Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eureka Prize for Genetic Test to Breed Poll Braham Cattle

A team of scientists led by CSIRO’s Dr Kishore Prayaga was last night awarded a prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Prize for its work to develop a simple genetic test which has the potential to end the need to dehorn cattle. And in doing so the breakthrough has the potential to also avoid future clashes between the beef industry and animal rights activists.

While horn removal is a routine practice carried out by beef producers to reduce the incidence of cattle injuring other cattle and their handlers, there is a fear within the industry that the practice could one day provoke animal rights activists into campaigning against beef in the same way they have campaigned against the wool industry's practice of mulesing.

Notably the $10,000 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research that Contributes to Animal Protection was sponsored by animal rights group Voiceless.

About half of Australia’s 21 million beef cattle are born with horns, but dehorning causes short term pain and stress for the animal, is labour-intensive and time-consuming for producers, and can reduce animal weight gain for several weeks following the procedure.

The team, which is funded by the Beef CRC and Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and involves scientists from CSIRO and Queensland Primary Industry and Fisheries (QPIF), has been researching alternatives to current dehorning practices. "We have discovered a DNA marker in Bos indicius (tropically adapted cattle e.g. Brahman) which identifies the cattle that will produce polled or naturally hornless offspring," Dr Prayaga said. "Our aim is to commercialise this work into a simple test, so that cattle producers in the extensive, rangeland conditions in Northern Australia will be able for the first time to increase the proportion of polled cattle in their herd."

While there are a number of naturally “polled”, or hornless bulls within the existing cattle population, selective breeding to eliminate horns would have taken decades. This new test is expected to strip years off this projected timescale. The proposed genetic test has now been validated twice in research.

"This breakthrough has the potential to alleviate and even eliminate the pain associated with the dehorning of millions of cattle every year," Frank Howarth, director of the Australian Museum, said. "It will revolutionise the breeding of Brahman cattle."

The team has also been working on effective pain reduction and alleviation strategies for producers to use in the meantime. According to QPIF’s Dr Carol Petherick short term strategies are needed because genetics can’t solve the problem overnight. "We have experimented with local anaesthetics and analgesics, and different animal management strategies to reduce and alleviate pain," Dr Petherick said. "Experiments are continuing to find the most effective short term solutions while producers focus on breeding entirely polled herds in the future."

The team found that the pain relief used in sheep mulesing, a topical anaesthetic and antiseptic solution, is the most promising for dehorning. In June, they began a follow-up study to see if these practices will reduce the pain, stress and blood loss associated with dehorning Brahman weaner bulls. The study will also test the effectiveness of wound cauterisation.

The winning team also includes Dr Max Mariasegaram, Post-Doctoral Fellow and PhD student Stephanie Sinclair from CSIRO.

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