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Tropical cattle find roots in Illinois?

TAGS: Beef Dairy
Courtesy of Matthew Wheeler cow and three-quarter Gyr calf
RESEARCH PAIR: This cow and three-quarter Gyr calf play their part in the production of Girolando cattle and embryos that will be distributed to developing countries.
University of Illinois and South Carolina farm use reproductive technology and genetics to develop beef and dairy cattle that thrive in tropical climates.

Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer. None of these technologies are new to the livestock industry — but it turns out they can help cattle outside of Illinois.

“There are all of these tools we have developed over my career,” says Matthew Wheeler, a University of Illinois animal scientist, who has spent 31 years researching reproductive biology. “Now, is the time to use these advances to help people.”

This idea paired with the agriculture industry’s primary mission to feed the world is what drove Wheeler to lead the University of Illinois and Chessie Creek Farm’s Tropical-adapted Cattle Project. The venture is built to utilize reproductive technology and genetics to enhance specific traits of cattle that will allow them to thrive in tropical climates without hindering milk or meat production.

With this purpose in mind, Wheeler and his team are working to produce embryos that will be distributed to developing countries to aid in food production. 

Central, South American connection

This project stemmed from Wheeler’s multiple trips to Central and South America while working with colleagues and a production animal known as the Girolando. The genetic makeup of a Girolando consists of five-eighths Holstein and three-eighths Gyr, he says.

This combination provides the heat tolerance of the Gyr and the milk production of the Holstein to allow the cattle to perform well in a tropical climate. These traits are why Girolando cattle are predominant in countries such as Brazil. However, certain factors limit these cattle from coming to the United States.

“Because of the foot-and-mouth disease status of countries such as Brazil and Argentina, you can’t get those genetics here,” Wheeler says. “If the world is going to be able take advantage of these animals, then we need to produce them in a place that has high health status under similar conditions.”

Through experiences and the drive to produce Girolando cattle in the United States, Wheeler became connected with the owner of Chessie Creek Farms in South Carolina. The operation is in a hot and humid environment, which is best suited for these cattle.

“Somebody has to be the center for tropical dairy,” Wheeler says. “So, why not Illinois? We have the great expertise, the great farmers, the great genetics. Why not us?”

Currently in the fourth year of the project, that mindset keeps the team motivated through the time it takes to create the correct genotype of a Girolando. Fortunately, reproductive technologies have allowed the team to speed up the process.

To get a pure synthetic Girolando, it takes about five years; however, the real benefit is being able to use in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer to quickly produce a large number of animals, Wheeler says.

Multiple discussions with individuals in areas such as Africa, Central America and South America have led the team to produce cattle that will achieve in developing countries. These conversations are only the first step in dispersing embryos to others to aid in food production.

“The idea is to go to developing countries with improved genetics, help them understand how to use those genetics, and continue to provide support and expertise,” Wheeler says.

The Tropical-adapted Cattle Project is one example of how tools within the industry can be used to make an impact toward feeding the world.


What it means for Illinois dairy

Sure, the average Illinois dairy farmer may not have the need for cattle that can withstand hot climates while efficiently producing milk. However, these individuals can still find a purpose through this project.

“We know that we are going to start with this population, but this isn’t the end of the population. We are going to have to make more Girolandos as more time goes on,” says animal scientist Matthew Wheeler. “The high-quality Holstein genetics that we have here in Illinois can be a part of this solution to global hunger.”

For dairy enthusiasts wanting to integrate their herd’s genetics into this project, the first step is reaching out to the team, he says. Wheeler is confident that this mission will continue to increase the power of tools within reproduction.

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