The Possibilities of Polled
I think that it is obvious to anyone who follows our program, that the polled gene forms part of our selection criteria. While we don’t breed for exclusively polled cattle, we do think that the future will include more and more polled cattle, both within our own herd and in the entire beef industry. The primary reasons for this are twofold: First, as herds get bigger, being able to genetically remove horns instead of having to physically complete the dehorning task saves considerable time. Secondly, the animal welfare concern about pain management throughout the dehorning process is also eliminated. While this may not seem like a ‘big deal’ impacting Canadian Agriculture at the present, a quick peek to Europe and their transformation towards polled cattle, combined with the precedent currently being set with the ‘farrowing crate’ issue in hog production, would suggest that Animal Welfare concerns do have the ability to change farm production methods.
With these two thoughts in mind, we were very fortunate to be involved with my parents operation and their introduction of the polled gene back in 1998. The rationale for introducing the polled gene was debated at length around the kitchen table, and projecting the future of the breed was discussed many times. The past 15 years have been an invaluable learning experience surrounding the polled gene, so it only made sense to continue to leverage that knowledge and genetic base into our own operation here at Applecross.
For us, having patience is probably the most difficult part of our polled program. A constant theme throughout this blog has been the time it takes to develop new genetics, and introducing the polled gene to a genetic base is certainly no exception. As we think that we are still in the formative years of introducing the polled gene to quality Fleckvieh cattle, we still try to breed the majority of our polled cows to the best horned genetics we can acquire. While there is only a 50% chance of polled offspring, we can be patient waiting for that successful cross. In this fashion, adding proven bloodlines improves the genetic consistency of our polled cattle, and utilizing the best in horned genetics also diversifies our genetic base.
Perhaps that is a larger part of the challenge with polled Fleckvieh – there have been some really awesome horned cattle over the past 20 years. It may sometimes be seen as a step backwards to add the polled gene to a herd, which may not have the depth of pedigree or consistency to the offspring when comparing to the best in horned genetics. When weaning time comes around, it has to be a pretty awesome polled calf to keep up with the best of the horned ones.
In some regards, I feel our work with polled genetics shares a number of similarities with the breeding of Red and Black Simmentals. When I look back at pictures from the Simmental Country magazines from the mid 1990’s and compare them to today’s purebred animals, there is a tremendous difference in phenotype. Red and Black genetics have certainly progressed a long way! In that way, maybe the purebred breeders had it easier – they dealt with removing the horns (and changing the colour) first, and then concentrated on making the quality better. With Fleckvieh cattle, the quality was already established.
One of the other reasons for moving slowly is that by keeping horned cattle beside our polled also ensures that we keep ourselves honest. Is your best polled heifer your best heifer? Is the top bull in your bull pen polled? Or is there work to do? How much work is there to do – is there a significant quality gap? We do try to evaluate and rank each calf crop; at weaning and again as yearlings. The point of the exercise is to not only place the calves, but also to evaluate the dams and sires. Obviously, even with selection criteria, a person can be a little biased, but I think it is very important to continually assess the quality of your cattle. The cattle industry is full of historic examples regarding the dangers of single trait selection, so keeping an ‘open mind’ about which ones are ‘the best’ is very important to ongoing genetic improvement.
I think that it is only once you get these top end animals that you can afford to start breeding polled back to polled, with the goal of developing different strains of Homozygous polled cattle over time. There are always exceptions to our own rules though – the majority of our AI ‘heifer bulls’ tend to be polled and, for the sake of getting that successful first calf, I’m more than happy to breed polled on polled. The challenge is ensuring that your top end animals are your best – not just because you hope them to be – but because they actually are.
In closing, I guess one of my goals is to, over time, change the status quo. The most constant refrain I still hear when breeders are in looking at a group of cattle is ‘pretty good . . . for polled’. Hopefully, if we do a good job of genetic improvement, that ‘polled’ disclaimer will disappear, and the cattle will just be known for their overall quality. That is the challenge of breeding cattle – making animals better – and something we look forward to accomplishing over time.