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Cattle raising

Very Brazilian

Embrapa intensifies studies with breeds that have arisen in Brazil and form a rich genetic heritage

from the book Animais do Descobrimento/EmbrapaPantaneiro horses: hooves adapted to the marshy areas of the Pantanalfrom the book Animais do Descobrimento/Embrapa

Dozens of  breeds of  horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs formed over many years in Brazil make up a wealth that is little known by the majority of Brazilians. They are groups of animals – often with ancestors coming from as far ago as the beginning of colonization, which have perpetuated themselves in a random way in the field, or in one directed empirically by man –  that can be considered a genetic treasure. They have characteristics like rusticity and excellent adaptation to the environment when compared with the more common commercial breeds. Cattle, like the Curraleiro and the Caracu, or horses, like the Pantaneiro, can be included in the biodiversity of  Brazilian animals and are liable to large scale use or in crossbreeding with commercial breeds, and even to being used in the future in the production of transgenic animals, in which the transfer of genetic material from one breed to another may bring benefits like greater tenderness of the meat or resistance to diseases.

To protect these breeds, to foster their growth, and to free them from extinction, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) is using advanced techniques of genetic characterization, cloning, and establishing conservation nuclei, to group together and to study the animals. At Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, in Brasilia, the unit that coordinates the researches, 56 thousand doses of semen are also conserved in tanks of  liquid nitrogen, at minus 196°C, besides 200 embryos of naturalized breeds. “The formation of these breeds took place from the Iberian breed, from Spain and Portugal, mainly under the effect of natural selection, in which the most suitable and resistant animals were perpetuated by means of crossbreeding in specific niches”, says researcher Arthur Mariante, the coordinator of the Embrapa’s Conservation and Use of Animal Genetic Resources project.

With the passage of time, the animals went on differentiating themselves in their phenotypic characteristics, those that refer to the physical traits inherited from the parents and determined by the environment. Also with their weight in the formation of the breeds were such factors as climate, parasites, diet, diseases, and the evaluations and choices of man, like having or not animals with horns and an aptitude for milk, for example. For the inherited characteristics not to be lost, it is fundamental for the matings to be carried out between individuals of the same breed. To guarantee purity and to verify the origins of each one and the relationship between the breeds, various genetic studies have, or are being, carried out. An overview of these studies is present, in a well illustrated way, in the second edition of the book Animais do descobrimento [Animals of the Discovery], launched in August and published by Embrapa and written by Mariante and Professor Neusa Cavalcante, from the University of Brasilia (UnB).

The conclusions of some studies of genetic analyses carried out on cattle of naturalized breeds indicated that all originate from the Iberian breeds. Despite this similar past, the Brazilian breeds of cattle can be considered genetically distinct as racial groupings. A great genetic variability was also found within the majority of the breeds, a factor that demonstrates the potential for expansion and crossbreeding between them. The researchers are also studying the meat of the breeds formed in Brazil. Many of them have tenderer meat than the Nelore, the main beef cattle breed in the country that dominates a large part of the national herd. The Nelore belongs to the grouping of zebu animals, which originate from India, well adapted to the tropical climate, and easily identified by the hump, a kind of characteristic protuberance on the animal’s back. The greater tenderness of the meat of  the Iberian breeds is due to the fact that they show allele frequencies – groupings of genes that repeat themselves over the generations – different from those shown by the zebu breeds, in relation to genes associated  with characteristics of quality of meat that are studied by Embrapa.

When you talk about more tenderness of the meat, you are also talking about better quality and higher value added to the product. “The breeders of the crioulo lageano breed are striving to develop a strategy to make it possible to put the tender meat of this cattle onto the market, with a controlled certificate of origin seal, as is done in Portugal with some of their native breeds”, says Mariante. Originating from the coldest region in the country, where the cities of Lajes (from which the name of the breed) and São Joaquim are located, the crioulo lageano probably descends from Hamitic longhorn cattle, coming from the North-African region, introduced into the Iberian Peninsular and brought here by Portuguese and Spaniards. “It adapted itself very well in the region. There, the Nelore cannot stand the cold, and the Charolais (a European breed) is not rustic and cannot bear the poor pasture of the place”, Mariante says. It is one of the few naturalized breeds that does not run the risk of extinction, with a stock of over a thousand animals. However, genetic characterization by molecular markers has indicated that the young population of this animal shows greater genetic similarity, which can probably been related to consanguinity, with very close crossbreeding between relatives.

from the book Animais do Descobrimento/EmbrapaVariety of colors of the fleece of the Crioulo lanado.from the book Animais do Descobrimento/Embrapa

The Brazilian race of cattle that is most present in the production of meat and now free from extinction is the Caracu. Better known as a brand of beer, the Caracu is bred all over the Brazilian Center-South, for commercial purposes, mainly in the states of  Paraná, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. It was threatened until 1980, but a pioneering work carried out by researchers José Benedito Trovo and Alexander Razook, from the São Paulo Zootechny Institute (IZ), in Sertãozinho, and by researchers from the Paraná Agronomic Institute (Iapar) saved the Caracu breed from extinction and miscegenation. Controlled and sustainable miscegenation, though, is one of the factors of the success and the perpetuation of this breed that serves as an example for others. The cattle breeders realized the benefits of heterosis, the so-called hybrid vigor, in crossing Caracu animals with Zebus, resulting in heavier animals, with tenderer meat, and more rustic. “The interest of the breeders for the Caracu was such that, a few years ago, there was even a waiting list for semen of this breed at the Artificial Insemination Centers”, says Mariante.

Resistant tough-foot
Besides the Caracu and the Lageano, another four Brazilian cattle breeds are being studied by Embrapa and by other research institutions in the country. The first is the Curraleiro, probably the first breed to arise in Brazil to have adapted to the country’s various ecosystems. Perhaps that is why it is called tough-foot. “It is present in and is indicated mainly for the region of the semi-arid, because it is a breed of small animals, with a low weight, extremely rustic, which live with little food and are resistant to diseases and parasites”, Mariante says. “The female adult Curraleiro reaches 250 kilos and is healthy, while the female Nelore, with 250 kilos, is undernourished. Furthermore, in the conditions of semi-arid, the female Curraleiros produce a calf a year, and in some cases, continue to produce calves even after reaching 20 years in age. It is the breed that is best adapted to the Northeastern Caatinga (Semi-arid scrubland), although it originated from European breed.”  The Curraleiro cattle are very similar to Portugal’s Mirandesa breed. “We are drawing up an international project with the Portuguese that is going to study the two breeds in more depth. If we conclude that they are very similar, we may sound out the possibility of bringing new blood, or even of taking it there.”  The meat of Curraleiro cattle is, of all the old breeds, according to specialists, the tastiest and tenderest, according to the researchers. This claim will be tested in tasting panels to be held by Embrapa.

One of the most threatened breeds of cattle is the Pantaneiro, in its physical aspect very similar to the Curraleiro. The studies found a greater presence of  Zebu genes in this breed. The introduction of Zebus genes from the 20th century onwards, particularly of Nelore in the region of the Pantanal, and its good adaptability resulted in crossbreeding or lack of interest in breeding, leading to the near-loss of the rusticated pantaneiro, cattle that lives well in swampy areas and has a birthrate that is unbeatable in the region. Hope lies with the work of  Embrapa Pantanal, installed in Corumbá, Mato Grosso do Sul. By means of an analysis of allele frequency, which shows the groups of genes that are repeated over generations, the program to conserve the breed, existing since the 1980s, detected that the present-day descendents of the Pantaneiro have higher genetic diversity values than the adults with less interference from Zebu genes.

Some Pantaneiro animals studied also showed the introduction of  blood from the Mocho Nacional, a breed that at the end of the 19th century existed in a large part of the country, and particularly in the region of Goiás, although it started to be bred in São Paulo. The Mocho Nacional is considered a Caracu without horns, although it shows genetic differences. For this kind of genetic differentiation between breeds, the use of a tool for animal conservation that is being much used is important. This is genetic characterization (molecular markers of the microsatellite kind) that uses the DNA taken from the blood, semen, or even from the hairs of the animals. The results obtained have served to orientate the choice of donors of semen and eggs, and even to eliminate genetic material from animals that had been included in the Germoplasm Bank, in Brasilia, where the genetic material is kept, for their phenotype, but in which genetic characterization has pointed to the introduction of other breeds.

Another technique that is beginning to be used is the cloning of animals. The first two bovine clones of a naturalized breed are two little heifers called Porã and Potira, born in 2005. They are a hope for saving the Junqueiro breed from extinction. The breed today has about a hundred individuals. Their history begins in the interior of São Paulo between the 18th and 19th centuries. The two sisters were born from a piece of the ear of a female Junqueiro conserved in the corrals of Embrapa’s Sucupira Experimental Field, in Brasilia. Porã and Potira were born of two surrogate mother cows, of the 35 that were given embryos. The project was run by the animal reproduction team, coordinated by researcher Rodolfo Rumpf, from Embrapa, and had the participation of postgraduate students from UnB.

“Cloning is a tool that we can use, but it is restrictive in animal conservation work, because it reduces the genetic variability. The idea is for these clones, in future, to receive semen from different bulls of the Junqueiro breed, for the offspring to show genetic differences.”  For Mariante, when the transgenic techniques are more advanced in animals, they may be used in animal improvement. “Then, our Germoplasm Bank will certainly be much sought after. We regard this bank as a legacy for the future generations.”

from the book Animais do Descobrimento/EmbrapaCrioulo lanado ewe: originating from the Iberian breeds, with wool suitable for items of handicraftfrom the book Animais do Descobrimento/Embrapa

Until the more advanced biotechnological techniques are available, the breeds have to be preserved, particularly in the places where they are more acclimatized. This is the case of the most recent identification of a naturalized breed, which took place in 2005, in Maranhão, which now has a conservation nucleus in the city of  Pinheiro. Alerted by two professors from Maranhão State University (Uema), Francisco Carneiro Lima and Osvaldo Serra, Mariante went to the Baixada Maranhense (Maranhão Lowlands), a region located to the north of the capital, São Luís, and confirmed the existence of the Baixadeiro horse. For their phenotypic and behavioral characteristics, besides the information from the two professors and users of the horse in the city of  Pinheiro, Mariante included this breed amongst those studied and conserved by Embrapa.

Tolerant to anemia
Another horse, the Pantaneiro, represents a clear example of the benefits of these breeds. It is tolerant to equine infectious anemia, because even when infected by the virus it does not fall sick and does not show symptoms of the disease. It is the only animal that can stand the Pantanal terrain, which remains flooded a major part of the time. “For this reason, we formed a conservation nucleus for the Pantaneiro horse, in the Pantanal. It is a breed that is over a hundred years old, made up of horses with hooves that are more resistant to humidity, for living constantly in swampy areas.”

With sheep, the star of the Brazilian breeds is the Crioulo Lanado, which also originates from Iberian specimens. It has a harsh wool, long and naturally colored, alternating from white to black, with all the variations of gray and beige. This wool, thicker, is not so suitable for making clothes, but it has been used in handicrafts, in the production of rugs and “pelegos” (sheepskins for use under the rider’s saddle). A program of the Gaucho Labor Foundation went so far as to train some 300 youngsters, who learned to  spin and to weave, using this kind of wool. This fact increased the demand and also the number of  breeders, who today number more that three dozens, distributed over the states Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. A similar wool, produced by a breed native to England, reaches prices of as much as R$ 20 a kilo.

One of the most curious hopes in this area lies with the pig of the Nilo breed, also known as Nilo-Canastra, found in the South and Southeast. They are rustic and pasturing. Their physical characteristics are very similar to those of the Iberian pig, present in Portugal and in Spain, which produces the famous Pata Negra ham, with prices of up to 100 a kilo. The secret of the special flavor of this ham lies in the fruit of the oak tree (acorn), called “bolota” in Portugal, which is easily identified in the cartoons with the squirrels Chip ‘n Dale, and, more recently, in the animation of Ice Age, in which a prehistoric squirrel does everything to take them home. “In Portugal, the Iberian pig is raised with a diet that does not allow it to exceed 100 kilos of live weight at the moment that the acorns are ready for consumption. From then on, in a period that varies between 60 and 90 days, they gain about 60 kilos, to reach 160 kilos, which is considered the ideal weight for slaughter. The result is a ham with little fat and a differentiated flavor, which is conferred by the acorns, making it known all over the world.”

The Nilo pig comes into the story because, of all the naturalized breeds of pigs, it is the one that is most similar to the Iberian pigs. Breeders from the South, in particular from Santa Catarina, report that pigs of the naturalized breeds would eat a lot of pine seeds, from the Araucaria trees, and a production system similar to that of the Iberian pig could be created, where the acorn would be replaced by this seed. “It has to be evaluated whether the pine seed confers some characteristic flavor on the ham”, says Mariante. For this, we have to arrange partners, to carry out this experiment.

Pigs, by the way, are the most threatened species, because commercial breeding today is based on farms with commercial breeds, for meat production, on which the pigs are raised in confinement, without going to the pastures, while the new naturalized breeds are all for the production of lard. But there is a tendency, particularly in Europe, for consumers to be concerned with the well-being of the animal. This well-being means that they must be kept far from confinement and bred free, grazing naturally in a field, as, generally speaking, all the naturalized breeds in Brazil are raised. “This concern with animal well-being, opens up new prospects for the Brazilian breeds, because the importers will start to be more demanding, to meet the consumers’ requirements.”