What do burps, beetles and bacteria have in common? Bovines of course! At least, that's the case when it comes to our work with the cattle industry - an industry that's worth $6 billion in Australia. Next week is the aptly named Beef Week and you'll be surprised and amazed to see how much research we do for the humble cow.
Beef Week 2015 is a chance for our scientists to show off their expertise to the wider industry and the 'steaks are high'.

Beef Week 2015 is a chance for our scientists to show off their expertise to the wider industry and the ‘steaks are high’. Image: Drewe Ferguson

Next week Australia’s beef industry gathers in Rockhampton for their triennial shindig, the industry’s biggest — Beef Australia 2015. Over 85 000 people involved in all aspects of the industry will be there. From farmers and truckers, to agribusiness CEOs and scientists, all will share their ideas on improving the industry, an industry valued at about $6b in exports and a similar amount in domestic consumption.

Being ideas people, our scientists will be among the crowd. They’ll be sharing what we’re working on, and laying out the opportunities for farmers and others. We’ll show how science can be used for a more productive, profitable and sustainable industry.

We’ve been helping the beef industry for as long as we’ve been around. Many of our advances go to show how innovative our farmers are, ready to take on new practices and technologies.

In one end, and out the other: dung beetles, cow burps, and gut microbes

Where to start? Perhaps at the end? Did you know we’re the one’s who brought in dung beetles to Australia to deal with, well, the dung? Indeed, and that’s why you’re sucking in air right now and not pesky bush flies.

At the other end we’re helping understand methane emissions from burping cattle, which along with sheep accounts for about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using some innovative techniques, including the use of lasers, we can measure the emissions from cattle in different environments and on different diets. We recently figured out the cattle in northern Australia on certain grasses emit about 30% less methane than previously estimated, so we’ve worded up the IPCC to correct the record on Australia’s emission estimates.

We’re also investigating end to end to understand the mechanisms involved with methane production, such as gut microbiota, and looking to the likes of Australia’s grass eating marsupials for ways to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve conversion of feed to meat.

Bovine 2.0: breeding for the wide brown land

Early in our days it was recognised that the predominant European Bos taurus cattle breeds weren’t really suited to conditions in northern Australia. Heat, ticks and other parasites took their toll. We crossbred the Bos taurus cattle with Bos indicus cattle, from Texas, to produce some improvements in tolerance to the tough conditions. Though many weren’t impressed with us “mongrelising” their European breeds, their minds were changed when our new crossbreeds survived the 1930 drought. Overall, out breeding programs have brought in an estimated $8 billion to the industry.

We teamed up with international partners in the early 2000s to sequence the bovine genome. This genetic research has gone into both BREEDPLAN, Australia’s National Beef Genetic Evaluation Scheme, and GeneSTAR, a test for a range of genetic markers associated with meat quality and desired production traits.

Don’t hurt a cow, man: cow welfare

We identified a genetic marker for ‘hornlessness’. Horns are a big problem for industry. Horns hurt handlers and other cattle and removing them is hard on both animals and farmers. A poll gene test is now helping farmers select cattle that are much more likely to breed hornless offspring providing both production and welfare benefits.

We also continue to help the industry meet high standards of animal welfare by providing objective assessments of new pain relief options and mitigating the impact of long distance transport both on land and at sea.

McDaisy: taste and tenderness assessments

Of course all of this great performing cattle isn’t much good if it doesn’t taste good so researchers, including our scientists, worked with Meat & Livestock Australia to develop Meat Standards Australia – an objective assessment of meat for eating quality that takes the guess work out of choosing a great cut of meat, be it at the supermarket or restaurant.

Speaking of delicious, we’ve investigated ways of using High Pressure Processing to tenderise otherwise low-value cuts that also provides three times the normal shelf-life. This continues a long tradition of post-farm gate research for the cattle industry. We previously worked on refrigerated and frozen meats for long distance shipping, opening and expanding many export markets.

Mad cow, sane science: defence against microbes

Along with our research into cold storage, our food safety scientists are using an enhanced understanding of food borne bacteria such as E. coli to ensure continued access to export markets such as the US without elaborate import testing regimes.

Meanwhile, north of Australia we’re helping keep serious biosecurity threats like foot and mouth disease at bay by working with South-East Asian countries to improve their surveillance and response to diseases that could damage our cattle industry and greatly hinder market access. Similarly, in Australia, we’re helping industry and government prepare for the next disease incursion.

As you can see, there is plenty of great Aussie ingenuity that goes into creating some of the most sustainable and salivatory beef in the world. So next time you’re chewing over a beef burger, take some time to ruminate on the contributions we’ve made to the beef industry in the last 90 years.