CSIRO research targets cows' health and happiness

CSIRO research projects aimed at improving the health and welfare of livestock in modern production systems will lead not just to productivity gains, but to greater consumer and market confidence in Australia’s livestock products.

Beef producers are set to benefit from CSIRO's research into new methods of pain-relief drug application, animal wellbeing, and selective breeding for hornlessness and suitability to tropical conditions.
Carl Davies, CSIRO

CSIRO’s livestock researchers have several health-and-welfare projects in progress. Some focus on immediate health solutions, such as developing practical methods for administering pain relief. Others aim to provide Australia’s cattle farmers with longer-term solutions, such as those using modern breeding techniques to improve cattle welfare and beef production.

Practical pain relief

Working in collaboration with Queensland Alliance for Agricultural & Food Innovation (QAAFI), CSIRO scientists have been studying tropically adapted cattle to assess new methods of application of pain-relief drugs.

In particular, the team first looked at whether or not an injectable non-steroidal anti-inflammatory chemical provided some pain relief to the animal after surgical castration.

The aim of the research is to deliver a level of pain relief that allows the animal to function normally after procedures such as castration or tension banding. This would be similar to the way in which humans are treated following painful procedures: with an initial anaesthetic followed by an analgesic (pain-relief medicine, such as aspirin or paracetamol).

“We are looking at new tools that make delivery of a local anaesthetic safe and easy for farmers, followed by a practical method of applying follow-on pain relief that doesn’t require injections,” said CSIRO’s Dr Alison Small.

CSIRO helped test a new oral pain relief product developed by Troy Laboratories and released in April 2015. A gel called Ilium Buccalgesic, it is placed in the cavity between the animal’s gum lining and its cheek and provides pain relief for up to 24 hours.

For more information, see the ABC news report.

Breeding (relatively) harmless hornless cattle

A large proportion of the northern Australian beef cattle herd is horned. Horns pose a hazard to other animals and to handlers, and are therefore typically removed early in life. An alternative to this painful practice is to breed naturally hornless or “polled” cattle. The challenge is in identifying those bulls that will sire only hornless calves.

The CSIRO-developed Australian Poll Gene Marker test is helping Australian cattle breeders select breeding animals that carry two copies of the poll allele, dramatically reducing the requirement for dehorning in subsequent generations. Eventually, this selective breeding may help the industry put an end to the painful practice of dehorning beef cattle.

How do your cattle feel about it?

In a bid to improve livestock welfare, CSIRO is developing scientific methods for assessing how animals 'feel' in response to common management practices.

The science of objective measurement of animal welfare is a relatively new one. To date, research has focused largely on quantifying biological indicators of stress – for example, via blood tests that show changes in animals’ physiology or immune systems.

The new test CSIRO researchers are developing uses cognitive principles based on human psychological theories to ascertain and assess animal emotions.

“The challenge is to gain insights – in a scientifically rigorous way – into how animals’ minds work and not only increase their wellbeing but also their productivity,” CSIRO’s Dr Small said. “The test will be fast, won’t require specialist equipment and could be easily applied on farms.”

CSIRO researchers are creating breeds better suited to Australian conditions by selectively breeding for the best characteristics of Brahman (pictured) and taurine breeds.
CSIRO researchers are creating breeds better suited to Australian conditions by selectively breeding for the best characteristics of Brahman (pictured) and taurine breeds.

Developing Brahman cattle mixes for tropical Australia

The Brahman cattle breed, with its superior ability to deal with parasites and heat, is well adapted to tropical production environments. European-derived (taurine) breeds contribute important characteristics such as meat quality to production systems in Australia.

The northern Australian beef industry also uses Tropical Composite breeds: mixes of Brahman and taurine cattle. CSIRO scientists and their colleagues are exploring whether modern genetic science can help with getting the balance of the breed mix just right, so tropical adaption characteristics are not lost. 

They have found that most of the characteristics of tropically adapted animals, such as slicker coats, which are important for dealing with extreme heat; good body condition in harsh environments; and greater resistance to cattle ticks, are moderately heritable. 

Once the project team perfects tests for these traits, industry will be able to identify the best-adapted animals and use them for future breeding schemes.

“This discovery holds promise for the use of DNA assays to speed up the development of better-adapted animals for the tropics,” said CSIRO’s Dr Toni Reverter, Senior Research Scientist.

“By keeping an eye on the Brahman DNA content in key genomic regions, we can help producers strike the right balance of genetics for their particular production environment,” he said.

For more information, read ‘The Genetic Architecture of Climatic Adaptation of Tropical Cattle’.

Research for the future

CSIRO’s current research is focused on providing solutions for the future of the beef industry – a future that will bring new challenges, not the least of which will be maintaining profitability and increasing productivity amid increasing consumer expectation that beef products will be produced in an ethical and sustainable manner.


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