> Foot-and-mouth disease risk prompts cattle breeders to consider freezing sperm and eggs to protect bloodlines

Foot-and-mouth disease risk prompts cattle breeders to consider freezing sperm and eggs to protect bloodlines

The threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has prompted Australia’s $32 billion red meat sector to consider freezing cattle semen and eggs to use in future breeding programs to protect their bloodlines.  

The highly contagious animal virus that spreads through livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats has been detected in Bali, putting Australian producers on high alert.

An incursion would mean millions of animals could be destroyed, undoing generations of breeding programs designed to produce the best animals for sale in domestic and international markets.

It has led some stud breeders to investigate the expensive option of freezing and storing bull semen and cow embryos as insurance if the herd had to be rebuilt.

Veterinarian and bovine specialist Ced Wise said along with record high prices for cattle, the combined pressures meant he was the busiest he had been in 46 years in the industry.

He said small and large studs were inquiring about storing their genetics, and for some of the larger operations that meant thousands of animals.

“They’re planning on doing quite large numbers,” he said.

Dr Wise said artificial breeding techniques are expensive, but breeders were weighing up the costs against the risks.

“Putting an embryo on ice, putting it in liquid nitrogen for preservation which we can do quite successfully, will cost you in the order of $200 to $300,” he said.

“Depending on which technology you use … that should equate to about $400 to $600 per live calf on the ground.

“It’s not a small exercise, it’s a risk management tool that needs a lot of thought. But people are certainly giving it that thought because it could be a disaster.”

A man in a blue work shirt and brown cowboy hat with surgical gloves draws up a needle in a rural shed.
Dr Wise spends much of his time on the road working solely on bovine reproduction.(ABC Landline: Halina Baczkowski)

While storing bull semen used for fertilisation was cheaper at between $4 to $5 per straw, without the embryos as well some bloodlines would only be storing half the genetics they had spent decades developing.

Dr Wise said while breeders would have to make careful choices about what they preserve, it could be an important safeguard against all manner of biosecurity threats.

“It’s critical because we’ve got genetics developed in Australia, unique to Australia, and the Australian environment,” he said.

For Australia’s beef industry specific traits like heat and tick resistance, meat quality and fertility in the country’s northern climates are unique to animals bred here, and would not be easily replaced by bloodlines from overseas.

UK breeder regrets not freezing more genetics

Scottish Charolais breeder Hamish Goldie had to cull his entire herd during the FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001.

About 6 million animals were destroyed in that outbreak which Mr Goldie said was a pretty grim time for everybody.

Farmer in a blue cardigan, light blue shirt and jeans stands between three cream-coloured Charolais bulls.
Hamish Goldie rebuilt herds from some frozen genetics but mostly from fellow breeders unaffected by the 2001 UK FMD outbreak.(Supplied: Hamish Goldie)

He urged Australian producers to consider preserving their bloodlines while they could.

“Not that many people had any plans in place to store genetics and maybe looking back it’s something we should have thought of,” he said.

A champion Charolais bull called Goldies Hotspur stands sashed with ribbons in front of a sponsor board at a show.
The Goldie family produce champion Charolais bulls like Goldies Hotspur nearly 20 years after a total herd wipe-out.(Supplied: Hamish Goldie)

While Mr Goldie was able to rebuild using cows from areas unaffected by the outbreak, he said it was made harder by not having access to his own genetics.

“Seriously, consider flushing some of your best genetics,” he said.

“Try and get a store of some of your family lines that are doing really well.”

Straws of cattle semen being frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Freezing bull semen is one way to store stud genetics and preserve bloodlines.(ABC Rural: Amy McCosker)

Keeping FMD out still the best insurance

But capturing a whole herd’s genetic diversity is a huge task, according to a stud breeder in Queensland’s South Burnett.

Alice Greenup and her husband Rick breed Santa Gertrudis cattle near Kumbia and Eidsvold, and she is also an independent northern director on the Cattle Council of Australia.

A man wearing jeans, a blue shirt and brown cowboy hat stands next to a woman in jeans, a blue and white checked shirt and hat
Alice and Rick Greenup are not sure freezing a portion of their cattle’s genetics will give them the diversity they need.(Supplied: Melissa McCord)

The couple’s stud has 2,500 stud cows and a run of 600 bulls which they reduce to about 130 for their annual sale.

“It’s the complexity of dealing with that volume of cattle … you’d have preserve a huge number of embryos and semen to even begin to capture the diversity,” she said.

A herd of Santa Gertrudis bulls in a mob in the South Burnett
Alice Greenup worries narrowing the stud cattle gene pool could be fraught.(Supplied: Alice Greenup)

The stud breeder said it was not something she was exploring for now, though the stud does already store some of its genetics.

She said the threat of disease incursion was not new to the industry, and the livestock sector had to remain vigilant.

“Potential incursions have always been a risk and it’s just something we need to live with and learn to deal with in the long term.”

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