Breeding & Insemination

Breeding & Artificial Insemination

crops_1001In 1940, the Bureau of Animal Industry registered an entirely new kind of animal – the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle. The event was significant because it lead to a rash of new breeds, despite the fact cattle breeding was still a process of trial and error. The discovery of DNA was still 13 years in the future, and so cattle breeders put different pure breeds with desirable traits together and hoped for the best. What they achieved was remarkable.

The Santa Gertrudis was a good example of the state of the art. As early as 1910, the massive King Ranch in Texas was interested in using Brahman cattle to improve the performance of range cattle that made up most of their herds. So, they began crossing Brahman bulls with red Shorthorn cows. Ten years later, by genetic chance, they got a bull they named Monkey. When he was bred to Shorthorns, his progeny carried his characteristics. They “bred true.” Folks on the King Ranch didn’t know it yet, but all of the succeeding generations carried Monkey’s genes.

What they did know was that the new breed had thick skins and resisted insect pests. The cattle also survived high temperatures and water shortages while gaining weight rapidly. The breeders called the new breed Santa Gertrudis (after the original Mexican land grant that established the ranch). The ranch sold their first stock to the public in 1950, and a breeder’s association was formed in 1951 to register the cows.

film_wempe_ROther new breeds, like the Beefmaster, the Brangus and the McCan, followed shortly. Dr. Charles Wempe remembers a time before all of the new breeds were introduced. “It used to be when you drive through the cow country in the Sand Hills, gee, those beautiful Hereford cows there with the white faces, and just like peas in a pod… [Now] you’ve got every color in the rainbow out there.”

Each new breed added specific desirable traits or special skills to adapt to harsh conditions. As a result, the productivity of cattle began to increase. It was a good time to be in the cattle business because the demand for beef from consumers soared. Prices increased and cattlemen made money.

In the dairy industry, selective breeding and other technologies had even more dramatic effects.

All of this was spurred on by development of a parallel technology – artificial insemination. The basic techniques for collecting semen from prize bulls and impregnating several cows had been developed in Russia around 1900. Dairy farmers in Denmark had picked up on the technology and formed cooperative associations to buy the bulls and share the semen.

In the late 30s, the idea migrated to the U.S. In the 1940s, American scientists refined the techniques. They figured out that sperm could be frozen and preserved for use whenever the cows came into heat. They figured out that the semen could be extended and protected by putting it in an egg solution with antibiotics and other chemicals. They then-nowfigured out how often sperm could be collected and how. And they figured out how to disseminate the genetic material. Much of the work was done at Pennsylvania and Cornell Universities, and no patents were filed. So, the new technologies diffused rapidly.

Today, dairy cattle, beef cattle, swine, horses and poultry are all selectively bred to improve their productivity, and most breeders use artificial insemination techniques.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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