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Getting a leg up on genetic defects

Progressive Cattleman Staff Stew Nelson Published on 31 January 2011

Quite a few years back, when I had ground leased in several locations, I found myself with some extra pasture. This was well before the crisis in genetic defects ever came into view on this side of the horizon. I had a friend with some registered Shorthorns who was short of feed. We got together and he shipped a load down to me and I had that extra pasture problem just go away.

These Shorthorns were in good condition and calved out nicely with no problems. They were real hardy cattle and did well on that range ground. They kept their flesh up and the calves gained real well.

My friend came by once or twice to check on them and was pleased at how they were doing. We supplemented only with mineral; I’ve always been a strong supporter of a good mineral program, and I believe that you will get a return of four times the investment on your mineral in the end.

They were real easy to handle and compared to my cattle, it was a picnic. They never got out or caused any problems – until the day he came to get the last few pairs.

We had them already gathered when he got there with his gooseneck trailer. It was an older rig and he had a place in the front of the trailer partitioned off with plywood and 2-by-4s so he could haul the calves separately, as these were the late calvers and these calves only weighed about 200 pounds.

For a reason that has been lost in my mind over time, we had one calf that got her hind leg banged by a cow, and it broke up high between the stifle and the hock. Well, we had them all loaded, so we went by the house and proceeded to do the best job we could to splint it up and immobilize it.

We took a piece of plywood and cut it in the shape of her leg and made the inside piece shorter than the outside one. We then drilled holes up and down the edges of the plywood and after we padded the leg with an old horse blanket, we laced this wooden contraption on her.

We realized she would not be able to make the trip home, so we would keep her there at my place and see if she healed.

That meant we had to unload her mama! Now that’s where the real trouble started.

While trying to get her into another trailer, she found a real soft spot in the mud and sunk down almost to her belly, then she flopped over sideways and broke her own leg! It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. It was the same leg her calf had broken an hour earlier and in the exact same place.

It just did not make any sense to us, as I had never had any cattle break legs, much less two in the same day.

We wondered if they were genetically weak in some way. Years later, when reading about genetic defects, I learned that some Shorthorn cattle in that era had this defect called Tibial Hemimelia. One of the symptoms is that the affected cattle can have only part or none of the tibia.

Suddenly it made sense that both of them were apparently affected with this recessive trait and we just had the worst luck that brought it out in one day.

Amazingly enough, the calf survived and healed well, but the cow did not survive, although we splinted her and treated her in a similar fashion.

The American Shorthorn Association has developed a protocol and, through education, is in the process of eliminating this genetic defect from the breed, as are many other breeds eliminating the specific defects that have cropped up through the years.

We owe a lot to the many purebred ranchers that, throughout the years, have uncovered and, at their own expense, have either paid or sacrificed to learn about these problems. The breed associations are to be applauded for their efforts to eliminate and educate about these weaknesses.

Nobody wants to admit that their cattle have genetic defects, but if the truth were known, most cattle probably have some form of genetic defect that they carry but does not affect them. We just need to have confidence in, learn about and talk openly with our suppliers about these conditions. My hat is off to those who improve our cattle generation by generation.  end_mark

Stew Nelson raises horses in Gooding, Idaho.

Stew Nelson

Stew Nelson
Progressive Cattleman staff

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