Pharo Cattle Company Has Developed A Heat-Tolerant Composite

Published on Tue, 06/27/2023 - 1:35pm

Pharo Cattle Company Has Developed A Heat-Tolerant Composite.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

Millions of beef cattle in the U.S. suffer from heat stress during summer months in regions with hot, humid environments.  This reduces production and profit because heat-stressed animals don’t gain well, and high temperatures can also hinder fertility.  Although there are several ways to manage stress and try to keep cattle cooler, the only real solution comes through genetics—a more heat-tolerant animal that can handle these environments and do well.

Using genetics to solve problems has been Pharo Cattle Company’s claim to fame for more than three decades, and heat tolerance has been a topic of interest for the last 25 years.  Pharo Cattle Company is based in Colorado but has cooperating herds around the country to produce efficient, fertile cattle with calving ease and good dispositions.

Kit Pharo, who started Pharo Cattle Company, says that he and his crews have been evaluating and scoring hair coat for more than 20 years on the bulls they sell, since hair coat can be a genetic indicator for heat tolerance.  A slick, short hair coat is one of the characteristics of an animal that can handle the heat.

“We have cooperative herds in Missouri, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama and during the past 10 years, we have been experimenting with several different breeds and breed combinations to come up with the best genetic solution to heat stress,” says Pharo.

“We want to minimize use of brahman (bos indicus) genetics, because even though brahman cattle excel in heat tolerance, they are too big and inefficient to fit our low-input program. Brahman and brahman-cross cattle also lack fertility, which is the most important economic trait for cow-calf producers. Another problem with brahman-cross cattle is low carcass quality,” he explains.  They also have issues with temperament.

His group has been experimenting with bos taurus breeds that have Spanish and/or African origins. These include mashona, criollo, romosinuano, tuli, and senepol.  “Although we are working with some purebred cattle, we much prefer to create composite breeds that are the result of using our thick, easy-fleshing, ultra-low-maintenance red and black angus cattle as the base. Phenotypically these composites are superior to the purebred heat-tolerant cattle.  For nearly 30 years, we’ve had slick-haired angus and red angus cattle working in hot, humid environments, and we now have some heat-tolerant composite cattle that work ten times better.  We have been marketing our heat-tolerant composite bulls through our Missouri, Texas and Alabama bull sales for the past five years,” Pharo says.

Weston Walker (Walker Cattle Company), Al DeWit (D Bar 7 Ranch) and Richard Luciano (R2R Ranch) are some of the cooperating breeders (in Missouri and Texas) that have been involved in this research.  All three of these producers have put a lot of time and money into researching heat tolerant bos taurus breeds and what might be involved in creating a mashona-red angus composite.  At one time Walker and DeWit also looked into using senepol but couldn’t find the kind of genetics they wanted. Luciano, however, was able to import some good senepol heifers and bulls from Costa Rica. Walker and DeWit looked more closely at mashona and romosinuano breeds, and today much of the focus is on a mashona-red angus composite, using thick, easy-fleshing, slick-haired moderate-sized Red Angus cattle as the base.

In 2012 when Kit Pharo had a speaking engagement in Florida, he and his wife looked at the largest herd of mashona cattle outside of Zimbabwe.  “We were very impressed with their disposition and how well they were doing on very poor forages. The mashona is an indigenous breed from Africa that originated with the Shona people in Zimbabwe.  This breed was developed under natural selection without any external inputs for thousands of years in an extremely harsh and unforgiving environment. Mashona cattle have very low maintenance requirements.  They are very fertile and easy fleshing,  and are highly mobile grazers that have the ability to browse,” he says.  

“Mashona have early carcass maturity and finish well on grass. They excel in hot and/or humid environments with low-quality forages. They work well on endophyte infected fescue. They have very high resistance to parasites and disease.  Best of all, mashona is a bos taurus breed. They are much smaller and much more fertile than bos indicus (Brahman) cattle.  Pharo Cattle Company is now using the mashona to create a heat-tolerant composite that has more fertility and efficiency than the brahman crosses.  We sold our first set of heat-tolerant composite bulls in the spring of 2018.”

These bulls were developed naturally on grass in east Texas.  “We have been amazed at how much heat and humidity they can handle. They are out grazing when other cattle are shaded up or standing in water. Maximizing grazing time is key to profitability in this business.  Heat-adapted animals that graze twice as long as un-adapted animals will likely be twice as profitable,” Pharo says.

Johann Zietsman, author of “Man, Cattle, and Veld” advocated using mashona influenced cattle in hot climates.  His recipe for fitting livestock to their environment is to use ½ mashona x ½ British/continental breeding for cattle living in regions from approximately the 38th parallel (about Mid-Missouri) south and utilizing cattle that are ¼ mashona x ¾ British/continental breeding north of this arbitrary line.

Walker Cattle Company is located just south of this line in southwest Missouri.  “Our main forage is endophyte infected fescue,” says Walker.  “When you combine the toxic effects of endophyte with extreme humidity and high temperatures in summer and ice and sub-freezing temperatures in winter, you have an environment which can challenge even the best adapted cattle genetics. Our climate also favors high internal and external parasite loads in our livestock,” he says.

“While our endophyte infected fescue appears lush and attractive to those who don’t understand its negative role in cattle production, for most of the growing season it is negatively affecting the health and gaining ability of the cattle that consume it. Walker Cattle Company has been producing fescue country red angus bulls for Pharo Cattle Company since 2006.

The focus of our program is, like all PCC cooperating herds, to produce low-input, easy-fleshing, moderate-famed, easy-calving early-maturing momma cows for making bulls.  We believe in being tougher on our momma cows than most producers, so we can provide our customers with stock that will meet or exceed their expectations for cattle performance,” says Walker.

“As we continue to improve our cattle, we have implemented a breeding program utilizing our PCC red angus genetics and have crossed them with the best available mashona bulls we could find.  “We’ve been breeding every quality red angus heifer we can to mashona and/or romosinuano purebred or crossbred bulls since committing to this journey.  Our first crossbred calves were born in September 2016,” says Walker.

DeWit and Walker’s goals for their heat-tolerant composite breed is to develop heat and humidity adapted cows that can
1. Slick off in summer and grow enough hair to survive inclement winters.
2. Calve the first time at 2 years of age.
3. Have mature cow weight approximately 1100 pounds with a mature frame score of 3.5.
4. Wean approximately 50% of her own body weight each year with a calf of approximately seven months of age.
5. Breed back and calve every year in a maximum 60 day breeding season. (if 90% breed-up becomes the norm, a 45 day breeding season may be used to refine the herd).
6. Produce a saleable beef animal for the mainstream commercial market (with adequate carcass yield and quality)
7. Thrive in the regions of the United States south of the 40th parallel
8. Maintain a solid red hair color.  Varying shades of red are acceptable.
9. Produce a beef animal that will perform and finish on all-forage diet.

Making a composite breed with more than two breeds could also have advantages such as additional heterosis.  An original target was to create a bos taurus composite that is ½ red angus, ¼ romo, ¼ mashona.  The exact combination of breeds may be different depending upon how the phenotype of breeds complement one another and work together for different regions of the country.  “It would be crucial to utilize the best phenotypic animals from each of these breeds to minimize variability and to expedite progress,” Walker says.

Slick Hair Gene
Excessive summer heat can take its toll on cattle.  The discovery of the slick gene by scientists at the ARS Subtropical Agricultural Research Station (STARS) in Brooksville, Florida in 2008 can now help deal with heat-related issues.  Breeders could move this gene into other breeds to improve their heat tolerance.

 Studies at Brooksville led by animal scientist Chad Chase showed that slick-haired animals have internal temperatures about 1 degree Fahrenheit lower during summer than cattle with normal hair coats.  There may be a role for marker-assisted genetic selection to identify bulls that will produce only slick-haired progeny.  Some senepol bulls were tested using these markers, and results indicated excellent potential for identifying bulls that will produce only slick-haired offspring. The same gene also appears to be responsible for the slick hair coat in romosinuano and mashona cattle.