Holy Cow

Biotech and big data design an environmentally friendly bovine

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Jerrylee is doing this for climate change. Source: Michael Löwa

Jerrylee is acting coy. The massive mahogany-colored steer refuses to mount, and it takes 10 minutes for three Masterrind employees to coax the bull atop the animal in front of him. Once there, Jerrylee is unfazed that his hooves rest on the back of an ox — a castrated bull — instead of a heifer. The team behind Germany’s largest cattle breeder springs into action. In less than 10 seconds they have coaxed sperm from the giant bull. Forget romance, this is about efficiency. The test tube full of potential Jerrylee Juniors has a market value of €10,000 and can inseminate up to 500 fertile cows.

Calves sired by Jerrylee are genetically superior, according to cattle consultants at Masterrind. They are especially robust and produce more milk than the average cow. And milk is the new gold.

Globally, demand for milk grew by 10 percent from 2005 to 2015. Experts at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization expect it to grow by another 13 percent in the next eight years. More than $300 billion worth of milk is sold worldwide every year, according to the World Food Programme. And while demand is increasing, droughts and deadly pathogens are decimating cattle stocks and thus supply.

So it’s a tough time for the beef industry. Worse, the industry is getting bad press for its flatulence. Cows are one of the highest contributors of methane, a gas accelerating man-made climate change that is 72 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

As more people learn that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle contribute to global warming as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and aircraft combined, some of them are increasingly shunning beef for other proteins, or foregoing meat altogether.

These external pressures explain why researchers are eager for breeders to engage in smart breeding supported by gene analysis. The hope is to pass along Jerrylee’s excellent genome to future generations of cattle, creating super cows that pass fewer greenhouse gases, need less antibiotics, and drink less water — all while healthier and more copious milk.

Genetic tests are done for €19.50 ($22.60) a pop, and such intimate data allows scientists and breeders to select exactly which cows should be bred with which bulls. After a calf is born, experts know with certainty whether the animal will produce much or little milk. Every year in Europe, the genetic material of several hundred thousand animals is closely examined, said Ruedi Fries, professor of animal breeding at the Technical University in Munich.

“There is no other farm animal in the world that has more data than cattle.”

Josef Pott, head of Masterrind

This genetic information is stockpiled by breeders and companies, such as Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of pharmaceuticals for pets and livestock, to create a treasure trove of data. Not only do these massive databases include the genetic makeup of each animal, but researchers catalog information on the protein and fat content of their milk, as well as their overall health data. Farmers even place sensors similar to fitness bracelets around the cows’ necks to gain insight into their livestock’s movements, how often they eat and relieve themselves. “There is no other farm animal in the world that has more data than cattle,” says Josef Pott, head of Masterrind. Data on more than 300,000 of Germany’s 12 million cattle, including Jerrylee and his descendants, are stored by VIT, a German animal husbandry organization.

The more data the industry has, the better it can optimize production. “The quality of our herd has increased considerably because of genetic analysis,” said Bernd Barfuß, a farmer in the East German town of Groitzsch. The animals were healthier and supplied more and better milk, he added.

While producing more of a better product is in itself lucrative, opting to breed cattle that produce fewer greenhouse gases provides its own financial boost. Farmers and companies that promote climate control and conservation are eligible for EU agricultural subsidies. Germany’s outgoing environmental minister Barbara Hendricks has proposed €6 billion.

It won’t be long before climate-friendly milk and beef becomes a reality. For Phil Garnsworthy, a dairy scientist at the University of Nottingham, that is the goal. He wants to engineer cows that don’t warm the planet, and by the end of this year will publish the genetic code for cows with a low methane output. That may even please Jerrylee, as he continues to mount and stud.

Thomas Stölzel is the innovation editor at WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. Christine Coester, an editor at Handelsblatt Global, adapted this story into English. To contact the author: thomas.stoelzel@wiwo.de

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