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Curtis Van Tassell loading high-capacity DNA sequencer.

Genetically Improving U.S. Cattle--The Future Builds on the Past

By Hank Becker
December 2, 1999

The future of the milk industry may be greatly influenced by animal geneticist Curtis P. Van Tassell's research. The Agricultural Research Service scientist's project aims to produce healthier cows, greater profits for farmers and higher-quality milk for consumers.

Van Tassell's work brings together two key ARS labs in Beltsville, Md.--the Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory (AIPL) and the Gene Evaluation and Mapping Laboratory (GEML). He will integrate newly identified molecular markers with existing data sources to determine how to raise the accuracy of evaluated traits in dairy cattle, thus increasing their rate of genetic improvement.

Researchers at the AIPL keep tabs on traits such as milk, fat, protein and other traits that affect cows' health, vigor and profitability. They estimate the genetic merit of more than 16 million dairy cows from data obtained since 1960 through industry-wide dairy production testing and record-keeping systems, and through breed registry societies.

Scientists at the GEML study genes related to growth, disease resistance and productivity of the mammary gland. They also use gene-mapping techniques to gain more knowledge of the structure of dairy cows' genome, and develop technology to select animals based on true genetic merit. So far, they've studied 105 of the more than 1,000 genetic markers for cattle that researchers have discovered.

As a result of research at both labs, individual genes influencing important traits like mastitis resistance, milk, fat and protein concentrations will be easier to identify and use in breeding decisions. Using the genetic markers in evaluating cattle can accelerate the rate of genetic improvement for milk production and other economically important traits, such as health and longevity.

A story about the research appears in the December issue of Agricultural Research magazine and on the web at:


ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief research agency.

Scientific contact: Curtis P. Van Tassell, ARS Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-9271, fax (301) 504-8092,

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