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What If We Could Breed Cows That Like To Hike?

Fred Davis / Flickr

Fred Davis / Flickr

California rangeland stretches over 38,000,000 acres. Most cows graze in the lowlands. So hilly areas are left untouched, leaving lowlands at risk for over-grazing. But what if we could breed cows that like to hike? A UC Davis scientist is trying to answer that question.

Imagine you're a cow on the range.

"It's sort of like if you had to hike up the hill to get your lunch today," says John Harper, livestock advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension. "If it was a 35 or 45 percent slope you would think twice - as opposed to maybe going to the vending machine down on the flat ground to grab something quick to eat."

Harper knows a thing or two about cows.  

But here's the twist. A few cows do show a preference for hiking up a slope to graze.

These outliers are the ones UC Davis geneticist Juan Medrano is keen on.

"It's interesting you know that some animals may have the motivation of going up the hill and searching for these different environments and that's the traits we'd like to capitalize on," says Medrano.

Medrano's research focuses on identifying genetic markers tied to cows that climb and finding a way to breed for that behavior. He and colleagues have observed 180 cattle across three western states. Now they're moving on to a bigger sample group before designing a genetic breeding test.

"To do this we put GPS on individual animals and then follow them in their path up on the hills. We're interested in looking at what elevations animals go up to and (also) what the slope of those areas is and how far away the animals are from the water," says Medrano.

Livestock advisor Harper says breeding for cattle behavior could hold promise for California ranchers. Not as a silver bullet but used alongside other tools that help them manage rangeland in a sustainable way.

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