SALEM, Ohio — Polled Holsteins represent just a fraction of dairy cows in the U.S., but Larry Specht has always been intrigued by these naturally hornless cattle.
He has studied them for 25 years, taking time to record the things he saw and learned about the breed. This year, Specht complied a history of polled Holsteins, which is now available on Penn State’s Department of Dairy and Animal Science Web site.
A professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State, Specht gives an overview of the polled trait and lists notable polled Holstein herds in the U.S. and Canada.
How it started
Two particular events sparked Specht’s interest in polled Holsteins while he was working as a dairy extension specialist at Penn State.
First, he saw an Excellent Kingpin daughter that was polled. While Kingpin daughters were often noted for production, there weren’t many of outstanding type. But this particular daughter caught Specht’s attention, and he thought her excellent type and polled trait was a combination dairymen should strive to breed.
The second event was a registration paper issued by the former Harrisburg Registry Association that specified in bold letters that the animal was polled. A dairyman found the paper in the 1980s while he was working to register cows in a herd he purchased.
In the history, Specht notes the earliest ancestors of modern-day cattle did not have horns, but at some point a mutation must have occurred that created horned cattle.
The polled condition is a dominant trait, while the horned trait is recessive. Both parents must transmit the horned trait in order for a calf to have horns. But because few breeders selected the polled trait for their herds, horned animals became more abundant.
Times have changed
In the past, cattle needed horns to survive. But today’s dairy cattle are mostly raised in barns or pastures and horns are no longer necessary. Most farmers dehorn their cattle to prevent injuries and other damage.
Because horns are undesirable in most situations, Specht said the polled trait is useful and should be included in the selection program for all dairy breeds.
“However, the job of removing horns from cattle of any age is a distasteful one and would not be missed if there were an easier solution,” the professor wrote in the introduction to his history.
The Holstein breed only recently identified polled animals, although there is a record of hornless black and white cattle at a show in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1886.
According to Specht’s research, the first American-bred polled Holstein was a bull, Lophelias Prince, born in Massachusetts in 1889. Information about his sire and dam were found in The Holstein-Friesian Register, but further details were scarce.
All imported U.S. and Canadian Holsteins came from The Netherlands and records on those first animals are incomplete since there were no herdbooks until after the 1870s. Often, the only records kept were by the herd owner for his own use.
It wasn’t until 1912 that Pennsylvania breeder George Stevenson of Clarks Summit created the first herd of polled Holsteins in the U.S.
In the history, Specht said awareness about the polled trait is growing in North America, although breeders on this continent have not realized its full potential. The publication lists seven modern-day polled Holstein breeders in Ohio and Pennsylvania.