Are naturally polled Holsteins feasible?

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SALEM, Ohio – Dehorning calves is tedious job, and Union County, Ohio, dairyman Frank Bouic is doing something about it. He’s at the forefront of a movement to increase breeding of naturally polled Holsteins – a move that could decrease human labor and increase herd performance.

“I’m really trying to encourage the development of the trait. I’m convinced good polled animals will perform as well as the rest of the breed if enough breeders keep at it,” he said.

Bouic started a database of qualified Holsteins seven years ago from his home near Ostrander. Today, the database contains information voluntarily submitted by dairymen on nearly 700 polled animals less than 10 years of age from around the globe. The number is a drop in the milk bucket when compared to the 18 million Holsteins listed in the national breed association’s herdbook.

Genetics show. “The biggest thing we need people to know is this is a dominant trait, not a recessive one. It’s like the black coloring in the breed,” he said, noting there are no ‘carriers’ of the gene; an animal with one gene for the characteristic is polled.

Cattle that inherit a polled gene from each parent – sometimes referred to as homozygous polled and having the genotype PP – will have offspring classified as naturally polled, regardless of the mate. These animals are the goal of Bouic’s program.

Give and take. History books reveal ancestors of modern Holsteins were polled and that mutations must have occurred that gave rise to horns, according to Larry Specht, Penn State animal scientist.

Horned cattle multiplied and it is now thought that the occurrence of polled animals in modern times is the result of another mutation back to the hornless condition.

The majority of horned animals in today’s dairy industry are a result of too few dairy cattle breeders selecting for the polled trait or not selecting against the widespread horned condition. In order to remain profitable, the majority of dairy farmers sacrificed breeding for the polled characteristic in order to maintain high production and type within their herds, Bouic said.

“All the popular AI bulls were, and still are, horned animals, so in order to keep the rest of the animal looking good and the milk flowing, you forget about the horns. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Bouic said.

Easier to manage. The movement toward breeding naturally polled animals is fueled by several farm management ideals.

Obvious advantages to breeding polled animals is the relief – both human and animal – of not dehorning young calves. With dairy herds confined to barns, pastures or exercise lots, horns have little value and can be a detriment to good herd management.

Stressors and side effects associated with removal of horn buds are often blamed for increasing disease susceptibility, and human handling often stresses young animals.

Bouic also emphasizes the economics.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who enjoys dehorning, and if given the chance, I bet they’d just as soon throw the dehorning iron out,” he said.

Still, the program faces challenges.

Herdsmen who participate in the program are limited to “small pockets of interest, especially in eastern Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

“There are only a handful of herds that are making a concentrated effort to develop quality polled cows,” Bouic said.

Where are the bulls? A limited supply of polled bulls in AI programs decrease a farmer’s choice in selecting other genetic desirables, so a number of producers gave up after they failed to build a solid base for their herd. Finding desirable polled sires still poses a challenge.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a good way of getting exact numbers” of polled animals in existence, Bouic said. “However, there are enough bulls in AI programs to lead me to believe there is an increasing number out there.”

Bouic’s data includes charts on 26 bulls in AI programs through different companies that qualify as naturally polled – many of which are not heavily advertised, and “sometimes local semen distributors are not aware that they have polled bulls available.”

According to company officials, Select Sires occasionally offers semen from one or two young, unproven polled bulls, and Accelerated Genetics is still testing one polled young sire.

ABS Global has no polled sires in the current active line-up, but does offer straws of semen from four sons out of sires Rudolph, Bosco and Hickorymea Tripod-P.

“We don’t advertise them in our quarterly publication, but they are available,” said Andy Stiefel, manager of program development for ABS. “Surprisingly, usage of them is heavier than with the typical young sire.”

Breeding the best. Bouic recommends breeding cows and heifers to polled bulls and the best Holstein bulls. This produces improvement in polled animals while simultaneously increasing their numbers and working toward higher numbers of naturally polled stock.

Bouic’s plan involves breeding approximately one-third of a herd with semen from polled bulls and approximately two-thirds to the best proven bulls of the breed. Some, if not all, of the polled bulls used should be young sampling sires.

The process can also be sped up by using embryo transfers.

“I’m not a big fan of transfers, but to do much in a person’s or cow’s lifetime, it might be a tool worth using,” he said, noting the cost and hassle of the transfer process might reduce the number of herds who adapt the breeding plan.

On the other hand, transfers “might also let more people and cows become involved,” he said.

Until the mid-90s, Bouic, who has followed genetic improvements in dairy cattle for 40 years, and his brothers milked a herd of approximately 60 cows. Today, he owns as many cows and heifers, and practices his breeding philosophy on those animals.

National level. Last summer, Holstein Association USA joined the movement by coding naturally polled animals if producers provided the information.

“Producers really wanted this information on the records, so we put that information on the system,” said Erma Robertson, executive director of quality assurance for the association. The association, as well as participating AI companies, code polled bulls with the suffix letter “P” in the sire’s name.

A revamped animal registration form to be offered by the association will include a separate area for all producers to include the information, Bouic said.

“I’m convinced this is the way to make progress. We can overcome the production and type classes and get quality polled animals. It just won’t happen overnight,” he said.

For more information on breeding polled Holsteins or to report animals from your herd, e-mail Bouic at fabouic@midohio.net or fax 740-666-1091.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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