Polled Dairy Genetics Growing in Popularity

9/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

Why Are Polled Genetics So Hard To Come By?

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series on polled dairy cattle. For Part 2, click here.

It’s pretty safe to say that when it comes to dehorning cattle, no one enjoys the task. And with the polled, or naturally hornless, trait being dominant, one would think that more than 1 percent of current dairy cattle would carry the gene.

That percentage may baffle some, but that’s the reality among dairy breeders, despite the fact that dehorning is inconvenient for both cow and human.

Many industry professionals agree that the polled trait has simply been left to the wayside for more production-related genetics — higher milk production, calving ease, feed efficiency, udder conformation, etc.

But that trend is slowly starting to change among dairy breeders.

It should be noted that all bovine breeds have polled genetics, or at least have the capability to be polled, said Chad Dechow, associate professor of dairy cattle genetics at Penn State, adding that Holsteins, Jerseys, and Red and Whites have the largest polled populations at this time, thanks in part to their larger overall numbers.

But why are polled dairy genetics so hard to come by in the first place?

According to a research report published in 2008 by Larry Specht, professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State: “The polled condition transmits as a dominant trait, much as black coat color in Holsteins is dominant to red. Both parents must transmit the recessive gene for horns to an offspring in order for the calf to be horned.”

According to Specht’s report, “Polled Holstein History,” the ancestors of modern-day cattle did not have horns, but when horned mutations occurred, it gave the species a survival advantage.

Yet, over time, as the value of horns declined and became a detriment to herd management, few breeders selected for the polled trait over the horned condition.

His research goes on to say that the first recorded polled Holstein was a bull owned by T.P. Root of Massachusetts in 1889.

It’s thought that polled cattle were available in Europe, but Pennsylvania became the first main breeding ground for polled genetics in the U.S. because of George Stevenson of Clarks Summit, Pa.

From 1884 to 1930, Stevenson grew his herd of polled Holsteins and dispersed the genetics through a series of sales, Specht’s report said.

During the mid-1900s, polled genetics continued to grow thanks to the efforts of Midwestern and Western U.S. herds, some of which obtained genetics from Stevenson.

One of the most notable was Carnation Farms in Washington state, which was home to a few polled All-American cows in the 1920s.

According to Specht’s report, “Pennsylvania returned as the focal point of polled Holstein genetics in the 1960s when Dave Burket, Burket Falls, became interested in the trait after his purchase (of a cow that later) made headlines with her outstanding production.

“Burket Falls bred the majority of the first 30 or so polled sires that entered North American AI programs,” Specht’s report says. “The first was Burket-Falls ABC.”

According to Burket’s website, www.burketfallsfarm.com, and Specht, ABC is believed to have been the first polled Holstein to enter active artificial insemination service, being purchased by American Breeders Service, commonly called ABS, in 1976.

Burket Falls Farm and the Dave Burket family of East Freedom, Pa., are still in operation today and promote their genetics with the slogan “The Solution to Your Horny’ Problems.”

The herd is around 80 percent polled and 75 percent are also red or red carriers, according to Dave’s son John Burket.

Burket Falls spreads its polled genetics not only through live animal and embryo sales, but also through private semen collection done on the farm.

“They’ve been the leaders for some time and no one’s really been challenging them,” Specht said by phone, adding that he believes Burket Falls has seen so much success thanks to good production records from highly classified animals that are also polled.

Hickorymea Dairy Farm, Airville, Pa., is operated by Ed Johnson and began breeding the polled trait into its Holstein herd in 1969 with the purchase of semen from Burket Falls.

According to Specht’s research, Hickorymea first contributed a polled bull to AI when 21st Century Genetics purchased Hickorymea Saul P. He also credits Hickorymea’s breeding program as being a nationally sought source of outcross polled genetics.

Other AI companies began to dabble in polled genetics as time went on, but few were latching onto the idea because of lower milk production in polled families, according to Chad Dechow of Penn State.

Since so few breeders selected for polled, Dechow says — and Specht agrees — the best production families simply had the polled trait disappear from their gene pools. This inevitably led to an inaccurate assumption that polled cows don’t milk.

With the perseverance of Burket, Johnson and others, the polled trait is making a resurgence in the dairy industry. Most AI companies now market polled sires from at least one breed, and producers are gradually accepting the idea of breeding for polled.

With the push for polled just taking off, will it gain traction and become the new way of life on the farm? Look for “Part Two: Are Polled Genetics Here to Stay?” in the Sept. 28 edition of Lancaster Farming.

Larry Specht’s full report on the history of polled Holsteins can be found here.

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