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Cloning project at West Texas A&M University yields big results

Progressive Cattleman Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 01 November 2016
One of the seven Alph x Gamma steer that was harvested in 2016

It all began six years ago, with two “one in a million” carcasses, one late-night call and a whole lot of questions.

In 2010, West Texas A&M University’s Ty Lawrence was finishing up a routine evaluation at a local meat packing plant when he came across two very rare, Prime, Yield Grade 1 carcasses.

Understanding the unlikeliness of the event, he called the university’s department head, Dean Hawkins (now the dean), and proposed a unique idea.

Lawrence proposed that if he – along with other WTAMU researchers and industry experts – could purchase and clone male and female carcasses, and cross-breed them, they could simultaneously improve beef quality and yield.

Thus, the project was born.

A little background

According to Lawrence, a Prime, Yield Grade 1 animal is about 0.03 percent of the beef population. In other words, three out of 10,000 cattle at a slaughterhouse would have that grade combination. He refers to it as one of those things “where you have to be standing in the right place at the right time, with your lightning rod up, and get struck to see one.”

In the beef processing system, Lawrence explains, there is a yield evaluation estimating the quantity of red meat yield each carcass will contain. The best in the system is Yield Grade 1; it’s the leanest, heaviest muscled carcass.

While 2, 3, 4 and 5 yield consecutively lesser quantity of meat and greater quantity of trim fat – the problem being that quality and yield are antagonists of each other.

“Most of the high-quality beef you find in white-tablecloth restaurants has a lot of excessive fat that needs to be trimmed; it’s a very inefficient carcass for beef processors,” Lawrence says.

“Conversely, if you have a high-yielding carcass that needs minimal trimming, it is most often low in marbling. So what we’re trying to do is get both at the same time. We want to be able to produce taste fat without the waste fat.”

Unwrapping the results

Since that late-night discovery, Lawrence and his team of researchers have been uncertain of just how far they could shift the population of Prime, Yield Grade 1 cattle through their efforts. However, earlier this year, the team announced their findings to this point.

From the university’s first cloned bull, Alpha, and three heifers originating from the same carcass – Gamma I, Gamma II, Gamma III – they have produced 13 calves. Of those 13, nine were bulls and four were heifers.

The two best bulls were kept and the other seven (now steers) were sent to the university’s research feedlot.

After the steers were fed and harvested, Lawrence and his team brought in a third-party USDA grading supervisor to evaluate the animals. This is what they found:

  • In the average population, 5 percent of the beef population will grade Prime and 28 percent will grade premium Choice. In their seven steers, they shifted that statistic to 14 percent Prime and 86 percent premium Choice.

  • The average steer has a marbling score of small 40. The average of the seven steers was a moderate 30 – a 45 percent improvement in marbling.

  • The average animal has a 13.7-inch ribeye; the seven steers averaged a 15-inch ribeye – a 9 percent improvement in ribeye size.

  • When corrected for the carcass weight differential – because the seven steers were lighter in weight than the average animal – the seven steers had an 18 percent improvement in ribeye.

  • The average steer has a yield grade of 2.9; the seven steers had an average yield grade of 2.1. To reiterate, the average steer population has a 7 percent Yield Grade 1 and 34 percent Yield Grade 2. For the seven steers, they had a 14 percent Yield Grade 1, 86 percent Yield Grade 2, and the rest didn’t occur.

Lawrence explains that, “In and of itself, the individual traits of better marbling, better muscling and better yield are not that impressive on an individual basis. What is impressive, however, about our cattle is that they all occurred simultaneously in the seven steers.

We have been able in seven animals, as a proof of concept, to shift the distribution to higher quality and higher yield simultaneously.”

Next in the project, Lawrence and his team plans to test Alpha against popular sires of differing breeds for growth performance and carcass outcomes, create more Alpha x Gamma calves and test those in a commercial environment, and find more rare carcasses and clone more original animals.  end mark

PHOTO: One of the seven Alpha x Gamma steers that was harvested in May 2016. Photo provided by Dr. Tanner Robertson.

To learn more about the project and the people involved, visit Progressive Cattleman - West Texas A&M University project clones YG1 carcass.