Gene-editing: Improved animal welfare and food security?

I recently came across an article from the Progressive Dairyman magazine called Gene-editing tool could improve animal welfare and food security written by Holly Drankhan. I would strongly encourage reading it as it talks about some emerging technology that not only can make great advancements in animal welfare, but also help potentially make cattle more efficient in milk production and rebreeding.

Additionally, CRISPR technology differs from the technology used to created genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and it is important to understand the differences.

As quoted from the article:  “In the same way that spell-check identifies and corrects single-letter errors in a word or grammar errors in a sentence, gene editing can be used to identify and change the letters that make up the genetic code within an individual,” wrote Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology cooperative extension specialist for the University of California – Davis Department of Animal Science, in an eXtension article published in 2015.

One of the major benefits of this CRISPR technology is creating cattle without horns (polled) which greatly increases safety for other animals and people. Check out the video here:

Where else could CRISPR technology be used?

**Note: no compensation was received for this post. I just believe the information was worth sharing.


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Technology: Reflecting on successes and challenges

What if I told you that some of the best scientists in the world have come up with amazing technology? Technology that could potentially save lives? Technology that could decrease water and pesticide use? Technology that would help people make a better living for themselves and their families?

Hopefully you are asking yourself why this technology is not being used? Or maybe you are thinking, get this technology into the hands of the people who can use it most.

Unfortunately, this technology is hung up in the regulatory process. Unrealistic timelines and costs to bring this technology to fruition…

This technology is biotechnology. You may be most familiar with biotechnology when a Vitamin A fortified rice (aka Golden Rice) was created or when biotechnology saved the papaya industry in Hawaii.

To better grasp these opportunities and challenges, check out 20 Years of Innovation: Reflecting on Successes and Challenges of Biotech Crops by Craig Rickard, executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International.

**Note: I am not receiving any compensation for this post. I just find the information very relevant and informative.


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Beef steaks from cloned animals coming to you?

In 2012, West Texas A&M University (my Alma matter – Go BUFFS!) meat and agricultural science researchers started a beef cloning project to increase efficiency in the beef industry, specifically, meat quality.

image002“Most of that high quality beef that you would find in those white tablecloth, high-end dining experiences (has) a tremendous amount of waste fat that must be trimmed from the carcass,” said Dr. Ty Lawrence, professor of meat science and lead researcher on the project.
“Conversely, if you have a high-yielding carcass that is trim, it is most often low in marbling. What we’re trying to do is both at the same time. We want to be able to produce taste fat without that waste fat.”

Over five years ago, Lawrence was walking through a meat packing plant, and within 10 minutes, he found two carcasses that graded Prime, Yield Grade 1. This combination of quality grade and yield ranks as the best in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) beef evaluation system and only occurs in about .03 percent of all beef carcasses.
“You’ve kind of got to be standing in the right place at the right time and have your lightning rod up to get struck and see one of those,” Lawrence said. “That’s the ‘aha’ moment; that’s what gives you the impetus to call your boss at 11 o’clock at night.”
Lawrence called Dr. Dean Hawkins, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at WTAMU, and received the go-ahead to buy the steer and heifer carcasses and begin his research.

WTAMU researchers teamed up with ViaGen Cloning Technologies to clone a bull they named Alpha from the steer carcass. Three heifers were also cloned from the heifer carcass named Gamma 1, 2, and 3. The crossbreeding between Alpha and the Gammas resulted in 13 calves, nine bulls and four heifers. “Then, our research hypothesis: If we can create a male and a female from a clone and crossbreed those, we will simultaneously improve beef quality and yield,” Lawrence said. “We kept the two best bulls and sent seven of them [steers] to our research feedlot. The remaining two bulls and four heifers are under the good care of Dr. David Lust, associate professor of animal science at WTAMU at our Nance Ranch. They live there today.”

“The calves were raised by their mothers while grazing our native pastures, in the herd with our other commercial cattle,” Lust said. “They were weaned at a normal time and then fed at the WTAMU Research Feedlot for 185 days on a typical feedlot diet. They have been treated just like commercial cattle throughout the industry.”

The seven steers sent to the feedlot were finished out and then harvested. A USDA grading supervisor found that one of the seven achieved Prime grade, three graded High Choice, and three were Average Choice. For perspective, the meat grading industry average is Low Choice, with only about ~3% of all cattle grading Prime.

The steers averaged a 15-inch ribeye, which was a 9% increase from the average of a 13.7 inch ribeye. When adjusted for the steers’ smaller size and weight in comparison to the average animal, it became an 18% difference in size for the cloned steers. John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M system, said that, compared to industry averages, the steers produced 16% less seam fat, 45% more marbling, and 9% more ribeye poundage. Lawrence said that they gained just 2.9 pounds a day on feed, without any additional hormones. “We’re selecting for a genotypic trait, instead of a phenotypic trait like a lot of cloning projects have done,” says Landon Canterbury, manager of West Texas A&M University’s ranch.

“In and of itself, these individual traits of better marbling, better muscling and better yield are not that impressive on an individual basis,” Lawrence said. “What’s impressive about our cattle is that they all occurred simultaneously in the seven cattle. We’ve been able in seven animals, as a proof of concept, to shift the distribution to higher quality and higher yield simultaneously.”

WTAMU Assistant Professor of Animal Science Trent McEvers said this project contains the power to affect cattle producers through increasing efficiency for the beef industry.
“In my opinion, the way this is potentially going to shift the industry is that for every pound of feed that we feed an animal, if a higher proportion of that weight of feed is actually converted into muscle, then fat, that basically improves our utilization of energy,” McEvers said.

“In our college and across the university … our mission and goal is to provide a world-class education to the most valuable commodity, (and) we think, in Texas, that’s the young people,” Hawkins said. “Our second goal is to conduct cutting-edge research with applications that apply directly back to the producers that feed us every day.”

The next step for WTAMU is to compare the bull Alpha to top Artificial Insemination (AI) sires from the Angus, Simmental, and Charolais breeds. Additionally, 1,300 cows have been bred by Alpha, and the calves will be treated the same as any other calf while in the feedlot. It is important to remember that these calves are not cloned – they are the product of cloned animals.

It will be fascinating to see the results from all of these future offspring and the impact they will have on the beef and meat industries. It will be an amazing day when you can go into 10 different restaurants, and the steak you order in each one will be as tender, flavorful, and juicy as the previous one; gone will be the days of inconsistency between each steak! Below is a great video that sums up this project. It is a good day to be a WTAMU Alum.

This post was created from the following news sources:

The Canyon News: WT cloning research results significant progress for beef, cattle industry (Callie Shipley)

Drovers: Cloned calves carcass results unwrapped (Steve Cornett)

CattleNetwork: Cloned calves create ultimate steak (Tyne Morgan)


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Robot Butchers? Technology coming to your table

Recently, an article came across my desk from one of my meat industry news updates about JBS meat packing looking into using robots to process swine and lamb carcasses initially, with beef to eventually follow. In college I spent a lot of time in packing plants collecting beef carcass data, meat, and other tissues needed for samples. While I think it can be done, I think there may be some challenges (i.e. animal welfare, food safety, lack of human element) that will have to be overcome before we are ready to turn over meat processing to robots.

Below is a summation of articles from Harvest Media News and NPR on meat cutting robots. What are your thoughts about this high tech and revolutionary idea? 

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Beef carcasses. Source: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout the country employ about a quarter of a million persons.  Some of those workers that prepare the beef, pork, and chicken that ends up on dinner tables could eventually be replaced by robots. The world’s largest meatpacking company (JBS, the Brazil-based protein powerhouse) is looking at ways to automate the art of butchery.

Late last fall, JBS bought a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. While many manufacturers have gone to automated machines to process and package everything from food to furniture, the beef industry has held onto its workers. It takes thousands of workers to run a modern beef plant. In fact, U.S. meatpacking plants are expected to add jobs in the next decade, as the appetite for pork, chicken, and beef grows in the developing world.

Disassembly is the name of the game on the fabrication floor at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. Workers hold a knife in one hand, and their sharpening steel is close to their side. Line workers are dressed in chainmail, a protective mesh lining under white jackets (frocks/smocks) and aprons. Deft cuts cleave bone and meat, turning a whole cow into neat and trim cuts like tenderloins, steaks, and roasts.

“There’s right now 850 people out in this building alone,” says plant manager Bill Danley as he weaves through the maze of conveyor belts, stainless steel slides, and bone bins. The plant is a far cry from your grandfather’s butcher shop, where a single person would need to know how to turn an entire animal into cuts of meat. Large beef companies like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson have turned each minute step of the process into a job. Danley lists some of the titles: chuck boner, tender puller, back splitter, knuckle dropper, and tail ripper. “There’s a lot of jobs out here that prep for the other person,” Danley says.

Each year JBS pays out more than $100 million in paychecks to its 3,000 employees. It’s a huge chunk of the company’s operating costs. That could begin to change with JBS’ new venture into the world of robotics. “This is a very innovative and exciting company that we invested in,” JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett says of the company’s investment in Scott Technology. “And we’re excited to see what they’ll come up with.”

JBS is looking at how robots could fit into its lamb and pork plants first, Bruett says. Sheep and pigs tend to be more uniform than beef cattle. “Now when it comes to beef packing, beef processing, the fabrication of the animal, it’s very difficult to automate beef processing,” Bruett says. The various breeds of cattle brought into the plant also complicate the future of robots in meatpacking. Some days the plant breaks down the long, lanky bodies of Holsteins. Other days they’re working on sturdy, thickset Angus and Hereford. Robots would need the ability to adjust to the spectrum of cattle breeds.

The meatpacking robots of today use vision technology to slice and dice, but the key to butchery is touch, not sight. JBS’s beef division president, Bill Rupp, says right now, robots just can’t feel how deep a bone is, or expertly remove a filet mignon. “When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren’t there yet. Someday, I’m sure they will be,” Rupp says. “It can’t do the fine cutting that you see on the fab floor, that’s one of the big challenges right now.” Robotic technology doesn’t have the fine motor skills that come easily to humans and there isn’t room for error. Some of the cuts being boxed up bring upward of $14 per pound, Rupp explains, so the key is being able to leave it on the meat and not on the bone. “I mean that’s how our business works.”

The technology isn’t quite ready for a massive roll out, but could the economics of widespread robotic use in the beef industry ever work? Not any time soon, says Don Stull, an anthropologist who spent 30 years studying the cultures of meatpacking towns at the University of Kansas. “Workers are really cheaper than machines,” Stull says. “Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive.” There’s a stream of immigrants and refugees, most from Somalia, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Guatemala, ready to put on the chainmail and pick up the knife, Stull says. In large, modern plants, companies pay less because the skill needed to work on the fabrication floor is so low. Some jobs take less than a week to fully master. Turnover in the industry is high, Stull points out, because of the physical demands. Slicing meat all day can lead to repetitive injuries. JBS employs an athletic trainer to keep employees limber and fit. Stull says it’s still common for workers to transfer jobs at the same plant to make better money or to just avoid falling apart. “After you do the same thing thousands of times a day, six days a week … your body wears down,” Stull says.

While the industry says it has dramatically improved on worker safety over the years, meatpacking jobs consistently rank among the most hazardous in the country. Workers stand along conveyor belts on raised platforms, adjustable based on each person’s height. Those platforms were a big step in improving ergonomic conditions for workers, Danley says. Increased automation could ease some of those injuries.

Meat processing makes up a huge portion of Great Plains communities’ rural economies, what happens inside meat processing plants affects not only the companies involved, but the very culture of rural America.

Until technology catches up in both skill and costs, meatpacking companies will continue hiring workers to turn cattle, chickens, and hogs into cuts of meat.

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Source: Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC

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