Clone Ranger

The old roundup may never be the same, thanks to Zech Dameronís herd of genetically duplicate longhorns

"Look at that. This could be the 1870s," says Dr. Zech Dameron III as he pulls his pickup behind the herd. Substitute a pair of horse ears for the Dodge's hood ornament and harden up the seats considerably, and we are a couple of cowhands moving up some long-ago trail--the Shawnee, the Chisholm or maybe the Goodnight-Loving--on the way to a railhead in Abilene.

Out ahead are three dozen Texas longhorn cattle, beige, dun and multicolored examples of a breed that is far more about Texas history, legend and nostalgia than it is about rib-eye steak and the modern beef business.

Of course, we are not on a cattle drive. We're on a section of Dameron's ranch in a surprisingly hilly corner of Montague County, 90 miles northwest of Dallas, where a part of his longhorn herd is seeking a greener part of the pasture. Above, red-tailed hawks are circling, diving and returning skyward, doomed field mice wiggling in their talons. As Dameron puts it, "It's a beautiful spring day, and life is abounding."

Top: Two of the cloned offspring from Starlight, Dr. Zech Dameron III's champion longhorn cow. Middle: Starlight (licking her nose). Bottom: Dameron feeds one of the cloned offspring.
Mark Graham
Top: Two of the cloned offspring from Starlight, Dr. Zech Dameron III's champion longhorn cow. Middle: Starlight (licking her nose). Bottom: Dameron feeds one of the cloned offspring.
Top: Dameron inspects one of the longhorn bulls on his ranch near Forestburg, Texas. Middle and bottom: Dameron surveying and feeding the longhorn herd on his ranch.
Mark Graham
Top: Dameron inspects one of the longhorn bulls on his ranch near Forestburg, Texas. Middle and bottom: Dameron surveying and feeding the longhorn herd on his ranch.

Some of the life in this tan-brown field has come into being with considerable help from the doctor's notions about animals and science. Three of the youngest longhorns loping along before Dameron's truck--content and healthy-looking cream-colored cows--are the products of a technology so new, it's a cutting-edge wonder in the 21st century, let alone the 19th, which was the longhorn's heyday.

The three young heifers are clones, genetic duplicates of Dameron's prized cow, Starlight, whose 6-and-a-half-foot span of horns makes her one of the breed's star specimens. Starlight's "clonal family" is the first set of longhorns to be produced as perfect copies of an adult animal. And they are copies, down to the shade of their light beige coats, which are splashed with small flecks of tan. But their most prized trait, those horns, aren't much to look at today, just carrot-size nubs that Dameron is hoping will grow in a couple of years to the same astounding proportions as Starlight's.

Since the three clones and a sister that Dameron has already sold were born last summer, the 59-year-old West Texas native has gained considerable attention in cattle-breeding circles, although not a word of news coverage in Dallas. "People don't say much of anything negative to me directly, but everybody has an opinion about it," he says of the direction he's moving the tradition-bound longhorn.

Taking an animal that has been preserved and cultivated almost exclusively for its historic value and then jetting it forward with science will get ranch people talking. As a doctor, a weekend rancher and an intensely curious sort who launches into his interests like a charging bull, Dameron began thinking about cloning a longhorn not long after he bought his first one in 1997.

That year, Scottish researchers announced that they had cloned a mammal, a Finn Dorset sheep named Dolly. It was heralded as the scientific breakthrough of the decade, something that rewrote the laws of biology.

"Cloning is unusual today, but it was real unusual in 1998," says Dameron of the year he took his first shot at cloning Starlight. His purpose, in line with the practicalities of animal husbandry, was to develop a wider base of female breeding stock with the trait most breeders value. "Breeding longhorns is about long horns," he says. "The cow is the limiting factor. You can take semen from a top bull and spread that all over the place, but a cow calves only once every nine months," he says. A bigger group of cows greatly increases the chances of producing a prize calf.

"I took a picture of my cow and faxed it to [a cloning researcher] and wrote, 'How would five of these look tied up to a fence?'" Dameron recalls. The reply was almost immediate.

It took two attempts, performed by Cyagra, the livestock division of Worcester, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, to produce the four clones. The months-old calves were shipped to his ranch last October from the company's livestock breeding facility in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He believes there was a problem with the cell line in the first batch, which produced no offspring.

"These clones are doing wonderfully," Dameron says, pointing out how the unnamed offspring are almost too big already to fit into an iron crib feeder set up for their near-exclusive use.

After the clones were born, Dameron took it upon himself to convince the dominant breed organizations, the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America and the International Texas Longhorn Association, to accept cloned cattle in their registries, which amounted to the longhorn world giving cloning its blessing. Acceptance of cloning has hardly been automatic across breeding organizations, with groups such as the Cat Fanciers' Association, the American Kennel Club and the Jockey Club, which oversees thoroughbred racing, barring clones even before they have become a reality in those species.

"Dr. Dameron gave his presentation, and people were receptive," says Tom Scott, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based Texas longhorn breeders group. He says in the livestock world, where embryo transplants are common practice and artificial insemination has been a standard technique for decades, people are used to new breeding methods. By contrast, in the thoroughbred horse industry, which revolves around stud fees, all artificial methods are banned.

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