Cloning Cows From Steaks (and Other Ways of Building Better Cattle)

Can animal geneticists breed—or clone—a cow that will taste great and have a smaller environmental hoofprint too?

The clones were so glad to see us, out on the frozen pasture, that they almost wouldn't let us out of the pickup. I had to shove one aside with the door to get out. Kelly Jones had warned me they weren't shy, the way most beef cattle are. Since they weighed close to half a ton and had horns, that was good to know.

It was January in the Texas Panhandle—flat land, big sky, bitter day. On our way out to see the cloned heifers, Jones had stopped to break the ice on some water troughs. The Nance Ranch, on the outskirts of Canyon, is a research facility belonging to West Texas A&M University (WTAMU), where Jones is a graduate student. He manages the ranch and comes to check on the clones every day.

I'd come to ponder the future of beef, ideally without getting knocked over by an overfriendly piece of it. (Read "Carnivore's Dilemma" in National Geographic magazine.)

The clones had started out, late one evening at a slaughterhouse near Amarillo, as a gleam in the eye of a WTAMU scientist named Ty Lawrence. He's an expert on beef carcasses—a life-size fiberglass model of one hangs in his office, sliced open for inspection at the rib eye. He has examined hundreds of thousands of the real things at slaughterhouses across the country.

The ideal rib eye in the American market is a marriage of opposites: It's richly marbled with internal fat to give it flavor, but it has only a thin layer of the back fat that no one wants. In the parlance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's both "prime" and "yield grade 1." Cows that produce such beef are rarer than nose tackles who are great dancers. Only three carcasses in 10,000 make the grade.

But that night in the packing plant, Lawrence watched two go by in close succession—it was like being struck twice by lightning, he said, but in a good way. He pulled out his cell phone and called Dean Hawkins, the head of the animal sciences department at WTAMU. "It's time we cloned one of these things," he said.

And so they did.

A tiny bit of meat was all it took to grow cells, extract the DNA, and insert it into an egg cell from a cow. At first they cloned a bull from the carcass of a dead steer—which, being a steer, had been separated from its testicles at an early age and had never sired anything while it was alive. Then they made three more clones from the carcass of a heifer—a female that had never given birth before it was fattened and slaughtered.

They now had exceptional steaks back on the hoof in male and female form. The next step is gestating right now. But more on that later.

For the first several weeks after the clones were born, Jones was their momma, getting up every three hours at night to nurse the calves with a quart-size baby bottle. That's how they came to be so unshy around humans.

After we'd visited with them a while, and they'd nuzzled us and licked our gloved hands, Jones and I got back in the truck. He turned it around and gunned it. With the clones hard on our tail, kicking up a cloud of dust, we zipped through the open gate of the pasture. Jones jumped out and slammed the gate shut just as the fastest clone skidded to a halt on the other side.

"This happens every day," he said.

The Beauty and the Curse

The vast majority of beef cattle in the United States are still made the old-fashioned way: Bull meets cow, bull mounts cow, and around nine months later, in late winter or early spring, out on a pasture somewhere, a calf is born.

Calves are born every year on some 730,000 "cow-calf operations" across the country. For the first six or seven months they stay with their mothers in pastures. (That's true of all calves, not just the tiny minority that will spend their whole lives in pastures and be sold as "grass-fed" beef.) After the calves are weaned, they're typically sold to a "stocker" ranch for winter forage, then to a feedlot for fattening on grain, then to a packing plant for slaughter and processing.

On its way from birth to beef, in other words, the animal changes owners several times. That's very different from the poultry and pork industries, which are "vertically integrated"—a few large processors such as Tyson or Perdue own the whole life cycle of those animals.

Beef packing is dominated by four corporations, which slaughter 82 percent of the beef in the United States. But the packers own few of the feedlots and fewer still of the ranches. The huge amount of land required to raise cattle has helped keep the industry segmented.

The different segments of the beef industry make money from each other and have little incentive to adopt new technologies to improve the whole process. If you're raising calves, for example, you're selling them by weight at weaning time. If some of them later become prime, yield-grade-1 carcasses, neither that information nor the financial premium trickles back to you to encourage you to make more of those.

The upshot: Though cattle feeding has been transformed by technology—cattle arriving at slaughterhouses today are more than 20 percent heavier than they were four decades ago, thanks in part to the use of hormones and other medications—cattle breeding is still very traditional. It's not just that large corporations haven't taken it over yet; young people have trouble getting into the business too, because land is so expensive.

"Most of the people who own ranches and run cattle are 60 or 70," says Cary Crow, national beef-sales director for Trans Ova Genetics, a company that offers reproductive services to ranchers. "They just don't necessarily put their arms around technology."

To many people, of course, the fact that beef production hasn't been as thoroughly industrialized as chicken or pork production will seem appealing. To others, it has a downside.

"It's the beauty of the beef industry, and also its curse," says Alison Van Eenennaam, a genomics specialist at the University of California, Davis. It's a curse, in her view, because it has slowed the spread of reproductive and genetic technologies that could increase the efficiency of beef production and reduce its environmental footprint—and that have already begun to transform cattle reproduction at a few ranches.

"It Takes Technique"

The simplest way of beefing up the gene pool of a cattle herd is to allow only a few choice bulls to service all the cows. Cattlemen have done that for centuries. Technology now radically expands their options, Van Eenennaam says: It allows them to restrict reproduction to even fewer animals and to choose the best ones by looking at their DNA.

One place where all three factors come together is 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas, north of Austin. The farm is primarily a producer of seed stock—high-quality bulls and cows that it sells to ranchers who produce beef. In its own production process, 44 Farms has mostly dispensed with copulation.

Instead, the farm uses artificial insemination to impregnate its 4,000 cows with the semen of just a few elite bulls. The bulls get to naturally service only those cows in which the artificial insemination didn't take.

"A bull can only breed 40 cows a year," explains Doug Slattery, chief operating officer of 44 Farms. "But we can take one of our select bulls and [inseminate] 500 cows. It's all about enhancing the genetics as quickly as you can."

It's now possible to do that on the female side too. Normally a cow bears one calf a year. She comes into heat every 21 days, though—and if you inject her with a hormone to stimulate her follicles, she'll release not just one egg cell but ten or more.

If you artificially inseminate her then, says Cary Crow of Trans Ova, and then flush her uterus with a saline solution a week later, you can typically harvest a half dozen viable embryos, which can be implanted into inferior surrogates and carried to term. The cow with the superior genes becomes like a prize bull—she passes those genes on to dozens of calves a year. 44 Farms performs embryo transfers using 20 or 25 of its better cows each year.

None of this is easy, starting with the artificial insemination. "A cow's cervix is very difficult to traverse, especially if you have little experience," says Crow. "It takes technique." Indeed, a quick glance at a set of instructions provides evidence of the value of artificially inseminating cattle. Surely no one would attempt such a procedure without a strong financial incentive.

Cows in a Dish

Though it's more expensive, there's a way to spare both cow and rancher the experience of artificial insemination: in vitro fertilization, or IVF. It's 90 percent of Trans Ova's business now, Crow says. The company does about 20,000 cattle IVF procedures a year, including 15 or 20 on the best cows at 44 Farms.

With IVF, eggs are harvested directly from the cow's follicles as often as every two weeks, often without hormone injections. They're exposed to bull semen in a petri dish, and the resulting embryos are implanted in surrogates.

At 44 Farms the prize cows are still allowed to get pregnant from time to time. It seems to keep them healthy, Slattery says. But using IVF without allowing them to get pregnant dramatically expands their influence.

"We had a female in our herd—a foundation female," Slattery recalls. "She's deceased now. She lived to 13 years old, and she was very fertile. She had over a hundred progeny—well over a million dollars' worth of progeny in her lifetime. And it never really affected her. She had a wonderful life."

These days 44 Farms has a good idea that it has found such a prizewinner even before she has offspring, because the farm tests its calves' DNA when they're six months old. Just a couple drops of blood taken from the thin skin under the tail suffice. From that blood, Zoetis, a subsidiary of Pfizer, can determine how the animal compares with other Angus cattle at 50,000 points in the genome where Angus cattle are known to vary.

It's unclear what specific effect those individual mutations, or the genes they're part of, have on the animal. But by gathering data on thousands of Angus, Zoetis has established statistical correlations between each variation and traits that cattlemen care about—traits such as birth weight, weaning weight, marbling, and so on. The test assigns the animal a genetic score on each trait.

For the past five years 44 Farms has been using those scores to select animals to breed—and the results are in the beef, Slattery says. Though it's primarily a seed stock producer, 44 Farms also markets its own 44 Steaks to consumers online and to fancy restaurants. Since the farm began using genomic testing, it has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of carcasses that are graded prime or choice, the USDA's second-best grade for beef. Such carcasses fetch premiums of up to $500 a head. "It's absolutely huge," Slattery says.

There's an environmental upside too. The 44 Farms cattle are fattened at a feed yard in Hereford, Texas, but 44 Farms retains ownership of them—and they're given no hormones, antibiotics, or other additives. And thanks to the improved genetics of its herd, it no longer has to fatten them to 1,400 pounds to get meat that has prime or choice marbling. It's slaughtering them at 1,250 pounds, saving more than a month's worth of feed.

Cattle that eat less and are slaughtered younger emit less pollution and place less of a strain on the planet's resources. Van Eenennaam thinks there's a large potential to use genomic testing to select for animals that are more efficient at converting feed to beef. She calls it "breeding for Priuses."

Back at the Ranch

Kelly Jones—tall, baby faced, but with a wife and a little girl—would love to purchase his own ranch one day to raise his own cattle, "to do it right." But he'd need around 300 cows to make a living and, in the arid Texas Panhandle, around 40 acres per cow at $500 an acre. He'd need six million dollars, in other words.

"I'm going to have to settle for an industry job," he said. Meanwhile he has his clones to look after.

They were conceived in a petri dish in the Austin labs of ViaGen, the Trans Ova subsidiary that patented the procedure more than a decade ago. In cloning, you take the DNA of an adult animal—even a dead animal—and insert it into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. An electric shock is one of the tricks that help get the cell dividing and growing into an embryo.

The procedure is expensive, it fails a lot, and it has never caught on in a big way in the beef industry. But Gregg Veneklasen, the local veterinarian who implanted the cloned embryos in surrogate cows at Nance Ranch, has made a name for himself by cloning championship jumping and bucking horses and even some trophy deer.

Alpha, the cloned bull, and the three cloned heifers—all named Gamma—have turned out to be fertile. This spring the Gammas were injected with hormones to stimulate their follicles. They were then inseminated with Alpha semen. Veneklasen implanted the embryos in surrogates. "At last check we had 14 pregnancies," Lawrence says.

It's the first step in a process that Lawrence hopes may culminate, decades from now, in a new breed of cattle—reverse engineered from steaks—with a heavy propensity for being prime, yield-grade 1. Two more bull clones, named Delta, from another carcass, were born last month.

The whole thing may not work. Genes are not destiny, for cattle any more than for people. The fantastic steaks that Lawrence saw at the slaughterhouse may have been the result of good upbringing as much as good genetics.

There's only one way to find out. The clones themselves are much too valuable to be slaughtered; not so their offspring. Their due date is in February.

"We're really interested in what those progeny will look like," Lawrence says. Some of them will be fattened at a feedlot and then slaughtered. About two years from now, Lawrence plans to be tasting one.

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Join Dennis Dimick on Thursday, October 16 at 12 p.m. EST for a live Twitter chat to talk about how we can feed a growing planet. Follow Dennis at @ddimick and tweet your questions with #FutureofFood.

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