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NMSU develops desert-adapted cattle

New Mexico State University scientists are breeding a new bloodline of desert-adapted cows specifically selected for harsh range conditions.

“We're about halfway there to putting some new animals on the ground,” said Milton Thomas, a cattle geneticist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. The new bloodline will be called the New Mexico State University Line 1 Brangus.

Being adapted to the desert doesn't mean the researchers are building the cow equivalent of a camel. “They (the cattle) can't live on nothing,” Thomas said. “Being able to keep cattle out on New Mexico rangeland still depends on having a sound grazing management program.”

But it does means being able to live most of the year on dry, dormant forage, since the typical growing season on southern New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert is from July through September. The cattle have just a few months of green, growing forage to eat.

Meanwhile, there's sun exposure, limited shade and temperatures that reach the century mark.” We've done extensive research on heat tolerant cattle breeds and found the one that suits us best here in southern New Mexico is the Brangus, which is five-eighths Angus and three-eighths Brahman,” Thomas said.

NMSU's Line 1 Brangus breeding program started in the late 1990s when Experiment Station cattle breeders began combining several superior Angus selected at NMSU since 1982 with top Brahman cattle purchased in Texas and Arizona.

Earlier in the decade, researchers looked closely and passed on two other possible breeds besides the Brahman: the Tuli breed from East Africa and the Senepol breed from the Virgin Islands. The new Line 1 Brangus program has the potential of becoming something significant for the cattle-producing states surrounding New Mexico, Thomas said.

In the past, similar successful cattle breeding efforts at other research facilities have netted great attention and made substantial contributions to the U.S. beef industry. The most famous of these programs is the Line 1 Hereford at USDA's 55,000-acre Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Montana.

The herd of about 250 Line 1 Herefords is touted as the oldest and purest line of Herefords in the world. To develop desert-adapted cattle, NMSU scientists combine rangeland studies with stringent breeding management. While NMSU's experimental cattle get limited supplemental feed, most of the time they face the same conditions of other New Mexico range cattle.

Ultimately, the goal is to produce cows that calve every year and work well in a sustainable beef cattle operation. “The question is, ‘What's optimum for New Mexico's desert rangeland?’” asked Thomas. “Is it a 900-pound cow from the 1950s, a 1,400-pound super cow or an 1,100-pound cow that's adapted for a certain environment? That's what we're studying now.”

Among the genetic factors NMSU cattle breeders examine is regulation of fat deposition and growth hormone. Fat is important in the beef industry because it aids in breeding productivity and carcass quality. Still, the American consumer now favors lean beef, “which makes for some interesting breeding challenges,” Thomas said.

One advantage the NMSU's experimental range cattle have is plenty of room to roam, since they are part of the focus of the university's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center, a research range 20 miles north of Las Cruces that encompasses roughly 100 square miles, from the Rio Grande floodplains on the west to a portion of the Dona Ana Mountains on the east.

“The Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center is just like the ranches next door to us,” Thomas said. “We don't have extravagant facilities out there that give us a breeding advantage. We treat the cattle just the way ranchers do across the desert Southwest.”

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