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NMSU professor partners with Australian researchers on beef cattle fertility, genetics

A New Mexico State University professor took his appointment as the Gerald W. Thomas Chair in Food Production and Natural Resources to create international collaborations with researchers whose goal is to foster the continued evaluation of genetic regulations of fertility in cattle, and share that knowledge with cattlemen globally.

Here, Angus cows graze the Table lands in New South Wales. This summer, NMSU Professor Milton Thomas traveled to Australia to work with researchers at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific Research Organization on beef cattle genetics. He hopes to share the results of this collaborative effort with livestock producers around the world to help them form better genetics selection tools. (Photo courtesy of Milton Thomas)

It is a journey that has taken Milton Thomas (no relation), to Australia and back, and has created teaching, outreach and extension opportunities that will continue even after a new person is appointed to the chair.

"It is an honor to follow in Gerald Thomas' big footsteps," said Thomas, who teaches courses in beef cattle physiology and genetics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. "Being an endowed chair is a form of leadership. I really enjoyed this experience because it gave me the opportunity to be a leader of science. It was great to help pull this big project together that wouldn't have happened if we didn't work together."

Thomas has been involved in studying cattle fertility through the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because New Mexico and Australia share comparable arid-land agriculture, and Australian scientists are conducting similar research on beef cattle, Thomas said it was natural to extend that collaboration with scientists at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific Research Organization (CSIRO), in Brisbane, Australia, along with the University of New England and Beef Co-operative Research Centre.

Thomas and the researchers generated 50,000 genotypes on each of 800 Brangus heifers, which becomes a massive undertaking to analyze and find which genes are important to regulating heifer fertility. This gene identification effort was assisted with another new technology and assistance of the National Center for Genome Resources, in Santa Fe - as these researchers also sequenced all the genes expressed in an important region of the brain. The research can be expensive and requires large teams collaborating to complete genotyping, data analyses and the translation of findings to herd improvement programs.

What this technology helps researchers do is narrow down the genes to find the ones that can help explain why a heifer is or is not pregnant as a yearling, and to also pinpoint the genes that control other important genes in beef cattle.

With researchers around the world working together with these technologies, Thomas said they now have the ability to understand all the genes that affect reproduction and growth, and use that information to build better selection tools for livestock producers. With these tools, cattle breeders can greatly reduce the number of years it takes to identify superior sires with the goal of improving fertility.

Researchers on this project have submitted an article to the Journal of Animal Science, discussing their work and findings so far.

"We have a tremendous publication that's just been submitted to the Journal of Animal Science," said Thomas, "It's not just a beef cattle genetics publication. This is a publication that takes science to a new level and it is exciting that it was done with beef cattle."

This partnership, Thomas said, not only gives NMSU national and international exposure in the beef industry, but also helps to facilitate the translation of their genetic findings to the industry as Thomas intends to apply the findings to the genetic evaluation system of the International Brangus Breeders Association. It will also lead to further research in this area that includes regular visits between NMSU and Australian scientists.

"This all started with a little idea to give money to a person willing to work hard at the missions of the land-grant university," Thomas said. "This just grew and grew, all because there was funding available. If it weren't for that boost, none of this would have ever happened. One thing led to another. It's just been amazing."

Thomas was invited to apply for the McMaster's Fellowship at CSIRO that would allow him to travel to Australia and continue work with scientists and beef cattle producers in dry, intra-continental regions of the country. Receipt of this award helped Dr. Thomas receive a new research appointment as the Colorado State University J.E. Rouse Chair in Beef Cattle Breeding and Genetics, which is a permanent endowed chair position. He will also continue in his faculty position at NMSU.

Along with his collaborative work with Australia on beef cattle genetics, Thomas also used his position as chair to offer resources to various Cooperative Extension Service programs, such as paying the costs for faculty around the country to teach at the Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium in Clovis, and has also had various invited speakers give talks and work with students on topics such as bioinformatics and collaborative grant writing at NMSU.

The public is invited to listen to Thomas speak about his experiences as the 2010-2011 Gerald W. Thomas Chair and his summer spent working with Australian researchers at his seminar "Gerald Thomas Chair Builds Successful Networks of People and Bovine Genomes" at noon, Sept. 13, in Knox Hall Room 238.