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Guaranteed tender: Direct marketer uses DNA testing to improve quality

Staff writer

Recent development of DNA genetic testing has identified specific genes that increase tenderness and marbling in beef cattle.

Dave Ferren of Burns and his partner and brother-in-law John Sharp of Albuquerque, N. Mex., are using DNA testing to produce high quality natural beef from registered Angus cattle.

Ferren had a commercial cowherd for many years. He said his brother-in-law persuaded him to get into the business of marketing beef directly and using DNA testing to improve the genetics of the beef to guarantee quality.

“We want to make sure you don’t get a tough steak,” he said.

Sharp grew up on a farm in Kansas. He owns a company that designs information systems for government agencies. His company developed the website for the joint venture, www.gusangus.com.

“I start businesses,” he said. “This is something that has not been tried much and has a fixed set of genetics that produces uniform quality.”

Sharp began with two high-bred Angus cows on a family-owned pasture near Clay Center. He then moved the cows to Ferren’s ranch and they partnered in an expanded operation.

Gus Angus Co. LLC has been in business for three years. The foundation herd is old-line Angus stock of 40 Emulous cows, two Emulous bulls, and 20 Emulous heifers purchased from a ranch in Oklahoma.

Emulous cattle have been line-bred for more than 40 years. The focused development of better animals allowed the capture and concentration of genetics that increased the value and quality of the beef.

The late John Brethour, a research scientist at Kansas State University for 42 years, performed ultrasound on the Gus Angus herd. He said every cow had at least one of the 14 tenderness genes. Ferren and Sharp are working to concentrate more of these genes in one animal.

Whenever a calf is born, Ferren collects a sampling of hair from the tail. Samples are sent to a lab for DNA testing.

Ferren said researchers have identified at least 14 genes so far that determine tenderness.

The first year or two, Gus Angus calves often tested with just one, two, or three of these genes.

However, more recently, a few calves have been identified with 10 tenderness genes, and calves with five, six, seven, or eight genes are common.

Gus Angus improves genetics by using embryo transplants flushed from outstanding cows that were artificially inseminated with semen from outstanding bulls. Cows from Ferren’s original herd are used as surrogates. Herd bulls breed cows that do not settle.

The herd spends the grazing season on native grass in the Flint Hills. At weaning, Ferren keeps the heifers to increase the herd, and keeps bulls with the highest DNA (10-star) for use in the breeding program.

Other bull calves are castrated and raised for meat that is sold directly to customers. Ferren fattens the steers on a whole-kernel corn diet. He does not use hormone implants, antibiotics, or distillers’ grain.

The cattle are processed at a meat-packing plant in El Dorado. Ferren exercises quality control by grilling a steak from every carcass to evaluate tenderness and quality. He makes note of which sire and dam produced the animal.

The beef is sold as a sample package of 22 pounds or as pre-ordered quarters, halves, or whole. The vacuum-packed meat is sold customized or as USDA inspected for out-of-state or wholesale transactions. The USDA inspected meat is branded with the Gus Angus Co. LLC label.

Ferren currently does not have a large quantity of beef for sale because the business is concentrating on building herd size and increasing quality.

“We’re trying to hoard these genes and hope to improve the herd,” he said.

The recession has slowed sales, and the conventional market does not place a premium on DNA-tested cattle, so the business has yet to show a profit. The partners are hoping this eventually will change.

Sharp said someday they hope to sell the branded beef to high-end consumers and restaurants and eventually recoup their investment and a little more. They would like to increase their herd to 300 and eventually sell high-rated bulls.

“If we’re on the frontier of something that’s going to catch on, it will pay off,” Ferren said. “Otherwise, we’ll just have good beef and expensive cows.”

Last modified March 26, 2009

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