PUEBLO, Colo. ― Most people are aware that PBR's sister company, American Bucking Bull Inc., puts on competitive events for bucking bulls. With a payout of over $2 million in prize money to animals each year, it's no surprise that this is the side of ABBI most fans are familiar with.
However, the organization has another side to it, one based on the excitement of science rather than the in-arena thrills of high-scoring bovines. ABBI runs the largest bucking cattle DNA registry in the world. The genetic code of over 151,000 animals is now preserved in its records.
Before the ability to register animals existed, as well as the ability to verify that identity through DNA, you had to take someone on their word when you bought bucking cattle. Even the most honest breeder could get it wrong ― bulls jump fences all the time, and not all breeding is planned. Owners also could receive erroneous information about their own animals' bloodlines from previous owners.
As the PBR and the sport of bull riding grew in popularity, so did the value of bucking bulls. As the value of the livestock increased, people wanted a better way to ensure that what they were buying was authentic. Rodeo Stock Registry was started by Bob Tallman. A precursor to ABBI, this was the first significant attempt at DNA verification of bucking bulls. It was eventually bought by the PBR and a group of investors and served as the basis for the current registry. Out of this, a decade ago, ABBI was born.
Stock contractors now submit a drop of blood on a card that the ABBI provides. That card is then processed by ABBI and sent to their lab. That animal is now in the DNA database. The owner also lists who the suspected sire and dam is, and the sample is run against those animals. If there isn't a match, a test can then be run against other animals registered to that owner to find the sire and/or dam.
"Proven performance through DNA has really helped get these animals to the next level."
But every now and then, a mystery presents itself. Sometimes owners have just inadvertently mixed up blood cards when testing multiple animals, but sometimes something much more involved has happened. The lead super sleuth at ABBI is Marlissa Gonzalez. Part of her job is to work with the lab to figure it out.
"We have three or more generations now of DNA-verified animals," Gonzalez said. "So, most blood cards submitted have matching parents and grandparents in our system. But the lab can't check a sample against all 151,000 samples. So when we have an animal that isn't matching up to what its owners think it should, it's my job to help the owners figure out what it could be and then we test against those animals."
With a background in animal science and chemical engineering, Gonzalez has been able to crack some of the ABBI's most complex cases. One involved a sire who had offspring that were not testing back to him, although the owner was positive he was the sire. Gonzalez went through all the usual scenarios with no luck. She then started to explore some less obvious possibilities.
A really involved case can take months or even a year to solve, but Gonzalez doesn't give up. In this case, the mystery sire turned out to be a chimeric twin. A chimeric animal has two distinct genetic pools within it. On non-identical twins, chimerism occurs while they are in the womb. In this case, the other twin was a female and the bull received some of her blood via blood vessel anastomoses.
"His twin was a freemartin heifer (a sterile female, due to her exposure to her brother's blood and hormones in uterus)," explained Gonzalez. "So his offspring's blood samples would match up to her DNA profile, but they didn't to his. Ultimately, we confirmed that he was the sire by running a tissue sample from him. Unlike his blood, his tissue wouldn't be contaminated by the heifer."
The ABBI uses blood samples to determine DNA because that is the fastest method. When there are twins involved, they ask for tail hair (the bulb from the pulled hair contains a small amount of tissue). But if both twins aren't registered, perhaps because one dies at birth, or is sterile and therefore won't ever have offspring, it can get challenging.
"In the dairy industry, about 1 in 1,500 animals in chimeric," Gonzalez said. "I don't know if there have been studies on bucking cattle, but based on the 14,000 or so registrations I see each year, I would say we have close to that rate."
DNA isn't just used to prove a bloodline to increase an animal's value. ABBI has one of the few interactive online registries. This allows owners to be able to see patterns and check on what is and isn't working in their breeding programs. If you have six black heifers who have six black bull calves, and one of those calves goes onto be a star ― you will want to know what heifer he came out of. The registry is another step to insure that a breeder keeps the animals that are producing and working for their program.
ABBI members can go in and look up literally any animal in the registry and see what their family tree looks like. And that science side of the sport helps to explain why stock contractors now produce more solidly good buckers than ever before.
"Even the fans recognize some sires and dams now, and they are excited to go to a BFTS and see a son or grandson of Little Yellow Jacket or Panhandle Slim buck," Gonzalez said. "It is kind of like what happened in the racehorse industry. Proven performance through DNA has really helped get these animals to the next level."
To learn more about bucking bull bloodlines, visit AmericanBuckingBull.com.
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