By Jane Moorman
NMSU has nation’s only High-altitude cattle test center
The majestic high-altitude, grass-filled meadows coupled with elite genetics representing the beef industry’s top sires has positioned the Valles Caldera National Preserve to become a unique performance testing center for high-altitude bulls.
Identifying beef genetics that can thrive in high-altitude, all-natural grazing environments is the goal of the project pioneered by New Mexico State University’s Manny Encinias. The project has been under way on the national preserve in the mountains of northern New Mexico for the past two summers.
“Grazing cattle at high altitude comes with inherent risk due to their susceptibility of developing hypertension,” said Encinias, a beef cattle specialist with NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service and coordinator of NMSU’s grazing contract with the Valles Caldera Trust. The Trust manages the 89,000-acre preserve, formerly known as the historic Baca Ranch.
Cattle, like humans, can be genetically predisposed for hypertension at higher altitudes, known as bovine high-altitude disease, or brisket disease, when they graze above 7,000 feet in elevation for extended periods. The inability to process oxygen efficiently is a key health issue that hampers cow/calf operations in the Rocky Mountain region.
Most cattle producers don’t know whether cattle will have problems grazing at high elevations until the animal shows clinical symptoms. Unfortunately, in most cases, the discovery and disease confirmation is only after the death of the animal. Death and performance losses associated with the disease annually add up to more than $60 million for the beef cattle industry in the Rocky Mountain region.
Establishing the Top of the Valle high-altitude performance testing program at Valles Caldera can help seed stock producers throughout the U.S. They have the opportunity to identify individual bulls and begin to better understand the impact a bovine’s genetic pedigree and previous management have on its ability to perform at higher altitudes without developing high blood pressure and hypertension.
“Our long-term goal at this facility is to develop indicators and tools that beef producers can use to select cattle that will thrive at high elevations,” Encinias said. “We believe high-altitude disease is a condition impacted by multiple factors and teaming up with multidiscipline experts, universities and progressive beef cattle producers is a key to making rapid progress on managing this disease.”
NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is coordinating the facility that involves researchers from three universities – NMSU, Colorado State University and the University of Illinois – and cattle breeders from several states.
National expert on bovine high-altitude disease Tim Holt, a veterinarian and assistant professor at Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science, has been actively involved at the facility since 2009 by performing pulmonary arterial pressure tests on cattle to evaluate individual adaptation to the high altitude. The test is presently the beef industry’s diagnostic tool of choice, as it detects early signs of hypertension through an animal’s blood pressure.
Establishing this research program at the preserve has given Encinias and Holt the most unique venue in the United States to study the disease.
“Mountain grazing is a high-stress environment for cattle. The higher the elevation the more accurate the test data,” Holt said. “This is why the Valles Caldera National Preserve is such an important place to conduct this research.”
At more than 8,500 feet in elevation, the Top of the Valle research facility is the highest centralized facility in the U.S. focused on studying the disease. Abundant and highly nutritional grass also provides a natural grazing environment that is a typical grazing scenario beef cattle encounter grazing high-altitude pastures.
“The Valles Caldera gives us altitude and a natural grazing environment to evaluate numerous factors and scenarios to better understand the disease,” Encinias said.
“We are interested in nutrition, environment, water and anything else that might be influencing a low oxygen setting,” said Holt. “We are also looking at the pregnancy rate to see if the elevation is impacting the reproductive process.”
The newest addition to the research team is genetics researcher Jonathan Beever, associate professor at the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Science. Beever’s research has been instrumental in the development of diagnostic tools to rapidly detect genetic disorders in multiple breeds of beef cattle.
Establishing the research facility at the Valles Caldera National Preserve has also given seed stock producers throughout the United States the opportunity to send bulls and heifers for the summer grazing season to the facility and begin to better understand the impact that genetic pedigree and previous management practices have on the animal’s ability to perform at higher altitudes.
With approximately 1.5 million cattle living above 7,000 feet in the U.S., Roy Hartzog of Hartzog Angus Cattle in Bovina, Texas, says this research will benefit the entire western region. Hartzog has sent bulls and heifers to the research facility for the last two years, “We have learned from ranchers who live and have cattle above 8,000 feet that if they don’t use the right bull, one without the genetic predisposition for the disease, when the calves are born they may die within a week to 10 days. This is the equivalent of a hail storm destroying a cotton farmer’s crop,” Hartzog said, adding that there is no government disaster program for this situation to offset the financial loss.
“We need to provide those ranchers with bulls that are adapted to high elevation. In order to do that we need to develop our blood lines for a genetic pool that can survive and thrive in high altitude,” he said. “Up until now ranchers have just had to use a natural selection process and suffer the monetary consequences as the susceptible cows die from the disease.”