the decision we had to make."
Another difficult decision was to put phenotypically superior bulls in the feedlot because of their carrier status.
"Ultimately, we have to make decisions for our customers because they are the ones that have to be happy," said Regina.
The Jagers keep good records of what animals their customers have purchased, so they can research the pedigrees in the commercial producers' herds and help them make management decisions as well.
"We've been open with our customers. We admit that the breed has a problem and we will address it," said Curt. "We tell them that it doesn't mean they have to run from Angus cattle, they just have to know the breeder they are buying from and know that they will help them make the easy and the difficult decisions."
"For the long term, we have to deal with these genetic defects and know how to manage them," said Curt. "Thankfully, we have the tools to test for these potential problems and the knowledge to make decisions to better our herd and breed."
The Jagers are not only concerned about the Angus breed, but also other breeds which could have similar affected influence as well. They think the education needs to be outstretched across the entire beef industry to help manage the problem.
An openness with customers has been the best approach for them. The realization is that testing for genetic defects may be a short-term financial burden, but will save breeders money in the long term.
"We have both gained and lost customers because of this issue. We hope that those whom we have lost will come back because they have seen how we have handled it and will know that we will help them in the future," concluded Regina.
Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.