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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“It was like a close friend dying of cancer,” he says today. “You’re almost relieved when it’s over. Almost.”

He did not say goodbye. He sent Revelation to the packinghouse, where the prize bull became 1,200 pounds of hamburger. Sometimes, Donnell says, he wishes he could have saved Revelation’s head like a deer’s and mounted it. Sometimes he does think that way.

But mostly he thinks about Revelation’s ear. He saved a notch from Revelation’s left ear. He sent it to the ViaGen cloning lab in Austin. And there it sits, on ice.

To achieve uniformity, and to maintain quality control, Donnell likes all his cows to be on the same estrus cycle. That’s why, in April and May, during breeding season, a lot of them wear seeders—vaginal plugs carrying progesterone, each with a blue string for easy removal in a few days. The progesterone keeps the cows from coming into heat. When the plugs come out, each cow gets a shot of prostaglandin, which ultimately results in ovulation. At that point, one of the cowboys puts on an arm-length plastic glove and inserts an artificial insemination syringe loaded with 20 million sperm cells. George Self, who has cowboyed at the R. A. Brown Ranch for 57 years, is by far the best at this. “He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.

The finest cows, the genetically superior ones, are put on a different regimen. AbiGrace is the Browns’—and the breed’s—rock star in this category. She will be overstimulated for maximum egg production and inseminated with choice sperm. The resulting embryos, as many as a dozen, will be flushed and frozen. Donnell could sell those embryos for more than $1,000 a pop on the Internet if he chose, but usually they are inserted into surrogate cows—proven dams that don’t, let’s say, have the genetics to be worth breeding. AbiGrace can then be stimulated to make more embryos, and more still.

Without scientific assistance, a mature cow will produce one calf a year; with embryo transfer, AbiGrace can crank out 25.

Cloning Revelation is a big decision, and Donnell does not know what to do. He has never cloned a bull before, never imagined himself stuck in the mud of such profound uncertainty. For about $20,000, an exact genetic replica of Revelation could be engineered in the lab and soon enough be out there grazing on the silver bluestem. Actually, technically, Donnell could order up two new Revelations, or 20 Revelations, or more. But: “There’s the question of playing God,” he says, “and there’s also just the business model to consider. Like I tell my dad, it’s better to be on the leading edge than the bleeding edge.”

Donnell stares at the horizon a lot; he spends all day in his truck, so many days in his truck, covering hundreds of miles a day sometimes to look at bulls or pick up cows. On this April afternoon he’s just returning from a ranch in Coleman, Texas, where he transferred 70 valuable Red Angus embryos into some surrogates. He’s headed down to his ranch’s artificial insemination center to check on the action there.

He parks. He notices a splotch of dried mud on his starched jeans. He takes out a knife he keeps clipped to his belt, unfolds it and scrapes that mud right off.

The artificial insemination (AI) center is a modest white tin barn surrounded by a catacomb of pens and clanking red gates. It’s at the far end of the ranch, flanked by shady hills providing cool comfort to hundreds of cattle. Atop the hill, a lone oil derrick bounces its lunatic head up and down.


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