Breeding the Perfect Bull

A Texas cattleman used genetic science to breed his masterpiece – a near-perfect Red Angus bull. Then nature took its course

On the R.A. Brown Ranch, fifth-generation ranger Donnell Brown can't help thinking about the potential he had created through decades' worth of work. (Karen Kasmauski)
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Inside the AI center, the main event is the mighty gray metal chute, a monstrous contraption that can, with the benefit of hydraulics, hold a cow or a bull in place. Then a cowboy can do what he needs to do: inseminate, castrate, brand, palpate.

Today, a freelance cowboy who specializes in ultrasound technology is here with his machine, which is connected to a computer, which is connected to a thumb drive, which contains information that will eventually be uploaded to a lab in Iowa. Technicians there will run a program to translate the images into numbers.

“Howdy, sir!” Donnell says, all smiles.

“How’s your boy?” the cowboy says. “He’s playing ball next year?”

“You spying for another team?” Donnell says with a laugh. “Yes sir, Tucker’s looking to play quarterback. We’re proud of him, mighty proud of him.”

“I’m about through with these bulls,” the cowboy says, holding on to a humming electric shaver. “About a half-dozen left. Seeing some good scores.” He’s shaving some hair from the back of a 926-pound young bull. He squirts a shot of lubricant on the hide, then gently places his ultrasound wand over a spot between the 12th and 13th ribs. The image that emerges on his computer screen is unmistakably and perhaps unsettlingly a rib-eye steak. Clear as on a plate.

“Nice marbling,” Donnell says. “OK, real nice.”

The cowboy then gets a shot of the bull’s back fat. All carcasses are trimmed to the industry standard of a quarter-inch of body fat, so you’re hoping to see that score low, and marbling high. The complete examination takes less than five minutes, and when the ultrasound cowboy is through he pulls a lever, releasing the bull. The bull roars out while another thunders into the chute with a great clank and clatter.

Once processed into numbers, the data will go to the Red Angus Association of America, where a cowboy like Donnell can pull them up on his Blackberry: the Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) of one bull versus another and one cow versus another. A herd’s full set of EPDs reads like endless pages of Nasdaq offerings, a chart of numbers expressing the relative values of carcass weight, marbling, rib-eye area, fat thickness, maternal milk, cow energy value, calving ease, birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight—14 traits in all—that each animal’s progeny has been statistically predicted to achieve.

EPDs can be difficult for the weekend rancher to master, but for a modern seed-stock provider like Donnell the information is gold. Get a dam with the best EPDs for calving ease and cow energy value, and breed it with a bull with the best EPDs for marbling and rib-eye area and maybe weaning weight times yearling weight (an online EPD Mating Calculator can help with this task), and see if you can’t just produce perfection. Tweak with the next generation, and try again, and again.


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