Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on polled dairy cattle. For Part 1, click here.
Polled versus horned is a debate that’s getting a lot of attention lately in the dairy industry.
Although the polled, or naturally hornless, trait has been around for generations, it’s become nearly nonexistent in dairy herds. It’s believed that less than 1 percent of the current population is polled.
During the 1800s and 1900s, few dairy breeders selected for the trait, which is dominant, meaning only one parent needs to transmit the gene for offspring to be polled. Both parents need to transmit the horned trait for a calf to grow horns.
Burket Falls Farm is one of those “obsolete” polled breeders that actually introduced the trait into its herd by accident. That accident has become the farm’s claim to fame and the focal point of its breeding program.
In the early 1960s, Dave Burket, of East Freedom, Pa., decided to convert his herd of mostly grade Guernseys to registered Holsteins. To do that, he traveled to Wisconsin to purchase 11 animals, which became the basis for the current dairy herd.
One of those original cows was bred at purchase, resulting in a polled heifer calf, Princess Fayne Houwtje.
“We didn’t pay much attention at first, but she became a prolific producer, so we decided to work with her,” Dave Burket’s son John said. Princess “had seven records over 1,100 pounds of fat in the late ’60s into the ’70s. That’s very rare and really got our attention.”
With outstanding production records on top of being polled, the Burkets saw value in Princess. Although polled genetics wasn’t a commonly accepted trait at the time, American Breeders Service, commonly referred to as ABS, also saw the advantages and acquired her polled son Burket Falls ABC.
The Burkets and Larry Specht, professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State, believe that ABC was the first polled bull to enter into active artificial insemination service.
Between the 1970s and now, Burket Falls has strived to breed polled individuals while still emphasizing production and type. On top of that, the farm found it beneficial in marketing to have some of those animals be red or red carriers, using an already established niche market.
“It’s never been easy to find outcrosses, until the last few years,” John Burket said, attributing that problem to the simple lack of polled genetics available.
To combat the problem, Burket Falls aims to incorporate the best genetics — black or red, polled or horned — into its already established polled herd base.
By doing so, the farm is able to generate individuals with desirable production capability while maintaining the polled trait and creating outcross genetics.
That philosophy elevated Burket Falls Farm to one of the most sought-out breeders of polled Holstein genetics, especially when AI companies first started wanting polled sires in the 1970s.
Chad Dechow, associate professor of dairy cattle genetics at Penn State, said that because polled is a dominant trait, similar to black hair color, it is much easier to incorporate polled into high-producing families, versus the other way around.
Only one parent has to transmit the polled gene for the offspring to be polled.
Burket Falls and other breeders may see advantages in polled animals, but will the rest of the industry latch on too?
“I do believe that polled animals will continue to grow in popularity but only as long as the genetic level of the animal is close to equal to any alternative mating sires. Polled carries a value, but it can quickly be surpassed by other traits,” Kirk Sattazahn, director of marketing for Select Sire Power, said through email.
“For polled sires to continue their growth, we need to have diverse pedigrees with high-ranking traits to drive that market,” Sattazahn said. “The future growth of the market will depend on new sires ... becoming available to cross on our existing pedigrees and to manage inbreeding.”
Specht, Dechow, Sattazahn and Burket are all in agreement that polled is the future of the dairy industry, mostly because of animal welfare concerns.
“There’s subtle pressure from consumer groups and animal welfare groups, that animals shouldn’t be subjected to” dehorning, Specht said. “It’s a question of image. Dairy farming doesn’t need any more shots at their image. If you’re going to remove the horns painlessly, the easiest way is to breed the horns off.”
Taurus-Service Inc., an AI company based in Wyoming County, Pa., is working not only to bring new polled sires to the market but also to make sires of less popular breeds available.
While Specht has seen polled animals in every breed but Guernsey, David Kendall, director of genetic development for Taurus, has discovered the elusive polled Guernsey. He’s even found a homozygous polled Guernsey sire — all of his offspring will be polled.
“We’ve always had diversity in what we offer,” Kendall said. “But we’re doubling down now because of demand and animal welfare concerns.”
Similar to Taurus, Dairy Bulls Online is gaining momentum in the polled sector. Out of the 19 bulls listed on its site as of Aug. 28, 18 are polled. Nine of the sires are homozygous polled — seven Holsteins, one Brown Swiss and one Jersey. Five of the homozygous polled Holsteins are red or red carriers.
Kendall foresees the United States adopting strict dehorning regulations similar to what other countries have, maybe within five years.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website, www.avma.org, “In the United Kingdom, disbudding with a hot iron is preferred to dehorning and it is advised that this should be performed before cattle reach the age of 2 months.
“Application of caustic paste is acceptable in cattle up to 7 days old, but anesthesia is required if cattle are dehorned after this period,” the association reports.
Disbudding is removing the horns on a calf under 2 months old, often before the horns are even visible.
“Polled has a very bright future,” John Burket said. “I don’t want to sound negative about the industry, but (polled) is one of the bright spots.”
Burket believes that the dairy industry needs to “stay ahead of the eight ball” and not let dehorning become any bigger an issue in regard to animal welfare.
“The beef industry has been very proactive,” he said.
Specht agrees with Burket, adding that he believes larger dairies will jump on the polled bandwagon sooner if they evaluate the labor savings associated with not having to dehorn calves.
In September 2012, the Red and White Dairy Cattle Association conducted a polled genetics roundtable. During that discussion, Brian Crull of Monroe, Wis., said, “I enjoy having polled animals for the simple fact that I don’t have the job of dehorning my animals or to pay someone to do it. The polled animals do not lose any growth or need extra labor to perform a job that no one enjoys doing.”
In that same roundtable, Nate Faus, from the Finger Lakes region of New York, said, “In the future, I believe horned heifers will be considered inferior and it will be very difficult to market semen from horned bulls.”
“The welfare of an animal can easily be addressed even when using traditional dehorning methods by implementing approved treatment protocols for managing the safety and welfare of the animals,” Sattazahn said.
“Polled animals eliminate the need for those protocols,” he said. “On farms of all sizes, but especially larger ones, the removal of horns is a necessary task that takes some time to complete. Polled animals save that time and thus have a labor-saving component built into the value of their use.”