Climate-smart cows could deliver 10-20x more milk in Global South


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October 31, 2023

Lauren Quinn

ANSC  Livestock  Breeding  International 

Herd of cows on green pasture

Herd of quarter-Holstein, three-quarter-Gyr cattle

URBANA, Ill. — A team of animal scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is set to deliver a potential game changer for subsistence farmers in Tanzania: cows that produce up to 20 times the milk of indigenous breeds.     

The effort, published in Animal Frontiers, marries the milk-producing prowess of Holsteins and Jerseys with the heat, drought, and disease-resistance of Gyrs, an indigenous cattle breed common in tropical countries. Five generations of crosses result in cattle capable of producing 10 liters of milk per day under typical Tanzanian management, blasting past the half-liter average yield of indigenous cattle.  

After breeding the first of these calves in the U.S., project leader Matt Wheeler, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois, is ready to bring embryos to Tanzania. 

“High-yielding Girolandos — Holstein-Gyr crosses — are common in Brazil, but because of endemic diseases there, those cattle can’t be exported to most other countries,” Wheeler said. “We wanted to develop a high health-status herd in the U.S. so we could export their genetics anywhere in the world.”

Wheeler’s team plans to implant 100 half-blood Holstein-Gyr or Jersey-Gyr embryos into indigenous cattle in two Tanzanian locations this March. The resulting calves will be inseminated through successive generations to create “pure synthetic” cattle with five-eighths Holstein or Jersey and three-eighths Gyr genetics. Unlike Girolandos, Jersey-Gyr pure synthetics do not yet have an official name.  

Half-blood Holstein x Gyr calf

Half-blood Holstein x Gyr calf

Pure synthetics are worth the time and effort; once the five-eighths/three-eighths genetics are established, they’re locked in. In other words, calves from successive matings will maintain the same genetic ratio. 

“The whole idea is to keep the disease and pest resistance linked together with the milk production so that as you breed, those traits don’t separate,” Wheeler said. “That’s going to be the challenge in developing countries; until you get to the pure synthetic generation, there will always be the temptation to breed to the bull down the road, losing the effect.” 

Wheeler’s team, including coauthor Moses Ole-Neselle of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), cares about getting this effort right. Although developing the embryos took years of meticulous work, they’re not stopping there. The team hosted its first online course on bovine assisted reproduction technology last summer, including 12 participants from Tanzania. And there’s more to come.  

“It was important to start training the first group of veterinarians and graduate students to adopt the technology, so when we get there, it’s not a foreign thing,” Wheeler said. “The Tanzanian government wants this training and student exchanges. We’re going to continue investing in this program for as long as it takes.”

Wheeler recognizes the best genetics and most comprehensive training won’t amount to much if the plan doesn’t account for the local culture. With advice from collaborators like the Tanzania Livestock Research Institute and Teresa Barnes, director of the Center for African Studies at Illinois, Wheeler has already adjusted his strategy to accommodate the preferences of local Maasai herdsmen.

“We’ve learned some Maasai clans strongly prefer smaller, red cattle, so the Holstein crosses we made initially, which were large and black, weren’t going to work,” he said. “I had to start over with Jerseys, which set us back a bit. It will be worth it if they’re better accepted.”

But some aspects of Tanzanian cattle management will have to change to realize the full potential of the improved genetics. For example, Wheeler said nomadic Maasai herders often graze cattle 25 miles from their enclosures each day, limiting the energy available for milk production.

While the project is still in its early stages, it represents a step toward more climate-resilient animal agriculture, the topic of the special issue of Animal Frontiers in which Wheeler’s article is published. While Wheeler’s current priority is to bolster food security in the Global South where climate change is hitting hardest, he said the same technology could be used to protect cattle from changing climates here in the U.S. and around the world. In other words, tropical genetics could be inserted into our already high-yielding cattle to better withstand heat, drought, and disease.

“These cattle would work very well in Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and California. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about that now,” Wheeler said. “People don’t usually think that far ahead, but my prediction is that people are going to look back and realize having tropical genetics earlier would have been a good thing.”

The study, “Development of genetically improved tropical-adapted dairy cattle,” is published in Animal Frontiers [DOI:10.1093/af/vfad050]. Authors include Paula Marchioretto, Chanaka Rabel, Crystal Allen, Moses Ole-Neselle, and Matthew B. Wheeler. This work was partially supported by the USDA Multistate Project W-4171, the ACES Office of International Programs, the University of Illinois National Resource Center in African Studies via funding through the Department of Education’s Title VI grant program for 2022-26 and the Ross Foundation (Agreement #635148).

Story Source(s)

Matthew Wheeler

Dr. Wheeler presented with the 2023 Spitze Land-Grant Professorial Career Excellence Award sponsored by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. 


This award is presented to recognize the professorial career of tenured faculty in their performance and commitment to teaching and advising; research and publications; extension and public service; faculty governance; and participation in professional associations. The award, which was first presented in 2003, also memorializes the unique mission and rich history of the public land-grant university and exemplifies the continued opportunities it offers for worldwide contribution to the betterment of humankind and to democratic institutions in an ever-changing environment.

Ensuring food security in the tropics through livestock genetic improvement is goal of symposium

May 2, 2023

by Leslie Myrick 

faculty and students at a poster session

Animal scientists, economists, and colleagues from the humanities and other fields met on the University of Illinois campus in April to focus on livestock in the tropics and its role in food security. 

The event marked the Seventh Annual International Food Security Symposium at Illinois facilitated by the Office of International Programs (OIP) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). 

Each year the OIP selects a partner to work with to explore in depth a specific aspect of international food security. This year’s symposium was co-hosted by the Department of Animal Sciences and the Center for African Studies. Ten presentations spanned a wide range of topics built around the theme of “Ensuring Food Security in the Tropics Through Livestock Genetic Improvement.”

View the recorded presentations here. 

View the symposium program and speaker bios here. 

Students, faculty, and staff as well as visitors from other universities and around the world presented and listened, asked questions, learned from each other, and made plans to work together moving forward. 

Additionally, a poster presentation showcased ongoing research work led by students in the College of ACES. 

The true value of the symposium will be ongoing as the connections made will foster future work to meet the challenges presented. 

“We’ve already started talking about future collaborations with the speakers and others,” noted Crystal Allen, who along with Matt Wheeler led the symposium team from the Department of Animal Sciences. 

Wheeler closed the symposium by telling a story of being in on a farm in Northeastern Brazil where the 16,000 cattle ate only cactus (cut into small pieces) and were milked by hand every day. Using this story as just one example, Wheeler said, “Dairy farmers will find a way. And we can all be involved in dairy finding a way. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be tomorrow. But we can do it if we want to and can work together.”  

Wheeler Lab Partners with Statz Bros. Dairy to Produce Jersey X Gyr Embryos for Tropical-Adapted Dairy Pilot Project in Tanzania

Statz Bros. Dairy Sun Prairie, WI

In late-December 2022, the Wheeler Lab went to Statz Bros. Dairy to aspirate 24 Jersey donors to collect oocytes. The oocytes were inseminated with Gyr semen to produce the embryos for the Tanzania Pilot Project. The oocyte collection was coordinated by Helix AgriSystems and Paramount Calves. The aspirations were performed by Dr. Andre Dayan of Dayan, LLC and the embryo production was overseen by Dr. Nate Dorshorst of GenOvations.

In early 2023, approximately 80 embryos will be transported and transferred to indigenous recipient cattle. The Tanzanian research partners include the National Ranching Company and the Tanzanian Livestock Research Institute. The Tanzanian collaboration is coordinated by Dr. Moses Neselle of FAO. Prior to and during the pilot project Tanzanian scientists, students and farm managers will be educated and trained in the basics of assisted reproduction, nutritional management and husbandry of embryo transfer calves. This knowledge transfer is an integral part of the pilot project and for future sustainability of the technology and the improved dairy genetics.

Department of Animal Sciences faculty/staff involved in this pilot project and education/training include Dr. Crystal Allen, Dr. Phil Cardoso, Dr. Paula Marchioretto, Dr. Derek Milner, Dr. Chanaka Rabel, Ms. Beth Bangert, Mr. Kenneth Wilson and Dr. Wheeler. Collaborators include Dr. Luiz Nasser of BORN Biotechnologies, Panama City Panama; Dr. Brad Lindsey of Ovitra Biotechnologies, Midway, TX; Mr. John Hull of JHGenetics, Alajuela, Costa Rica; Mr. Cavan Sullivan of Helix AgriSystems, Darlington, WI; Mr. Ken Norgard of Paramount Calves, Darlington, WI; Dr. Andre Dayan of Dayan, LLC, College Station, TX; and Dr. Nate Dorshorst of GenOvations, Lodi, WI.

See the video of the oocyte collection at Statz Bros. Dairy:

Alumni Interview: Kevin Jackson

The former Illini running back turned scientist on his mentor Matt Wheeler, football concussions and helping athletes transition from sports to “real life”

“But for millions of young people, high school or college sports are the end of the line. After that, you need a new identity.” Kevin Jackson, ’95 ACES, MS ’99 ACES, PHD ’03 ACES (Image by Nathan Morgan)

The former Illini running back turned scientist on his mentor Matt Wheeler, football concussions and helping athletes transition from sports to “real life” As told to Kevin Cook

When I arrived at Illinois in 1990, a kid out of a tough neighborhood south of Chicago, I had no idea I’d become a research scientist. I was a football player who felt blessed to join the Big Ten champions, a team captained by future NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, ’92 ENG, with a couple of other running backs ahead of me on the depth chart: Howard Griffith, ’91 LAS, who would go on to an eight-year NFL career, and Kameno Bell, ’92 LAS, MD ’01 UIC, who went on to be the New York Giants’ team doctor.

More than 30 years later, I’m proud to be part of Illini football history: 928 all-purpose yards, including a 125-yard game against Purdue and a 47-yard run against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium. That play had me flashing back to childhood games of tag—I covered almost half the field with 11 guys chasing me!

But my football days ended when I graduated. Like the vast majority of college players, I wasn’t an NFL prospect.

I was luckier than that.

Thanks to biotechnology professor Matt Wheeler, who became my mentor, I wound up spending more time in labs than I ever spent on the football field. With his help, I landed a $4,000 research grant from Pfizer—an enormous sum for a kid with no money or connections outside the University. I spent a summer learning how to freeze pig embryos, and went on from there to a study of endometriosis on baboons. 

That led in turn to my current work at PPD Inc., part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, a global leader in testing new drugs that could eventually save millions of human lives. I like to say that with a boost from Professor Wheeler, I’ve gone from pigskin to pigs to primates to people to PPD!

One track of my career had to do with an issue you’ve heard about: football concussions. I was struck by the fact that concussion symptoms and heat stroke symptoms are similar—wooziness, nausea, blurred vision—and the two often happen at the same time. Does heat make concussions worse? Could we help concussed athletes recover by keeping their brains from overheating? With neurosurgeon Dr. Huan Wang and Bill Elkins in the lead, I helped develop a head-and-neck cooling device that helps cool the brain. I’ve since stepped away from that research to focus on cancer studies, but I think it holds promise for a younger generation of athletes who share my love of the game.

With inspiration from [my mother and sister], plus hard work and help from friends and colleagues like Matt Wheeler—my mentor till the day I die—I’ve made the transition from football player to scientist. Here’s hoping a new generation of U of I athletes go on to careers they love as much as I love mine.

Meanwhile, I’d like to see the U of I continue being a leader in sports science. We’ve got two MRI scanners at the Beckman Institute. Why not use them to test athletes when they arrive on campus, when they leave, and later in life? There would be costs involved—diagnostic MRIs cost $1,000 and up—but such a program might be worth the expense. 

The first tests would establish a baseline; the others would provide data on how different sports can affect players’ brains and bodies. Athletes’ long-term health may be sports science’s next frontier. Research like that might save careers or even lives in the long-run.

And that includes their mental well-being. If today’s young athletes are like me—and I know many who are—they reach college thinking of themselves mostly in terms of their sports. “I’m a gymnast. I’m a goalie. I’m a football player.” That’s how I thought of myself from the age of eight or nine to the end of my college career. But for millions of young people, high school or college sports are the end of the line. After that, you need a new identity.

I’ve been working with Associate Athletic Director Randy Ballard on ways to help athletes make the transition from sports to “real life.” It’s a fascinating subject and another way to give something back to the University that changed my life.

My passion for science dates back even further—to my boyhood dream of helping my mother and sister. Both of them were diabetic and died from complications of the disease. My current work isn’t directly related to diabetes, but my career path sure is.

With inspiration from them, plus hard work and help from friends and colleagues like Matt Wheeler—my mentor till the day I die—I’ve made the transition from football player to scientist. Here’s hoping a new generation of U of I athletes go on to careers they love as much as I love mine.

As told to Kevin Cook;!!DZ3fjg!4LM3J6vhN5EuEf0DYOm6nGHwzhudJO1mJd0pvRHfmFqKqJlgBn9feEM_lLG-LSDidlm78DlMMh-HpYWHpA$

Could super-charged cattle embryos solve world food challenges?


3/4 Gyr calf with Holstein cow at Chessie Creek Farm            

Photo by Matt Wheeler

By Lauren Quinn    217-300-2435


Dr. Matthew B. Wheeler  217-333-2239

March 8, 2021

URBANA, Ill. – What if, in the next five to 10 years, we could double or triple milk and meat availability in developing countries without converting more land to cattle production? Millions of hunger-related deaths and nutritional deficiencies could be prevented, giving farmers and families a real shot at prosperity.

It’s not a pipe dream. Researchers leading the University of Illinois-Chessie Creek Farm Tropical-Adapted Cattle Project have successfully bred animals that thrive in hot climates and produce 10 times the milk of indigenous breeds.

Getting to this point took some luck, a great deal of effort, and a multi-million dollar investment, but the plan is to simply give elite tropical-adapted embryos away to developing countries. It’s all part of a commitment by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois to help feed the world by 2050.

“In many parts of the world, owning cattle means progressing out of poverty. The more cattle people have, the greater their wealth. But more cattle can impact wildlife populations, which can be important for the environment and tourism. So we thought, let’s provide the milk production of 10 cows in one,” says Matthew Wheeler, project leader and professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, part of the College of ACES.

In November 2020, Wheeler’s team witnessed the birth of the first U.S.-bred Girolando heifer and purebred Brazilian Gyr bull calves at Chessie Creek Farms in Walterboro, South Carolina. About 100 more Girolando calves are due in September.

Gyr cattle, with their humps, recurved horns, and drooping ears, are indigenous to tropical locales around the world. Unlike Holsteins, the most common and highest-producing dairy breed in the world, Gyrs don’t mind the heat, but they only produce about 15% of what Holsteins deliver in each lactation.

Girolandos bring the best of the two breeds together. Wheeler’s team breeds them by repeatedly mating Holstein and Gyr parents (and intermediate hybrids), resulting in animals that are five-eighths Holstein and three-eighths Gyr. Wheeler says his first Girolando heifer will be producing milk in 2022, and he expects yields at least 10 times that of Gyrs in their native range.

Girolandos are common in Brazil, but because of endemic disease issues, they can’t be exported to other countries.

“If you’re going to distribute them to the rest of the world, somebody had to breed them in a country that’s high health status. Why not us?” Wheeler says. “At Illinois, we’re good at dairy. Somebody’s got to be the national expert in tropical dairy. Why not be audacious?”

Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES, adds, “This project is an incredible example of how ACES research changes lives and captures the essence of what we do and why it matters. Matt and his team have shown great technical expertise, tenacity and heart in making high-yielding, tropical-adapted cattle a reality. I am extremely proud of their commitment to making a difference in the world by enhancing food security for people in need through amazing science.”

Realizing the potential of Girolandos for the developing world, Wheeler connected with the owner of Chessie Creek Farm, who shares Wheeler’s passion for improving lives through science.

The owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “This has been an exciting and great learning experience for all involved. In the near future, we sincerely hope we will be providing high quality, low maintenance animals for developing countries. We envision that our farm will ultimately be able to produce vast quantities of embryos from these animals to feed hungry people around the world.”

In addition to building up the herd in South Carolina, Wheeler is in discussions with governments, universities, and NGOs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to plan distribution of embryos in the next year or two.

Importantly, the team will continue to support operations on the ground after embryos are delivered, providing the know-how to transfer the embryos into indigenous cattle and follow-on expertise through calving and lactation. They’ll also assist with nutrition, animal management, future breeding, and genetic selection to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the herds.

Wheeler says now that his team has worked out the process to develop Girolandos on U.S. soil, it should be fairly straightforward to improve other traits, such as muscle mass and marbling, for beef production in tropical hybrids. And in the future, with continued support, the project could expand to other animal production systems, including swine, sheep, and goats.

“The data resulting from the project, its analysis, and results will inform future decision-making not only for the project but the direction of food production for ‘Feed the Future’ initiatives to come in those developing countries,” Wheeler says. “Ultimately, we’re confident this work will result in greater food and income security where it’s needed most.”

To contribute to the project, contact the College of ACES Office of Advancement.

ACES NEWS: Illinois RapidVent Research Published

URBANA, Ill — The design, testing, and validation of the Illinois RapidVent emergency ventilator has been published in the journal Plos One. The article, “Emergency Ventilator for COVID-19,” by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers, is the first of its kind to report such details about an emergency ventilator that was designed, prototyped, and tested at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“This article reports the development and testing of the RapidVent emergency ventilator,” said William King, professor at The Grainger College of Engineering and Carle Illinois College of Medicine, and leader of the RapidVent project. “The research shows integration of different disciplines to develop a medical device, including science-based engineering, ultra-rapid design and manufacturing, functional testing, and animal testing.”

Animal testing was performed by Matt Wheeler’s group in the Department of Animal Sciences, a crucial step in proving the device’s effectiveness.

Read more from Carle Illinois College of Medicine.