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Brisket disease challenges can be minimized through careful genetic selection

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Susan Nottingham is the fifth generation in her family to manage Nottingham Ranch Co. near Steamboat Springs, Colo. Her 1,100 head of Hereford-Angus cross cows do well on the high altitude ranch. 

But brisket disease is just a fact of life, she says. 

“If cattle get brisket, they die, unless we get them to a lot lower altitude very quickly. It’s an economic challenge for sure,” she says. “If ranchers are at altitude, they know they have to try to minimize their losses in any way they can.”

Testing strategies

While some producers PAP test all replacement females to determine if they are susceptible to brisket disease, Nottingham says because of her large herd, she just can’t justify the expense. 

Instead, she is careful when purchasing bulls. 

Bulls must have a good PAP score, and because of the heritability of the trait, her calves, which she doesn’t sell until they reach about 900 pounds, and retained replacements will, for the most part, do fine. 

“When a cow has a calf that gets brisket, we get rid of her,” Nottingham says. “It’s a genetic thing, more than anything. There are a lot of contributing factors to brisket, although genetics are certainly the primary reason.”

Buying bulls

Nottingham says she would prefer to buy bulls raised at high altitude, but that’s not always possible. That’s why it’s important to get a PAP score guarantee when purchasing. Most bull sellers offer that, although it’s certainly something worth checking. Testing is a hassle as cattle cannot be tested below 4,500 feet, and cattle must be at altitude for three to four weeks before they can accurately be tested. 

“For instance,” Nottingham explains, “two years ago, I bought 17 Hereford bulls from Van Newkirks in Nebraska.”

Two months later, when Veterinarian Tim Holt PAP tested them, three didn’t pass. Van Newkirks gladly took the bulls back because their passing the test was a condition of the sale. 

“That happens fairly often, because I buy in volume,” Nottingham says. 

Van Newkirks service isn’t uncommon, and Nottingham comments, that’s the reason why it’s critical for producers to use reputable breeders who will stand behind their bulls. 

“It’s important to have a producer who will work with us,” Nottingham says. “We have to make known before we buy that it’s a condition of the purchase.” 

Genetic selection

Tyler Knott of Knott Land and Livestock agrees and only buys bulls that pass the PAP test.

Knott says, even though his family has been selecting based on susceptibility to brisket disease for 40 years, problems still arise. That’s one reason why they are trying to increase the Hereford blood in their cowherd. 

“I wouldn’t say we’ve had an increase of issues,” he says, “but the problem we are having with Angus is the genetic pool that we have to choose from is so much smaller that we are starting to have concerns of linebreeding issues.”

He continues, “As commercial producers, we are trying to capitalize on heterosis and the resulting hybrid vigor and growth. Breeding Herefords to Angus provides this benefit.”

Hereford advantage

Knott says they were forced to sacrifice quality or spend more time and money by being more selective to buy Angus bulls.

“The outcross of a Hereford bull is gaining us 30 to 40 pounds on weaning weights, and we can buy better quality bulls because the gene pool is broader,” Knott explains. 

Knott says he’s seen other advantages in his Hereford bull purchases, as well. Most of his pastures change 200 to 300 feet in elevation in one pasture. A bull’s ability to travel and stay sound is critical. 

The bottom line is for producers in high altitude, Herefords are a good bet. 

“The Herefords tend to do better than other breeds,” Holt explains. “If we wanted to sum up the Hereford breed as a whole, they tend to have a lower percentage of those tested that have failed. Does that mean they are naturally resistant to the disease? Not necessarily, but they tend to be more reliable at all elevations.”

DNA testing for brisket disease susceptibility 

Since 2009, Manuel Encinias, New Mexico State University Extension beef specialist, and Jon Beever, University of Illinois animal science professor, have been studying the genetic aspect of brisket disease. 

Encinias and Beever hope to find a genetic marker for susceptibility to brisket disease. 

Beever says he believes it’s possible. 

“Since it’s heritable, this means that we can find – somewhere in the DNA – the set of genes and changes in those genes that control that susceptibility,” he explains. 

Beever adds that there is a belief that, in general, the Hereford breed is better suited to high altitude, and there is some data to support that belief, but it would be advantageous to those selecting for that trait to have a DNA marker. 

“We believe that we can develop a fairly accurate DNA-based test that might be applicable to any cow in the world. We would then know whether this animal can survive at 8,500 feet or realize that this animal wouldn’t make it and there’s no point in taking it up there – or no point in using semen from that animal in a herd that lives at high elevation,” Beever says. 

American Hereford Association Chief Operating Officer and Director of Breed Improvement Jack Ward says, “Brisket disease is a trait of interest that has huge economic impact in some regions of the U.S, and it would be very useful to have a simple marker test to find genetics that are favorable for this trait. This test could reduce the risk for breeders supplying genetics to these regions.”

The major obstacle to the project is getting DNA on animals that have been PAP tested. It takes hundreds of DNA samples for Beever to be able to find the genetic marker reliably. 

For more information on this project, contact Beever at or 217-333-4194.


Sara Gugelmeyer is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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