A group of heifers pauses from grazing in Ireland.
A group of heifers pauses from grazing in Ireland.

Editor’s note: The following column appears in the June 2015 edition of Dairy Herd Management. For subscription information, click here.

The possibility of creating entire herds of polled dairy cattle has received increased publicity. Dairy breeder advocates of polled cattle mention the ease, labor savings and cultural positives of having naturally polled cattle. Those more traditional note the minimal cost of dehorning in time and effort, and the current negative economic potential of polled dairy cattle vs. their horned counterparts. They argue polled advocates are just trying to create an artificial market niche for themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these comments to add clarity to your evaluation. Having naturally polled cattle is more cost effective than having the equipment and a person committed to dehorning calves. However, since the cost of dehorning runs less than $4.00 per head and this task is easily completed in conjunction with other procedures already performed on the dairy, the cost-benefit ratio is small. If future regulations require veterinarian care during the dehorning process, costs could rise significantly. At current rates, however, time and labor savings are not enough to encourage change.

Another factor is the general lack of knowledge regarding polled genetics transmission. Many dairy producers believe it’s hard to incorporate the polled gene in a breeding program, comparing it to other low-heritability traits they have considered in the past. However, the polled gene is actually a dominant gene, and thus only one copy is required in an offspring to create a polled animal. Once the polled gene is incorporated in an animal, 50% of their offspring will be polled. If you have a homozygous individual, 100% of their offspring are polled. So, the situation is much different than coat color or other traits. The extensive incorporation of the polled gene can happen in a few short generations.

The economic difference between polled vs. horned cattle genetics is a big concern for many breeders. Historically, the comparative economic benefits have been heavily in favor of horned cattle. Recently, with the advent of genomic testing – and more breeders attempting to breed high-ranking polled cattle – the prevalence of top polled sires is increasing.

In the Holstein breed, there are currently 30 sires ranking in the top 20% of the breed for Lifetime Net Merit ($450+), and 35 sires ranking in the top 20% for TPI (+2200). A few polled Holsteins are even in the top 1%. The Jersey breed also has several higher-ranking polled sires. With greater breeder effort, the economic gap between polled vs. horned will narrow. However, at the current pace, and without a concerted push by the leading bull studs and breed associations, it could take many years for polled cattle to be economically equal to the majority of the population.

The final point to consider is a cultural one, taking into account desires of some consumers. Dairy producers do not generally emphasize cultural issues; they produce a commodity processed and marketed by other companies. However, public perception has affected dairy producers.

The consumer outcry over recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) led many dairy companies to demand their producer suppliers abandon its use. Even though all science indicated the milk’s safety, and all research noted the economic benefits for the dairy producer, the public has generally rejected the technology. Consumers did not understand the science or that by forcing producers to be less efficient many could go out of business. Logic doesn’t always win in the marketplace. Large dairy companies demanded producers cease using the technology, and yet did not increase their milk prices for the producers’ lost cost effectiveness. It would have been beneficial for these large processors to accept some of the financial risk imposed by consumer demands, rather than dumping all the costs on producers.

In response to consumer demand, major dairy companies could easily influence quicker polled genetics adoption by simply indicating their willingness to pay $1 more per hundred pounds of milk produced by polled cows. Producers would quickly adopt polled genetics to avoid losing income. In a relatively short time, the majority of U.S. dairy cows would be genetically polled.

This debate could take years to resolve. However, it is prudent to assume consumers will drive the market. Therefore, I recommend starting to incorporate some polled genetics in your herd. By breeding a portion of your average genetic animals to polled sires, you will be able to take advantage of any increase created by future consumer demands.

Dr. David Selner has spent most of his career in the genetics and breeding side of the dairy industry. He has been an independent genetics consultant for over 20 years and his consulting services have been utilized in 25 different countries. He has published genetic articles in major industry and breed publications and collaborated on several genetic research projects. Dr. Selner has served on genetic advisory committees for the Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn and Red & White breeds. Contact him via e-mail: dselner@Ra-Mar-Land.com