Preserving Livestock Breeds

A USDA program aims to protect rare livestock breeds and other animals by saving genetic material.

by Dani Yokhna

Texas Longhorn cattle
Courtesy Dickinson Cattle Co.
The rare Shorthorn cattle breed was mixed with Texas Longhorn cattle (pictured above), shortly after arriving to the U.S.

While animal genetic material can’t raise the dead, it can help preserve, protect and even improve some rare livestock breeds, as well as revive animal lines that have died out. The USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Animal Germplasm Program strives to do just that with its more than 547,000 samples of genetic material from 12,000 animals, including dairy and beef cattle, swine, sheep, goats, bison, elk and fish.

By saving genetic material, the NAGP has preserved the native Shorthorn cattle breed, which was imported to the U.S. in the 19th century. Soon after being introduced to U.S. soil, Shorthorn cattle were crossed with the Texas Longhorn and, since then, were successfully crossed with other diary and beef cattle breeds. However, due to the lobbying for purebred, native Shorthorns, NAGP scientists were able to find a group of 15 bulls in a native Shorthorn herd in Nebraska and collect germplasm to preserve the breed. Shorthorn samples have also been used by breeders in Utah to introduce a new genetic variability into the Shorthorn breed.

In addition to preserving breeds, germplasm helps to document diversity in species. In Oxford, Miss., 124 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals provide a baseline sampling of diversity in that region. In this same area, scientists were able to document a rare fish species, the Yazoo darter, which has since been published in a comprehensive reference work.

Back on the farm, more than 40 genetically unique chicken lines developed at the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Mich., have helped scientists learn about genetic resistance to disease. This knowledge has led to the development of tools and techniques used in diagnosing and controlling tumors in poultry.

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