Dr. Bailey Engle grew up in Big Timber, Mont., where her parents still operate Pioneer Meats, a successful family ran processing facility. As a small-town Montana girl, Engle was active in FFA and even went on to serve as a Montana State FFA officer. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in animal science from Montana State University and after graduating, she attended Texas A&M University where she was interested in studying the genetics driving stayability in cattle, particularly those in the Bos indicus subspecies.
Although Bos indicus cattle are not readily found in the Crazy Mountains of south central Montana, Engle was aware that her research could open doors to all aspects of the cattle industry.
The goal of any producer is to build a herd of cattle that will continue to have healthy calves year after year. A cow is considered “stayable” if she has had five calves by the time she is six years old, which is her benchmark breakeven point. Stayability in cattle is influenced by several environmental factors, but Engle wanted to see what extent genetics may play.
Texas A&M has a well-maintained research herd consisting of Nelore /Black Angus crossbreds. Stayability has been studied, to some extent, in Bos taurus cattle, but it had not really been explored in Bos indicus breeds. The fact that Texas A&M’s research herd was a unique mix of both subspecies meant that Engle could be a part of ground-breaking research while still being able to build upon the discoveries already made in taurine cattle.
“The research herd had been maintained for 20 years. The oldest cows in the herd were born in 2003 while the youngest cows had been born in 2007,” Engle explained.
Through her research, Engle was able to discover that early puberty in heifers has a direct correlation to stayability in the herd. Heifers that are fertile and calve within their first 21-day cycle are more likely to hit their breakeven point and are therefore more likely to stay in the herd long-term.
This discovery stands true for both subspecies of cattle. Research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan in 2018 looked at the effects of calving periods on cow longevity. The conclusion was similar to Engle’s. Heifers that calve during their first cycle have more time to recuperate before being bred again. Further studies have concluded heifer calves born during their mother’s first 21-day cycle are more likely to cycle early themselves when compared to heifer calves born during later cycles.
“Heifer productivity is directly related to her potential,” Engle stated.
Results of this research highlight how important those first few years in a cow’s life can be, and how they can literally make or break her and her daughters as producers. Emphasis has been put into heifer development, but research now shows that genetics can in fact play a role. As a producer, it is important to be strict with your heifer selection.
Currently Gelbvieh, Red Angus and Simmental cattle are the only U.S. breed associations with an EPD for stayability. Because there are so many environmental factors influencing a cow’s ability to breed back and stay in the herd, stayability is extremely difficult to study. A lack of bulls with traceable daughters has also led to a hiccup in creating an EPD in other breeds, but it may only be a matter of time before that too can change.
After graduating in May with her Ph.D. in animal breeding, Engle accepted a job across the world in Brisbane, Australia, at the University of Queensland. While there, Engle will be working on developing a fertility EPD for the Bos indicus influenced cattle in Australia. Her research is industry driven and the EPD will be completely genomic based as parentage is very hard to track in the somewhat wild cattle found in Australia.
Engle is proving to be a bright mind in the world of cattle genetics and her discoveries and research could end up being pivotal for producers all over the world from Big Timber to Brisbane.