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Breeding to polled is a genetic labour-saver

Bryan Quanbury Published on 19 July 2013

Economics and efficiency are buzzwords in the dairy industry. All the time, we hear the newest technology available that will save time, labour and money. As the next generation comes back to farm, there are always ideas and new ways to make improvements.

The other area of interest and concern is cow comfort and welfare. I could find numerous papers referencing how improved housing with comfort and reducing stress pays off in the bulk tanks. Many farms use the motto: “If I look after the cows, they will look after me.”

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Technologies don’t always need to be machinery, housing or computers. Progressive Dairyman has published many articles highlighting ways to be more efficient as dairymen. New labour-saving technologies can include robotic milkers, heat detection systems, automatic calf feeders, alley scrapers, feed pushers – the list goes on and on.

Farmers are quick to use them in their herds, especially if there is payback through savings in labour or added profitability. Genetically, we are making new discoveries that can offer advantages much the same as the new equipment does.

Polled genetics
Before domestication, cattle needed horns for protection. Horns were later used as a way of restraining cattle. We have modified cattle environments so much that horns are no longer used for either of these purposes.

I don’t know of any dairymen that like cattle with horns in our modern setups with locking headgates, milking systems and stalls. I don’t know any that would miss the job of taking the horns off either.

What if I told you there is a trait you can breed for that eliminates a job that is done on every calf? The job I am talking about is dehorning or disbudding. I have talked with many dairy producers and have yet to find one that says they like taking off horns. This is a job that is delayed or disliked on dairy farms.

The trait I am referring to is polled genetics. This dominant trait can be introduced in one generation. Using heterozygous bulls, it will result in half of your calves being born without horns. Using homozygous polled bulls will leave 100 percent of the calves without horns.

If you used half heterozygous and half homozygous, 75 percent of your calves would be polled. Those three scenarios could be implemented, and when the first calves are born, you would see results. Your odds for polled goes up once you have polled females yourself.

Using polled on polled will leave 75 percent polled calves. Again, an easy point to remember is the homozygous 100 percent polled bulls leave all calves polled every breeding whether their dam is horned or polled.

One objection to introducing polled genetics in larger dairies I often hear is farm staff would dehorn them anyway. All the instructions I have seen for the various disbudding and dehorning techniques start with the first step of identifying the horn bud. If there is no horn bud, you can skip the calf.

In one generation, genetically, you saved labour and reduced stress. Genetically, we talk about many different traits and express them in numbers like kilograms of milk, combined fat and protein, points for udders and legs – the list goes on.

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These measurements have value. What do they mean practically? Net merit (NM$) is a good tool to identify the economic impact of different genetics in your herd. If you put a value on labour, drug cost, stress on calves, reduced growth rate, etc., what would that come out as? Add in the cost of the image of dairying and the animal welfare aspect.

I look to the beef industry, where much of the bulls used are naturally polled. What has caused this change in the beef population? I am certain that many beef producers, once they started having polled calves, when given a choice between a horned and polled bull, they pick polled.

The beef industry has shown research that polled cattle do better in many areas of performance due to the reduced stress of dehorning. Would this not be the same in dairy cattle?

Looking at the genomics with polled animals more than 700 NM$ and higher than 2,500 GTPI reinforces this point. Polled cattle are closing the gap on horned animals at a rapid pace. PD

What are the benefits of polled dairy cattle at Andersonville Dairy?
To further demonstrate the economics and benefits of polled on a practical level, Bryan Quanbury asked Mark Rodgers, a breeder of polled Holsteins from Andersonville Dairy in Vermont, to explain. Here is his perspective:

“As a breeder of polled cattle for many years, it is difficult to identify the original thoughts and feelings that inspired me as an 8-year-old to pursue polled genetics. There is no question now, in my fourth decade of breeding polled dairy cattle, that the original inspiration has provided a wonderful foundation for my goal of a completely polled herd of cattle.

“The benefits of polled animals are both tangible and intangible. The economics are straightforward to calculate and, in fact, researchers at Purdue University are submitting research at the 2013 ADSA (American Dairy Science Association) meetings to include the economic benefit of polled in the USDA Net Merit $ calculations.

“On my farm, the economic benefit of polled calves versus their horned contemporaries starts with the simple calculation of time and medications used in the dehorning process.

We adhere to approved protocol and procedures for dehorning and veterinary prescribed medications are used as follows: four tablets meloxicam to provide pain relief for four days costs $.24, 10 cc’s Lidocaine costs $.48 plus the cost of a new needle, $.12, and syringe, $.30, for each calf.

Our veterinary agrees that we can sedate and dehorn a calf in six minutes at a cost of $4.50 (cost of vet assistant at $45 per hour). The cost allocated to the butane dehorner, based on a five-year life expectancy is $1 per calf (70 calves per year). These costs total $6.64.

“It is more difficult to identify the cost of lost daily gain in dehorned calves and costs associated with the occasional infection or complication with dehorning, but I assume that it costs me $3 to $4 per calf. This puts my fixed costs per dehorned calf at approximately $10 per calf, so every polled calf starts with a $10 advantage.

“The intangible benefits of polled breeding are more difficult to quantify but are even more rewarding than the economic bonus of polled animals. The joy and pleasure of seeing a polled calf born are similar to watching your favourite team win or watching a child achieve a milestone, and you can’t put a price on that.

The piece of mind that polled animals provide to farm owners and those that care for them versus the stress of dehorning for the dehorner and the dehorned is priceless. The beauty of a naturally polled head and the knowledge that we provided the polled animal an advantage by simply making an informed choice to breed polled is a pleasure available now to all breeders of dairy cattle without risk of giving up anything but the horns.” PD

Editor’s note: The costs mentioned above are in U.S. dollars and specific to Andersonville Dairy. Economic benefits will vary by farm and should be calculated on an individual basis given each dairy’s dehorning program, methods and tools.

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Bryan Quanbury
  • Bryan Quanbury
  • Co-Owner
  • DairyBullsOnline

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