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No Bull: Ultrasound Crucial To Cattle Breeders

June 9, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Ultrasound has become an indispensable tool in cattle breeding. No, ranchers don’t get ultrasound images of unborn calves. Instead, they use the imaging technique to do what amounts to a virtual necropsy on potential breeding stock, checking for desirable traits that will (the breeders hope) be passed along to offspring.

The cattle industry started using ultrasound for this purpose less than 20 years ago. It has become ubiquitous, said Kent Andersen, PhD, associate director of Pfizer Animal Genetics:

Not that many years ago, maybe one half to three fourths of the bulls sold were scanned. Things are different today. In the heart of bull sale country, scanning is almost required standard practice.

Dr. Andersen was quoted in Drovers Cattle Network magazine.

Cattle breeders use ultrasound to check for marbling, rib eye size (the more the better for both), and back fat accumulation (the less the better). Marbling refers to thin bands of fat within the muscle. More marbling makes for steaks that are more tender. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s beef grading system, starting with prime at the top and descending through choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, and cutter, with canner at the bottom, is based largely on the amount of marbling.

“Seedstock” producers raise purebred cattle. Beef breeds, such as Angus (stocky black or red cattle) and Herefords (larger red cattle with white faces), are raised to be slaughtered for meat. Dairy cattle (Jerseys, Holsteins, and others) are raised to produce milk.

Seedstock producers sell bulls to commercial cattle growers. The commercial growers use the bulls to breed heifers and cows that they already have on hand; normally, they do not buy heifers or cows. (A heifer is a young female; once she has a calf, she is called a cow.) The offspring are eventually sent off for slaughter, kept for breeding purposes, or put into milk production.

Ultrasound scanning costs about $20 per animal. Most seedstock producers scan only their bulls. However, some breeders have begun scanning females as well. Jack Ward, chief operating officer and director of breed improvement for the American Hereford Association, said:

Long term, the real genetic improvement is in scanning females. That’s what really makes a difference in herd improvement.

Paul Bennett of Knoll Crest Farm in Red House, Virginia, a prominent seedstock breeder of purebred Hereford, Angus, and Gelbvieh (a breed used for both beef and dairy purposes) cattle, said, “Ultrasound is reliable. … Our customers are comfortable using it, and it enables them to buy with increased confidence.”

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