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Black Beefmaster Cattle

How to Most Effectively Produce Them

By Dr. Tim Olson
Dept. of Animal Sciences, University of Florida

 

 

 

 

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     Photography,  courtesy of Wild Oaks Farms

     Black Beefmaster cattle have become popular in recent years as price premiums for black commercial calves have increased. This increase in popularity raises questions as to the best way to produce black Beefmaster calves in a consistent manner. To answer this question, I need to provide some background information about how the black and red colorations are produced in cattle.

     The Extension, or simply E, locus in cattle is responsible for most of the variation in black, reddish brown combined with red and black and red colorations in cattle. A locus is a spot on the chromosome where the genes responsible for this variation are located. There are at least three different genes found at the E locus in cattle. Any single animal has some combination of two of these genes at the E locus. The allele responsible for uniform black coloration is ED. Cattle with the ED gene are born black and the coloration does not change over time. The only departure from this is the occurrence of white spotting in various areas of the body that will be discussed later and which are controlled by genes at other loci. The E+ gene is often referred to as the "wild type" gene by geneticists as it is the gene that we believe was carried by the wild ancestors of domestic cattle. Calves expressing this coloration are usually born red to reddish brown and darken at four to five months of age. Some of such animals are nearly entirely black with just minimal amounts of tan along the spine and possibly tan around their muzzle. The e gene is responsible for producing an animal with only red pigment. Animals that are E+/E+ or E+/e in genotype will show a combination of dark brown to black coloration on all or parts of the body. Those that are not solid brown/black will have areas of red to reddish brown in addition to the brown/black areas. Only animals that are e/e will be red although the presence of the brindle gene may confuse this situation somewhat. The ED gene is dominant over the E+ and e genes. By dominant I mean that if an animal has one copy of the ED gene, it is going to be black even though it carries either E+ or e (ED/E+ or ED/e).

     Most Beefmaster cattle that I have seen are red (e/e) or brown/black combined with red (E+/E+ or E+/e) in coloration. These along with some sorts of yellow are the only colorations that could come from crosses of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman. The ED gene that is responsible for producing black Beefmasters would have been introduced into the breed through upgrading programs from black breeds (Brangus and Angus). By selecting each generation of the upgrading process (F1, 3/4, 7/8 Beefmaster, ect) for those cattle that are black as parents of the next generation, black cattle that are now registered Beefmasters have been produced. The first generation of black, upgraded Beefmasters that complete the upgrading process must be heterozygous for the black ED gene (ED/E+ or ED/e). Thus, although they are black in coloration, not all of their calves can be expected to be black. To produce black Beefmasters that will produce only black progeny even when mated to red or red/brown cows (ED/ED), we must mate black bulls to black cows. However, not all the progeny of such matings will be homozygous for black (ED/ED) and not carry red or wild type. Depending upon the genotypes (gene combinations) in the black bull and black cow that produced them, as few as 25% of the progeny of a black to black mating could be homozygous for black, ED/ED . A logical question then is how do we know which ones are the homozygous ones that will produce only black calves? Well, today we are fortunate in that we can know in a few weeks time through the use of DNA evaluation. A blood or semen sample (sometimes just plucked hairs) can be used to determine which black animals are ED/E+ or ED/e and which ones are the desired ED/ED genetic combination. We also can determine their genotype by mating tests but this takes at least 9 months to accomplish. The mating test, if you would wish to use one requires that your black bull produce seven or more calves from red (e/e) cows. If all of the calves from this type of mating are black, then we can be very confident that the bull is homozygous for black.

      Since I began writing this article I have been informed that one of the original Brahman bulls used to produce the Beefmaster breed was black. Mr. Lasater also reportedly said that some black calves were periodically produced in his herd but that they were not kept as replacements. What I think is going on here is that the original black Brahman bull was really wild type in coloration, that is, born reddish brown and darkening to black by 4 to 6 months of age. If this bull had carried ED, at least half of his calves would have been born black and by eliminating any black calves at weaning, no black calves of the ED type would be produced again. The fact that this coloration was periodically produced in later generations, despite culling, suggests that some type of recessive factors not related to ED are involved.     So, from a Beefmaster breederís point of view who wishes to breed black Beefmasters, what should be done? If you donít have any black Beefmasters, the best idea would be to use semen from a Beefmaster bull known to be homozygous black. If such bulls canít be found or the ones that are available are deficient in growth, muscling or another important trait, you may need to use heterozygous black bull, a bull that is black but who will only produce 50% black calves when bred to red cows.

     Once you have black Beefmasters, breeding black to black, of course, increases the chance of black calves being born and also allows the possibility of homozygous black calves. To increase the chance of black calves to 100%, homozygous black bulls will need to be used. When homozygous black bulls are bred to black cows, then the chance of homozygous black calves being born is at least 50%. Thus, the procedure for breeding black Beefmaster is not that difficult. What will likely be difficult is to consistently produce "good" black Beefmaster cattle. If too much selection pressure is placed on getting them black, problems could be seen in other traits such as growth, muscularity, or any number of other traits that must be neglected in the effort to get them black because of the limited number of black Beefmaster bulls likely to be available. Another problem may be that all of the best black Beefmaster bulls may be related. Thus, you might find that in order to breed a quality black heifer to a black bull of similar quality more inbreeding than you would usually find acceptable might be necessary..

     Now, one final problem remains, you might produce a great, homozygous black Beefmaster bull only to find that he produces a certain proportion of white spotted calves. I donít think that the white spotting situation in Beefmaster cattle is as clear as that of the black color. Certainly the white face gene coming from the breedís Hereford ancestry will be easy to eliminate. However, Beefmaster cattle also carry a recessive (possibly hidden) type of spotting likely from their Shorthorn ancestry. This gene is likely responsible for spotted calves from non-spotted parents. Since there is no DNA marker for the gene responsible for this type of spotting (s/s), only mating tests could be used to identify those solid-colored (non-spotted) bulls that carry s, that is are S+/s in genotype. As with the black/red example, seven or more calves from Holstein (or any other similarly spotted breed must be non-spotted to declare a sire free from the recessive spotting gene, to be S+/ S+ in genotype.

     Another concern of mine is that it appears that there are some other kinds of spotting present in the Beefmaster breed that arenít due to the Hereford spotting or to the Shorthorn recessive spotting gene. This/these type(s) of spotting are likely from the Brahman component of the ancestry of the Beefmaster and have not been studied by geneticists. All I could say about that is to try to avoid using loudly spotted Beefmasters as your foundation animals in your black Beefmaster breeding program. That is, use only cows with no or with minimal white only on the underline to breed to black Beefmaster sires.

For other questions on the color gene, please contact Dr. Olson at his email address: olson@animal,ufl.edu, or write him at:

Dr Tim Olson
P.O. Box 110910
Department of Animal Sciences
IFAS, University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611-0910
 

     Wild Oaks Farm's "Isa Blacks" represent up to five generations of Black cattle from the Isa Cattle Company, Lasater Herd. The white faced cow, Isa Essential Black, has consistently thrown black calves from red bulls. We are currently using Black Jack 21 and Bandito on this cow family as part of the genetic basis in developing our Black Beefmaster genetics.