Clone Ranger

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

"You can have the best cow sitting under a tree in South Texas, but if you don't promote it, buy the ads [in the trade publications], it's just a cow sitting under a tree in South Texas," he says. "So we disagreed on advertising and such. After that, he really didn't go in for cloning."


The process that created the Starlight copies is called somatic cell cloning. It involves creating embryos with genes from a donor and eggs from other cattle. The DNA-carrying nuclei of the cells from the donor are transferred into unfertilized eggs that have had their nuclei removed. In a step that makes Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, seem like a visionary, Cyagra uses an electric charge to fuse the egg and somatic nuclei, which then begin to divide, creating new life. In Starlight's case, her genetic material came from a skin sample Dameron took from her right ear and airmailed to Cyagra's lab.

The living embryos were implanted a week after their creation in so-called recipient cows, which can be of any breed. The cloning herdsmen select the recipients based on their history of easy calving.

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.

In all, five Starlight clones were carried to term at a cost to Dameron of about $35,000. One died at Cyagra's breeding facility. "It failed to thrive," says Ray Page, Cyagra's top scientist, adding that the company does not know if its death had anything to do with cloning. "There are things we don't know," he says. "Of the dozens of animals that have left here, none have died."

Over the past three years Cyagra has cloned some 80 head of cattle, including prized dairy cattle as well as beef breeds such as Angus and Hereford. Demonstrating last summer how the technique can preserve the bloodlines of a prized animal indefinitely, the company produced a clone of a prized Holstein bull that had died suddenly while being treated at its farm for an ulcer. Harvesting a skin sample the size of an eraser during a critical 48- to 72-hour window after the animal's death, Cyagra put the bull's genetic material through the cloning process.

The premature death of Dolly in February raised fresh doubt about the long-term viability of cloned animals, although most experts in the field say there is insufficient evidence to say if clones are more or less sturdy than other animals. Cloning defenders such as Page and Dameron point out that other naturally born sheep housed with 6-year-old Dolly died of the same progressive lung disease that struck her. At the same time, she was diagnosed as arthritic at a relatively early age. "Dolly's death was unfortunate," Page says. "It gave some fuel to people who are critical of the science."


In longhorn circles, it is not the viability of the cows or the science that charges up the critics. It's more the idea of tampering with this unique and mythic breed, a symbol of the West as we know it.

"About 3,500 cowboys drove longhorns up the trails for a 25-year period, and that's the thing that stuck in our imagination," says Tom B. Saunders IV, a fifth-generation Weatherford rancher who for three years held the post as historian and curator of a small herd that Fort Worth installed in its Stockyards tourist area.

The longhorn descended from Spanish cattle brought by explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Unmanaged herds of mustang animals formed in the South Texas brush country, and they evolved over a few hundred years into a lean, long-legged angular breed that Texas naturalist and folklorist J. Frank Dobie described thusly: "For all his heroic stature, the Texas longhorn stood with his body tucked up in the flanks, his high shoulder-top sometimes thin enough to split a hailstone...a rear view was likely to show cat hams, narrow hips and a ridgepole kind of backbone."

What could be a more perfect Western icon? A cow shaped like John Wayne and more durable than the Duke himself. Longhorns could survive and fatten on the sparse graze of South and West Texas and go long distances without water. This made them perfect for long-range herding, and 10 million head were raised across Texas and driven north to market between 1865 and 1890, says Saunders, whose great-great-uncle went up the trails nine times.

By the 1890s, the open range began to close behind a new invention--barbed wire--and railroad lines and expansive stockyards opened in Fort Worth and San Antonio. Ranchers began breeding meatier European breeds such as Herefords that fattened quicker in the feedlots. With no economic value, the longhorn nearly went extinct. "It was far more endangered than the buffalo," Saunders says. "At one time there were less than 100 true longhorns."

In 1927, Congress appropriated $3,000 to save the species, and federal agents combed Texas and Mexico to come up with 20 specimens for a conservation herd, which they located on what is now the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Private efforts followed over the next several decades. Oilman Sid Richardson paid Dobie, whose 1941 book The Longhorns remains a classic on the breed's history, and rancher Graves Peeler to gather a herd, which he donated to the state. In all, seven so-called foundation herds were established.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...