Next generation is the past generation

First clones are entering the livestock performance world

December 01, 2006|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- On the California county fair circuit this summer, it looked as if the accomplished Taz was winning mule races all over again. During the Horn Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas, last month, the champion longhorn Day's Feisty Fannie seemed to place first once more. And barrel-race horse fans shouldn't be surprised if one day they see a younger version of the legendary Scamper, now 29 years old, competing.

Just a few years after the development of cloning technology, clones of show animals have begun participating in public competitions. "It's the next step in evolution as a breeder," said Ron Marquess, a longhorn breeder in East Texas.

His ranch has 17 clones - the oldest nearing 3 years old - and several on the way. He has shown them at fairs, and they've received awards in horn size contests. Marquess plans to use them for breeding and to sell many of their offspring for participation in cowboy roping and other events.

But as the clones enter livestock's performance world, they have stirred the same sort of resistance that has greeted them in other realms.

Cattle and horse owners - as well as fans - are debating the propriety of permitting clones in fairs and competitions. While supporters say it's only the latest breeding technology, opponents counter that naturally born animals can't compete fairly against copies of prized broncs and bulls. Besides, opponents add, it's just not natural.

"You hope it would happen by honest breeding and raising and training, not pulling a vial off a shelf and doing it," said Phil Phucas, a Norristown, Pa., computer systems engineer and a devoted rodeo fan.

Division runs deep enough that two longtime business partners found rare disagreement over whether they should put their prized horses through the cloning process on their North Texas quarter horse ranch.

Jason Martin believes that the farm should clone prized quarter horses and that their offspring should be allowed to compete. Charlie Cole opposes the science altogether.

"We always have the same goal, the same motivation," said Cole, who has owned Highpoint Performance Horses with Martin for two decades. "This is the one area of disagreement."

In a compromise, Cole agreed to store the DNA from two of the farm's prized horses this year in case cloning eventually becomes accepted practice. Meanwhile, he says, the pair have stopped discussing the matter because there's no persuading the other.

"He would be like a Republican, and I would be like a Democrat," Martin said.

Differences over animal cloning aren't confined to sport. There is also a heated debate over whether meat and milk should come from clones and their offspring. Studies find the products safe, but many consumers fear "Frankenfoods," worrying food sellers. The Food and Drug Administration, which could decide on allowing sales by the end of the year, has been deliberating since 2001.

The regulators' hesitance has played a large role in bringing cloning to the show world, according to executives at cloning companies. With the food market off-limits, the companies looked to the performance sector for customers.

"It gave us an opportunity to get our cloning lab set up," said Mark Walton, president of ViaGen, an Austin, Texas, cloning firm.

About 90 percent of the business at ViaGen and as much as 40 percent of the sales at another cloning firm, Cyagra of Elizabethtown, Pa., come from cloning show animals, officials at the companies estimate. (The two companies clone livestock, not pets. Another company, Trans Ova Genetics of Sioux Center, Iowa, also does some show cloning but concentrates on using the technology for biomedical research, its president says.)

Breed associations report small numbers of clones of cattle and horses, usually just a handful per breed or a few dozen in some cases. But owners are even buying clones in breeds whose trade groups don't recognize them, association officials acknowledge.

"A lot of people in the bucking bull industry are using the technology," said Milt Bradford, who recently got five clones of his world champion bull Yellow Jacket. "He is approximately 15 years old and not going to be around much longer, and I wanted to preserve his genetic code."

On his ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, Bradford plans to use the clones to breed a new generation of bucking bulls.

At prices of $15,000 a cow and $150,000 a horse, customers tend to seek clones of their most prized animals, aging world champions who can't be counted on for breeding much longer.

Most of the breeders say they don't plan to enter the clones themselves in competitions - they're too valuable for that. Their goal is to enter the offspring in contests or sell the offspring to folks who will.

The calves can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. Marquess, the Texas longhorn breeder, says he sold a clone at auction last year for $39,000, the highest price he ever got for a year-old calf.

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