Editor's note: Troy Rowan, recent recipient of the Walton-Berry Graduate Student Support Grant, studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in Scotland looking at genomic signatures of selection to apply to population genetics. Roslin Institute is recognized for cloning the first mammal from an adult cell, Dolly the Sheep, pictured to the left with Rowan.
I’ve spent most of my life thinking about America as the “Land of the Free and home of the Beef.” Whether it was helping on my family’s beef operation as a little one, breeding cows with my dad as a teenager, or during my Ph.D. in beef genomics at the University of Missouri, the American beef industry has been the only one I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. That is, until I spent the last six months of 2019 in the United Kingdom working on a portion of my graduate research. This scientific visit to work at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland was made possible by the Walton-Berry Award from the American Simmental Association.
Though I could write all day about my research (and it turns out a lot of days I do), I wanted to share some of my insights into Scottish agriculture, particularly their beef industry. It was easy for me to take an American-centric view of beef production, but my time in the UK really highlighted some of the similarities and differences experienced by our fellow producers “across the pond”. While our operations and industry organizations differ in many ways, it was reassuring to see that producers abroad are focused on the same things as producers at home: improving the efficiency and sustainability of red meat production.
The Scottish Beef Industry:
Production and Consumption While riding the bus to the Roslin Institute on my first day of work, I was struck by the number of sheep around! While there is certainly a higher proportion of sheep in Scotland than in the States, beef still accounts for a much larger proportion of their agricultural output: 26.1% for beef vs. 8.6% for sheep (Scottish Red Meat Report, 2019). I was also interested to see that the average beef herd size in Scotland (48) and the US (44, USDA-ERS) were roughly the same. Scottish beef production, much like in America, is deeply rooted in culture. Many operations have been in families for centuries, and their passion for maintaining the land, rearing cattle, and feeding people are as strong today as ever.
Scottish folks eat less beef annually (47 lbs) than the average American (58 lbs), but substantially more than the average resident in the rest of the United Kingdom (38 lbs). Much of this consumption is offset by lamb, but portion size plays an important role. These differences show up at the grocery store as well, where premium cuts are significantly smaller and have less marbling than the grain-fed steaks I am accustomed to seeing.
I was also struck by the presence of Scotch-branded beef in nearly every supermarket meat case. Scottish beef has had its own branded label for the last 30 years and is held in high regard both within and outside of the United Kingdom. To be branded “Scotch Beef” animals must have been “born, reared and processed in Scotland” and spent their time on quality-assured farms.
In addition to traceability, animal welfare and sustainability are also highly-valued by consumers, and producers are duly compensated for maintaining a certain standard. Specifically, in regards to animal welfare, the Scotch Beef Council works closely with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to develop welfare guidelines, perform farm checks, and develop educational resources. This partnership runs counter to many of our experiences in the United States where major animal welfare institutions largely operate initiatives counterproductive to animal agriculture.
While the US has far more beef cows (31 million vs Scotland’s 406,000), the entire Scotch beef herd resides in an area smaller than the state of Maine. Scotland is able to support this high-density of animals with effectively unlimited forage. Even after spending my life in grass-producing areas of the Midwest, I was struck with the sheer amount of available forage. As a result, virtually all Scotch beef is finished on grass with minimal grain inputs. This pushes the average age at slaughter to 22 months, substantially older than grain-finished cattle in the States.
Farmers and ranchers nearly anywhere in the US have been known to say, “You’re always two weeks from a drought”. In Scotland, this is not the case. While the average rainfall totals for Edinburgh are comparable to my family’s farm in Southwest Iowa, Scotland’s proximity to the ocean ensures that this rain comes consistently, particularly in the winter. The consistency of rainfall coupled with above-freezing temperatures year-round despite being on the same latitude as central Canada makes for completely saturated pastures in the winter months. Due to their dense stocking rates, producers' landholdings are typically quite small, and any amount of foot traffic from cattle during this period would destroy a large percentage of their high-quality land. As a result, nearly all producers over-winter animals indoors, a concept that was entirely new to me.
Towards the end of my stay, I was lucky enough to meet up with a couple of veterinarians that took me out to see a few of their dairy and beef clients. By the middle of November, all of the cattle that we visited had moved indoors, were bedded down on straw, and were being fed silage and hay. They would remain inside until mid-April. In addition to raising hay to put up as silage, these management circumstances effectively require that cattle producers also grow their own wheat for straw for the following five months their animals will spend indoors.
Genetic Evaluations and Selection Strategies
While most of my producer interactions in Scotland were seedstock Angus-based, it seems like the show ring is still a major driver of selection in the UK’s four major breeds: Limousin, Angus, Charolais, and Simmental. While each breed’s society collects performance data and reports EBVs (Estimated Breeding Values, which are 2 x EPDs), Limousin is the only breed that performs a genomic evaluation. By many accounts, Limousin appears to be the most technologically progressive breed in Scotland and the UK. They are currently undertaking initiatives involved with genomics, feed efficiency, carcass quality, and various health traits.
I was lucky to share some discussions around developing technologies with Professor Mike Coffey, at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Head of eGenes, the service provider that runs all of the UK’s sheep and beef and dairy cattle genetic evaluations. A major initiative of the British Limousin Cattle Society aims to use visual image analysis to accelerate genetic progress on a variety of retail value-based carcass traits. The goals of this “Carcase Traits Project” look almost identical to ASA’s “Carcass Merit Program”. Mike’s group is a world leader in leveraging “big data” phenotypes to help drive genetic progress on various production and health outcomes. Recently, they have been using machine learning to identify bovine tuberculosis (bTB) positive dairy animals using spectral profiles from millions of routinely-collected milk samples. Their methods are highly accurate and could play an essential role in the eradication of bTB from the British cattle population. In general, Coffey is excited about the potential of novel phenotypes coupled with genomics to breed more productive cattle worldwide, an excitement that I most certainly share!
While many aspects of Scottish beef production are different from what we are accustomed to here in the US, it is clear that many of the most important components are the same. It was immediately clear to me that Scottish farmers’ devotion to caring for animals, tending the land, and producing healthy, safe, and plentiful red meat was every bit as strong as American ranchers’. It is my hope as the world becomes increasingly connected, we can increase the transfer of knowledge and shared experiences to continue driving the beef industry forward.
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