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Dehorning Dairy Cattle With Genetics
Looking at the economic advantages with polled dairy cattle




By Fred Hendricks



Incorporating polled genetics in your breeding program results in fewer calves that require dehorning. While this fact may seem elementary, few dairy farmers contemplate the economic advantages. Most often farmers respond with “dehorning is part of our routine operation so it’s not an important factor.”

Breeding a typical dairy herd to polled bulls results in a minimum 50% hornless calves. In just one generation an entire herd can become half polled. The polled gene is dominant and needs to be present in only one parent.

While dehorning may be a routine operation on most dairy farms, there are significant costs associated with dehorning. These costs vary a great deal depending on the size of dairy, personnel employed to do the dehorning and equipment utilized. The most difficult cost to ascertain is the setback a calf goes through resulting from dehorning.

Reid Hoover, Hoover Farms, Lebanon, Pennsylvania indicates his dehorning costs to be $10.00 per head on young calves and up to $20.00 per head on older calves. “Equipment and labor are the costs involved. When they are older it sets them back and you lose growth and efficiency,” Hoover stated.

Hoover further states, “ These costs and the time factor to do this job well have made me think about using polled bulls. We have used a few and have liked the results with polled calves.”

Enhanced Efficiency - Unpleasant Job

Lonny Ward, with Brigham Creek Dairy, Elberta, Utah tags their dehorning costs at about $2.00 per head. “This figure does not calculate a cost for the setback losses because there is too much variation in those costs”

Ward points out that polled cattle enhance their dairy’s efficiency. “To survive in the dairy industry today you have to be as efficient as possible. Any time you can eliminate a cost without a negative consequence you are better off. Dehorning is an area where improvements can be made genetically to eliminate labor cost, as well as stress on the animal. If we can integrate the polled gene into the Holsteins without losing in other areas, we will have taken a step forward.”

Iv-Ann Holsteins, Minister, Ohio indicates the setback to their calves is their biggest cost. “In our opinion the cost of dehorning is very hard to quantify since we do our own work. However, we think our biggest cost is the setback in the growth of the animal caused by the dehorning trauma.”
Ivo Osterloh, owner of Iv-Ann Holsteins states “The cost is not the only factor we consider in our use of polled bulls. Dehorning is not a very pleasant job - and very often it is delayed too long.”

Origin of Polled Dairy Cattle

Polled Holstein Historian, Dr. Larry Specht, Professor Emeritus of Penn State University reports “The history books tell us that the ancestors of our modern cattle did not have horns and that mutations must have occurred that gave rise to horns. Horned cattle proliferated 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.” Horns served a useful purpose prior to cattle being domesticated. They were a defense mechanism and served to survive the species. In some countries farmers tether their cattle by the horns. In modern dairy farm operations, horns have no purpose, therefore the practice of dehorning.

While it is not clear when polled cattle began appearing in U.S. dairy cattle, Dr. Specht found the earliest recorded polled bull in the Holstein Association herdbook to be born 04/22/1889. Various breeders propagated the polled gene over time to where the polled gene now occurs far more frequently in today’s dairy cattle herds.

Current Polled Holsteins

In his Bouic Polled Holstein Newsletter, Frank Bouic reports “There are over numerous polled Holstein bulls in A.I., including proven bulls, sires-in-waiting and sample sires.” Mr. Bouic further reports, “The genetics available in the polled segment of the Holstein breed is improving rapidly, in some cases approaching the best of the Holstein breed. The Burket-Falls, East Freedom, Pennsylvania (Dave Burket Family) and Hickorymea, Airville, Pennsylvania (T. Edwin Johnson Family) herds in particular have contributed to the genetic supply of A.I. bulls.”

The polled gene has been present in Red and White dairy cattle for many years; therefore the Red & White population has a significantly larger selection of polled red and red carrier bulls. Currently the most prominent polled Holstein bull in the world is Aggravation Lawn Boy P-Red, bred by Bob Feldwisch of New Knoxville, Ohio. Lawn Boy is available through Select Sires of Plain City, Ohio.
Genome research is underway to identify whether a polled Holstein animal is heterozygous or homozygous. As this technology becomes available, young bulls progeny tested via A.I. will no doubt increase dramatically.

Second generation polled Jersey breeder, Paul Chittenden, Dutch Hollow Farm, Schodack Landing, New York indicates that his father, Stanley Chittenden, bought his first polled Jersey in 1952. The Chittendens have been leading breeders of polled Jersey cattle ever since. The Dutch Hollow prefix can be found on several proven sires in A.I. The polled gene is also well documented in the Ayrshire, Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorn breeds.

Polled gene action

The following exhibits demonstrate two examples of the polled gene action (P = polled or dominant / h = horned or recessive).



Exhibit A shows one parent with two polled genes (homozygous polled) and one parent with two horned genes (homozygous horned). With polled being dominant, all resulting offspring are polled as each resulting animal has one polled gene and one horned gene (heterozygous polled).

Exhibit B shows one parent with one polled gene (heterozygous polled) and one parent with two horned genes (homozygous horned). In this gene action, one half of the resulting animals are polled as each one has one polled gene (heterozygous polled). One half of the resulting animals are horned as they have two horned genes (homozygous horned).

In conclusion, utilizing the polled gene is easier than ever before with additional sires available through A.I. The financial savings through labor, time, equipment and sustained growth of the animal can be substantial. And, a herd can be converted to poll in short order with polled being dominant.

Fred Hendricks is the owner of SunShower Acres, Ltd, Longmont, 
Colorado. SunShower has been involved with the sampling-development 
of young sires for the A.I. industry for over 25 years. Several 
polled bulls developed by SunShower are now active through A.I.



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