Colorado State Supercomputer Aids Cattle Ranchers Worldwide

A Colorado State University supercomputer powered with enough memory to run 150 laptops helps ranchers around the world build better cows.

The Colorado State Agricultural Genetics Beowulf Supercomputer has one of the largest databases of livestock in the country, with more than 3 million cattle representing 15 breeds worldwide. The aim of the project is to use the vast information about the reproductive histories of cattle to help ranchers produce livestock with better features, such as tastier meat and increased milk productivity.

The supercomputer, equipped with 2 gigabytes of memory and enough disk space to fill 30,000 floppy disks, is so powerful that livestock geneticists are able to answer complex questions in a day that would have otherwise taken hundreds of days to solve.

The beauty of the Beowulf supercomputer is that it is essentially a network of 16 personal computers built with off- the-shelf hardware and high-end components. The entire project cost only $45,000–a fraction of the cost for traditional supercomputers, which can run in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. In addition, the software to run the Beowulf supercomputer was downloaded off the Internet for free.

"With this relatively inexpensive technology, we can take highly theoretical questions and get real answers that have eluded us for years," said Bruce Golden, associate professor of breeding and genetics and the project’s lead researcher. "This has opened up a completely new avenue for the cattle industry."

Golden said computers have been used at Colorado State to analyze genetics of cattle for the past 12 years, but the older technology limited the kinds of answers ranchers and breeders could retrieve on how well certain sires did in producing top- notch offspring. Traditional supercomputers were too costly to replace the older system, Golden said. When he learned the Beowulf setup was being used at other universities for a fraction of the cost, Golden discovered a whole new realm of number- crunching.

For example, Beowulf can search the breeding history of nearly 9,000 Red Angus dating back to the 1930s and, in one day, identify sires that contributed the most genes to calves born in a given year. Information contained in this database is so large that it would have taken conventional computers 71 days to return the same answer.

Golden points out that one of the largest costs for cattle ranchers is the purchase of heifers to replace cows in the herd that have difficulties delivering calves, producing milk or that easily contract disease. With Beowulf, ranchers can avoid those problems altogether by selecting sires with genes that don’t consistently produce daughters with reproductive problems. Golden estimates that about 100,000 cattle breeders worldwide make livestock breeding decisions based on data generated from Colorado State’s supercomputer.

"Before, we were limited by the technology as to what we could do," Golden said. "We would not have even asked the questions we are asking today because it would have been impossible to for the old technology to retrieve the answer."