UW breeds cattle to yaks to improve altitude tolerance
February 2, 2017
LARAMIE, Wyo. — Searching for an end to bovine high-mountain disease (BHMD), commonly known as brisket disease, has been in the interest of ranchers for over 100 years.
According to Business Insights, brisket disease is the swelling of fluid in the brisket area that affects cattle in high-altitude areas, commonly regions above 6,000 feet. The disease is due to a lack of oxygen as a result of elevated pulmonary arterial pressures.
Mark Stayton, an associate professor in Molecular Biology at the University of Wyoming, is currently working on an on-going project to breed the gene out that causes high-altitude sickness in cattle.
"Cattle are getting bigger and beefier but their lungs are not getting bigger making them more susceptible," Stayton said.
Stayton saw a need and came up with the idea to breed yaks with cattle. Yaks are cross-fertile with cattle and they are completely resistant to altitude.
The idea of the project is to breed a yak bull to cows and then screen the half-yak cows for altitude resistance.
The first generation, which was born in the spring of 2016, is currently at the university farm. They started with 60 cows and had a success rate of 24 percent with 14 calves born.
"Normally we would hope for a success rate of at least double that," Stayton said.
Travis Smith, the assistant farm manager for the University of Wyoming beef unit, is in charge of the day-to-day management of the yak calves. He was in charge of the artificial insemination of the cattle and will be responsible for the subsequent breeding of the yak heifer calves.
Smith thinks there was poor conception on the first go around because the yak semen had been handled reasonably more than normal on both the collection side and on his side, as he was not as familiar with yak semen.
"Something that seems fairly simple has been the hardest part," said Scott Lake, associate professor and beef extension specialist.
Lake is in charge of the beef side of the project concerning the feeding and raising of the yak crosses. He provides a prospective from a cattle producer for the project.
There are only minimal studies on freezing yak semen. It was assumed that it would require the same process as bovine but viability could be decreased.
"We will probably breed another 60 cows with yak semen, hoping to collect enough semen to elevate the success rate," Stayton said.
Out of the 14 cross calves, nine of them are heifers and will be bred back to an Angus bull next summer. The other five steer calves will be sent to a local feedlot operator to be fed until they are ready for butcher.
The meat from the steer calves will be sold to the residents of Laramie and the proceeds will go back to the stock farm to help keep it running.
"It's kind of out of the box, and from that stand point, I appreciate it," Smith said. "It definitely has some potential for combating that issue."
The yak cow cross calves are displaying some similarities to normal bovine calves.
"They look a lot like calves from the highway," Stayton said. "The rancher collaborators are encouraged by this as they are blocky enough that they look like beef cattle."
However, those who look at a lot of cattle can pick them out. These calves have an elongated face, they are a little bit smaller, they have fat sausage like tails and their fur is longer.
One of the biggest differences between these yak cow crosses and bovine calves is their temperament. They aren't wild but they are curious and more athletic than bovine.
"If you are standing still they will absolutely come up and lick you and investigate you," Smith said. "The moment you move they scatter in every direction."
This project has several more generations to go before a conclusion can be made.
"The real story will come, first we have to find a way to challenge these calves at elevations," Smith said. ❖