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A very Florida problem: Our cows are too hot

Researchers at the University of Florida are trying to figure out a genetic roadmap to breed happy and tasty cattle.

GAINESVILLE — One day, a cooler cow will graze these sun-bleached pastures. Under hazy skies, in soupy heat, in squelching muck and cramped pens, the cooler cow will thrive. She’ll boast shorter hair, stress less, stay placid and productive, a well-adjusted youngster. Cut open, her meat will be tender — and taste like a dream.

Today’s cows have not achieved such great heights. On a muggy morning, temperature rising, they flick flies from soft black ears and swish girlish tails. Near the wire fence of this research outpost, they get leery — University of Florida buses groan by, carting students to campus — but, emboldened by the promise of mealtime, the cows belly up to the trough, inhale old barley from a local brewery.

Their lives will be short, their chops thoroughly studied, in service of the beef industry’s new frontier: Climate change. Producers have long been focused on what cows to breed, singling out tasty-making genes, but our warming world has complicated the recipe. Cows that can handle heat don’t taste too good.

Raluca Mateescu, whisperer of cow genetics, sees room for improvement.

Succulent beef — well-marbled slabs from the shaggy black Angus cattle, for instance — comes generally from cows accustomed to cooler climes, like Scotland. In Florida’s chokehold of humidity, such cows suffer. Their sweat has nowhere to go. They don’t put on weight. They get sick more easily, anxious and sad.

Our global appetite for beef is partly to blame. More demand has led to more cows clouding the atmosphere with more methane, trapping ever more heat. Vows to cut back on meat make sense. But Mateescu argues efficiency matters more. Build a roadmap to a more productive cow, and the result could be fewer animals, less of an ecological burden, ranchlands kept green — and still more beef.

Crossbred cows already fill Florida pastures, like the shy bunch at the trough. They’re a common “Brangus” mix, a marriage of tender Angus with the rugged white Brahman, scrawny but mega-resilient.

We can still do better, Mateescu says.

The University of Florida's Raluca Mateescu studies genetic code that she hopes will one day unlock the perfect breed of cow to handle the Florida heat. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

A professor in UF’s Department of Animal Sciences, she spends her days running down spreadsheets too unwieldy for Excel to open. In the tens of thousands of zeroes and ones that represent some 250,000 genetic markers, Mateescu knows that this chromosome, at that position, proclaims a certain cow’s eye color. This is the language she speaks.

In the summer, Mateescu works among 10,000 heads of cattle and a herd of UF students. They record the 90-degree heat on the pasture and take heifers’ temperatures. On a scale of 1 (sleek) to 5 (woolly), they score cow coats — furriness won’t do. They take 6-millimeter skin biopsies, where in the Brahman, they see larger sweat glands, better for cooling.

They take notes: Penned in, is this cow frantic or serene? When she’s freed, does she stroll — or buck in fear? If a cow is agitated between bars, she’ll likely heat up on the pasture, too. The white cows — cool in so many ways — are notorious hotheads.

So many variables to measure. So many tiny factors to pinpoint and pick apart.

For now, in balmy sunlight, Mateescu’s subjects dip wet black snouts into corn, their still-too-shaggy coats catching the rays. Mateescu knows, if she can keep digging deeper into those ones and zeroes, keep sifting through sheaves of genetic code, we can, one day, build a better cow.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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