To be a better farmer and breed steward. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. This was for science! As you know, DNA testing is so simple anyone can do it at home anymore. It's the same for animals. The preferred method of at-home/farm DNA collection for domestic animals is to pull out 20-40 hairs by the roots, the little white roots being the genetic goldmine. It's as simple as washing your hands, pulling the sample, and taping it to a piece of paper that is then mailed off to the lab. First class postage is fine if you're not in a hurry.
Why? Well, there are a lot of things you can learn. You can see if recessive color genetics are present, screen for health problems, or find out who the father is if one of your animals jumped a fence and you don't know- like you're the barnyard Maury Povich. With Dexter cattle, a big reason to test is for genetic problems that can pass on to offspring. There are two unfortunate mutations that can result in pregnancies that will either miscarry or result in a stillborn. This is heartbreaking (especially if you have to deal with the remains of a deformed baby), and can even put the mother cow's life at risk. Of course, reproductive problems are also bad for business when you depend on your cows to provide meat, milk or calves for sale.
The PHA and Chrondo mutations are tricky because they are recessive. Cattle that have one copy are perfectly healthy, just like non-carriers. Two copies means a failed pregnancy or calf that will not live. DNA testing is a recent but awesome tool to keep what we love about our Dexter cattle -hardiness, productivity, temperament and more- while getting rid of fatal flaws in the genetics. The bad genes are either there or not, it's not something that gets less awful over generations. Even a carrier will produce non-carrying offspring half of the time. If a carrier is bred to a non-carrier, nothing bad will ever happen, and there is a 1 in 2 chance you will get a calf with only good versions of the problem genes. However, you can only know for sure who can be bred together without issue if you have the genetic information. Bloodlines don't have to be culled entirely. With heritage breeds that have a relatively small number of animals to start with and may be in literal danger of extinction, genetic diversity is a really important thing.
We are not artificially changing genes with this test, and we are not making GMO cows. We are simply able to plan breedings to avoid problems. Breeders can use it to help choose which young cattle deserve to be kept as breeding stock or which established older cows will be good matches to each other. It's the same process humans used to turn wolves into Chihuahuas, but with more advanced information. People have been selecting breeding stock for thousands of years based on things we could see- how much milk a cow gave, how fast its babies grew, how healthy it was. DNA testing is another way for us to make good decisions on what animals are the best examples of their breed. I am beginning the process of getting all my breeding stock DNA tested, but if I do have a carrier, I am not sending her for meat or changing how I treat her. (The only exception would be if the bull had the same mutation that some of our cows carried, he would need to be replaced but I would absolutely find him a good home first. He's awesome in so many other ways!) We have only a few cows that are our mother cows and I love each one for a different reason. But going forward, if I do have a carrier I could choose to keep only non-carrier offspring. It's now possible (and pretty easy as well as affordable) to test a calf before you decide whether it is good breeding stock or better as beef.
As farmers, it's easy to think we know every single thing about a cow. We have, in many cases, known it since before it was born. We think we have a good eye for selecting what works best on our farm or looks best to us. It's easy to think that the real knowledge about cows comes from dirt under your fingernails and not from someone in a lab coat. But it doesn't mean that a DNA test won't provide valuable information or that farmers can't be scientists as well. It's an awesome partnership that can help us have just a little bit more information. Less genetic problems mean healthier cows, both in our own herds and across the breed. Breeds of cattle that don't have major genetic issues are more attractive to new farmers. Part of keeping a breed in enough barns to prevent it dying out is making sure you have a cow worth having. Every breeder plays a part. I'm excited to have more tools available to me to keep my herd healthy and still be everything I loved about Dexters when I was new to farming. And I'm excited to be a part of the generation who has even more tools to help us produce the very best of what the breed should be.
Oh, and in case you wondered- Fergus didn't even notice. I had Dan distract him with food, but he didn't flinch. We also collected a sample from Fiannait. She minded more, but I really believe she was more upset about Dan grabbing her collar and holding her than it was anything I was doing. Neither yanked their tail away from me as though they were hurt, and that's perhaps the best part. We're investing in the future of the
Dexter breed without causing pain to the animals that got us where we are today. A true win-win situation!