For the past 40 years, Don Franke has been studying ways to improve beef cattle in the South, particularly the Brahman breed.
The east Texas native grew up on a cattle farm. After he earned his bachelor’s degree in animal science and vocational agriculture at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1961, Franke began teaching high school agriculture.
It wasn’t long, though, before he ventured to LSU to earn his master’s degree and on to Texas A&M for a doctorate. Then it was off to the University of Florida, where he started his career in animal genetics, working with beef cattle.
“In the process, I became associated with the Brahman breed,” Franke says. It’s a relationship that led to his career path.
After eight years in Florida, Franke joined the faculty at LSU, where he’s been since 1976. In the process, he’s developed a reputation for studying ways to improve Brahman genetics.
“The Brahman has been very useful to cattlemen in the Southeast,” he says.
Originating in India, Brahman cattle were brought to the United States in the mid-1800s. They adapt well to the hot, humid conditions in the South.
The primary beef cattle operation in Louisiana and the rest of the Southeast is a cow-calf enterprise. Producers raise calves generally sold at weaning and sent to feed lots to be finished for the consumer market.
Most cow-calf herds in Louisiana contain crossbred cows – at least 80 percent – and nearly all contain some percentage of Brahman breeding. The Brahman influence produces cattle that adapt to Louisiana’s subtropical climate and tolerate internal parasites. Other benefits of Brahman crossbred cows include good milk yield and strong maternal instincts.
“On the other hand,” Franke says, “the greater the level of Brahman genetics in an animal, the more temperamental they can be and the tougher the meat.”
Breed background – the percentage of other breeds in an animal’s heritage – can make a difference on how buyers perceive an animal.
“Recent evidence suggests that beef from feeder cattle with a high percentage of Brahman parentage has lower marbling and is less tender on average than beef from other breeds,” Franke says. “This has led the cattle industry to impose discounts ranging up to 15 percent on feeder steers and heifers that show high Brahman inheritance.”
These determinations are based on observations – such as long ears, a bit of a hump or other characteristics associated with the Brahman breed.
“Brahman influence appears to have declined throughout the southern states because of discounts,” Franke says.
Over the years, research done with crossbreeding has shown that when cows that are half Brahman and half of another breed – Angus or Hereford, for example – are mated with a bull of a breed other than Brahman, a one-quarter Brahman calf is acceptable to buyers.
“If a calf is one-quarter Brahman or less, buyers don’t discount very much,” Franke says.
Franke recommends a structured system of mating cattle to take advantage of Brahman traits without introducing too many Brahman disadvantages to the offspring. “If you know genetics and manage it, you can improve your animals,” he says.
He and his graduate students have evaluated a system of “rotational cross- breeding” – matching different breeds of sires and cows. A two-breed system, for example, mates Brahman bulls with Angus cows and Angus bulls with Brahman cows. Then the daughters of one breed are mated with bulls of the other breed. Other rotational patterns use three or four breeds.
Rotational crossbred cows produced calves with a higher average weaning weight than straightbred cows, and cows from three- or four-breed rotations produced calves with higher average weaning weights than cows from two-breed rotations. Management requirements increase as the number of breeds increases.
Because cattle with an Angus background are generally black and are known to produce good meat, Southern cattle producers are interested in black calves, which won’t be discounted at sale. Spotted or calves of other colors won’t sell for as much.
Franke says he’s most proud of his work validating the mating system of matching part-Brahman cattle with non- Brahman cattle to produce meat acceptable to consumers. He has worked with researchers from other states including Florida, Texas and Nebraska.
In the mid-1990s, Franke and several other researchers became interested in seeing “what we could do to make meat more consistently accepted in Brahmans,” he says.
They first looked at genetic variation and found that the amount of variation for meat tenderness and for carcass grade in Brahman cattle was the same as the variation in other breeds. The difference, however, was that the average tenderness and grade was still less than in other breeds.
“This suggested that progeny testing could be used to identify bulls that sired acceptable progeny for carcass traits,” Franke says. “Unfortunately, it takes two to three years until you know a bull is acceptable. That’s a time constraint.”
This effort led to the prediction of EPDs – expected progeny differences. This method estimates differences among sires in the quality of meat from their calves.
To get enough Brahman calves to predict sire EPDs, Franke worked over a five-year period with the Louisiana Brahman Association to obtain 430 weanling bull calves sired by 68 bulls from about 27 different Brahman breeders.
After the calves were weaned, they were brought to the LSU AgCenter’s Central Research Station, grazed on ryegrass and then consigned to a feedlot near Corpus Christi, Texas. Then, they were moved to a packer, who sent Franke the loins for tenderness analysis.
The results have allowed Franke to predict Brahman sire EPDs for tenderness and quality grade. These results led the American Brahman Breeders Association to set up a Brahman steer-feeding program to predict sire EPDs for other Brahman breeders.
More recently, Franke and his colleagues have begun looking at genetic markers for meat tenderness and quality grade to determine if they’re associated with these traits in Brahman steers.
“The results,” Franke says, “appear positive.” Genetic markers are determined from DNA extracted from blood samples and can cost as much as $50 per animal. Some producers get genetic markers run on their calves, most haven’t bought into this new technology.
“So far, most purebred breeders say they cannot get more money for their bulls that have desirable genetic markers for tenderness,” Franke says.
The King Ranch in Texas, however, uses genetic markers to identify cattle they want to use to maintain their herds, Franke says.
Franke says his greatest challenge is to identify cattle that will perform efficiently – cows that will be fertile, have good maternal abilities and produce progeny that have meat acceptable to consumers.
“We’re gradually making some headway,” he says.
Cattle producers want cows that calve early in the season so the calves are heavier when they’re sold and cows, that breed easily and are good mothers. One of his students has been looking at genetic markers for leptin, a protein associated with cows that calve early and produce abundant milk.
Predicting EPDs for Brahman bulls probably has more potential than genetic markers at the present time to help Louisiana cattle producers, Franke says.
“Now, Brahman-Angus and Brahman- Hereford crossbred cows are about as good a commercial producer can get,” he says. “If we can improve tenderness, they’re hard to beat.”
And that tenderness improvement will most likely come from selecting the right bulls to produce feeder calves.
Franke says the largest amount of his financial support comes from state and federal sources through the AgCenter. Other funding comes from check-off funds from the Louisiana Beef Industry Council and from breed associations such as the Louisiana Brahman Association and the Beefmaster Association.
In addition to direct financial support, producer organizations donate semen and animals.
“Breeders in the state help out,” Franke says. “We trade bulls sometimes; it’s an exchange of germplasm. Any success like this is due to a lot of people, including supportive administrators, staff at the farm and hard-working graduate students.”
Over the years, Franke has been major professor for about 20 Ph.D. students and about 45 master’s degree students.
“I’m pretty proud of these students,” Franke says. “They’re spread across the United States and Canada, and some are in South America and Africa.”
One of those students is D.H. “Denny” Crews Jr., a senior research scientist with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, in beef quantitative genetics/genomics. He also holds the University of Alberta AAFC Chair Professorship in Beef Genomics.
“I work in the area of genetic evaluation and improvement of beef cattle,” Crews says. “On several levels, all of this is due to Don’s influence on my career.
“During my doctoral studies, Don encouraged me to expand my horizons and really encouraged my developing interest in the area of genetic prediction,” he adds. “This, I found, was one of his enduring strengths – to support and encourage students.”
Crews calls Franke “one of my biggest professional champions. Almost entirely due to his help, I was able to spend three months as a visiting scientist at the University of Nebraska while completing my dissertation.”
Another of his former students is Trent Smith, an assistant professor of animal and dairy science at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.
“Dr. Franke has been a true mentor to me in my career,” Smith says. “He is well respected in his field. He set a great example for me by being someone that always worked hard and was at all times professional. He has never failed to help when asked and has always strived to make sure that his research was done accurately.”
(This article was published in the winter 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)