Ramblin' Cows Science

DCC Ranch eNews #99, 3-16-2017

Forever, ranchers who raise Texas Longhorns, know of the traveling and browse profit that is built into Texas Longhorn genetics. Texas Longhorns walked farther, climbed higher and utilized browse (low quality fiber, cactus, etc) superior to other short legged cattle breeds. In Israel Texas Longhorns are being introduced to harvest fiber unused by other breeds. In Australia Texas Longhorn are walking long distances into the Out Back remote areas. No question, traveling ability is a value trait.

In the last few years a shorter leg is being bred on major beef breeds. Who needs legs anyway - no one eats legs? Now that question is being answered by scientists in New Mexico, California and Colorado. Just because all four legs reach the ground, it may not be enough leg to travel efficiently for profit on large or rugged range. With a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education the following evaluations are being conducted. It will be interesting to see if Texas Longhorns are included in the tests compared to "cob-rollers." Probably not - they might make some very popular breeds test substandard. Darol

Could We Breed A More Ramblin' Cow?

BeefProducer.com March 2017

A GROUP of Western researchers say they are very near developing a test for cattle that are more genetically predisposed to climb hills and cover more difficult terrain while grazing.

Texas Longhorn cows in the field during winter at Dickinson Cattle Co, near Barnesville, Ohio

FOUNDATIONAL: Researchers are actually finding identifiable genetic markers in cattle that are more likely to climb high and ramble farther from the easy life.

A few years ago, Derek Bailey, a professor of range science at New Mexico State University, noticed some cattle appeared consistently more willing to graze the ground less traveled.

"I've been watching cattle for years, and there are always some cows that just take off for the hills, like they didn't know they weren't elk," Bailey says. "They could be belly-deep in green grass, and just bolt for the hills. They like it up there."

He says he mused: We can breed for other traits. Why not select for hill climbing? Bailey joined forces with a team of researchers, including Juan Medrano, an animal geneticist from the University of California, Davis, and animal genetics expert Milton Thomas at Colorado State University. They are funded by a grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

Medrano says the group is close to developing a genetic test for whether a bull is likely to sire daughters who like to climb hills.

This map shows different cow behaviors over time

GPS-APPROVED: This map shows the different behaviors over time of cows that climb up in the hills to graze (blue dots) versus cows that stay in the valleys on easier terrain (red dots).


To identify hill-climbing cattle, Bailey and his crew put GPS collars on 180 cows on seven ranches in three Western states and took measurements every 10 minutes for months at a time. They tracked the cattle's slope use, elevation gain and distance traveled from water.

They also took blood samples that Medrano and his team analyzed for chromosomal commonalities. Medrano found overlap in genes linked to locomotion, motivation and spatial learning.

"Results so far are very encouraging," he says. "Soon we will be able to test and breed for hill-climbing behavior."

"Some cows just prefer to climb more than other cows," Bailey adds. "And if breeding can move the bell curve in that direction, management tools like fencing and herding will be much more effective."


With both plants and animals, breeding for one trait can sometimes produce unintended con-sequences. These researchers are looking closely at that possibility, and have so far found no correlation between hill-climbing behavior and undesired traits.

"We've looked at calf weaning weights, pregnancy rates, blood pressure, even disposition," Bailey says. "We had one theory that hill-climbing cows tended toward the meaner end of the scale, but that's not the case."

The big idea, of course, is that cattle selected for such grazing behavior would be particularly useful in big, rough country, where right now herding is considered one of the best ways to improve grazing distribution, and spread out mineral and supplements.