Certified Black Angus Genetic Armageddon

by C. Henry Martens

There is no animal so easily manipulated by Artificial Insemination as the common domestic cow. So what’s the problem? The Certified Angus Beef marketing scheme has provided fertile ground for abnormalities and genetic roulette.

Well, whether you eat meat or not, cattle provide precious and high quality protein to so many people that if they were unavailable all of our food bills would skyrocket. You see, aside from the obvious source of food is the back story of how cattle are regularly born and grown to substantial size on acreage that is not tillable. In other words, if steak and hamburger were to disappear from the open air and supermarkets of the world, you would have to find something that you could use to replace that source of food. That or suffer the consequences of starvation for even more people than are already going hungry. Anything likely to be available is also likely to be a plant, and that means you have to grow it. Much of the acreage cattle use can not be used productively for growing crops. If cattle have problems… so do we.

The “Certified Angus Beef” program has been an unqualified marketing success for the “black” variant. With little actual reason to believe that the Black Angus breed is any better than any other breed, the program was implemented by the American Angus Association in 1978. Their claims are many, but two of those claims in particular seem to have resonated well, one with breeders and the other with meat buyers.

The breeders of cattle, having an investment in their animals, have always been concerned with the number of live calves and surviving cows in any calving season. The Angus breed has produced some amazing success with calving ease, and thus with both cow and calf survival. The claim of calving ease has some legitimacy. Angus are naturally polled, meaning without horns growing as they mature, and when cattlemen turned to polled cattle there was a fierce controversy over whether horned or polled cattle had more survivors at birth due to the shape and size of the calf’s head. Horned adult cattle can be dangerous, both to cattlemen and each other, so polled cattle were economically attractive. There was much evidence that indicated horned cattle were better… until the Angus breeders came up with better statistics. This is not to say that other polled breeds haven’t solved calving problems. In general, they have.

With the end game meat consumer the Association makes the claim that Black Angus beef is superior to all others. Does Black Angus meat taste better than other beef? I would challenge that claim. I have seen the results of taste and cutability (tenderness) tests that place Angus in pretty much the same category as other beef breeds. There is so much variation in both individuals and environments that once the hide is removed I can’t tell the difference, and I would challenge any Angus breeder to tell the difference. The superior animals of any beef breed are identical, in my opinion, to any other beef breed.

But this great marketing campaign has led to a severe problem in the entire cattle industry. Because cattle with black hides command a higher price on the hoof, and because that economic reality translates to survival and financial success or failure at the producer level, black bulls are being used almost to the point of exclusivity. And here is where it gets dicey…

Since the advent of Artificial Insemination, collecting sperm from a male animal and freezing it to be implanted in a female as desired at a later time, there has been a growth industry in producing the best bulls possible. Those top bulls in past times would have been placed with thirty cows, more or less, for natural breeding. Now, with Artificial Insemination, some of these bulls never see a cow, and each ejaculation can be used to produce more calves than the naturally breeding bull would have had in a lifetime. The super bulls have tens of thousands of offspring, each carrying the same genetics. Traits that are desired, and inherited, are reproduced in progeny. That’s the good news… but there is a dark side.

Picture a triangle. Place the top bull in the world at the top point. He is there alone, isn’t he? Below him are other bulls, not many, and almost as perfect, and probably a number of them are related to the top bull. The next layer down is the same, with many related individuals. After all, with Artificial Insemination you can purchase the best breeding, the best bulls, and produce the best calves. Half of those calves are your replacement heifers (females), and they are superior, too. They also carry the same genetics as the bulls.

I’m pretty sure you see where I am going with this. This is a good marketing idea, gone bad.

Recessive genes have started to show up in troublesome quantities. Two related parents have a much higher probability of carrying similar genes. Some of these genes are recessive and will be rare in unrelated breeding. But with related individuals the likelihood of problems manifesting are increased dramatically. Two individuals carrying the same defective recessive gene have a 25% chance of the syndrome showing up in their offspring. They also have a 50% chance that their unaffected offspring will carry the defective gene.

As of this writing there are four “identified” recessive defects in Black Angus.

AM, or Arthrogryposis Multiplex, produces “curly calf” syndrome. These calves are dead or almost always die shortly after birth. This syndrome, from my understanding, has been linked to a single top bull.

NH, or Neuropathic Hydrocephalus, produces “waterhead” calves, huge heads filled with body fluids. They do not survive. This syndrome is shared by many animals, including humans.

CA, or Contractural Arachnodactyly, is referred to as “fawn calf syndrome” in which the animal is small, with long legs and an arched back, and occasionally resembles a deer with large ears and small head and face. These calves are not economically useful.

Dwarfism, or chondrodysplasia has been around for years in cattle, and is actually bred for in some cases. As commercial cattle they are unsuitable for the beef industry.

The Black Angus Association has developed genetic tests for these problems, but in my opinion they are failing to address the issues involved at the source, due to short term economic interests. Between the promotion of Black Angus as “the” superior breed, creating a preference for black bulls to the exclusion of other breeds, and the use of Artificial Insemination with limited numbers of top black bulls almost exclusively to determine genetics, it is my prediction that there will be an ongoing problem. I would not be surprised if there are more than four problematic genetic syndromes out there waiting to be discovered. Time will tell.

What is odd is this. I’ve spoken to many people in the meat industries, and they tell me that they sell meat as Certified Black Angus once the hides are removed, whether the animals are black or not.

Postscript: To be fair, all bovine breeds use Artificial Insemination in the same way, and it is likely that they will have issues, too, if the practice continues as presently employed. Especially as there are fewer and fewer bulls of these breeds due to black bulls being given preference. There is too little genetic diversity and too few top bulls.

Previously published at http://apocalypseobserver.blogspot.com/