Myth Busting: Polled Genetics

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 edition of Pipeline, a publication from the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Association.

Dehorning is one of those tasks every dairy farmer would love to never have to do again. While it seems like a fairytale concept, more and more dairy farmers are incorporating polled genetics into their herds and making that mythical dream more realistic than ever before.

The truth is, polled genetics are gaining popularity. According to Lindsey Warden, Executive Director of Holstein Genetic Services with Holstein Association USA, 318 registered animals coded as polled in 2005. In 2010, that number grew to 819, and in 2015, the number of polled registered Holsteins tallied to 4,097. “That is just about 1% of our total animals registered, but the growth and interest in polled is clear,” noted Lindsey.

Thanks to the help of dedicated breeders, Artificial Insemination (AI) companies, and breed associations, polled genetics are now available in just about every dairy breed. Currently, Holsteins, Jerseys, and Red and Whites have the largest polled populations.

Several Maryland & Virginia members are embracing polled genetics within their own herds. For member John Burket of Burket Falls Farm in East Freedom, Pennsylvania, his family’s first time using polled animals began by accident in the 1960s.

John’s father, David, had a herd of grade and crossbred Guernseys, but David wanted to transition his herd to registered Holsteins. One fateful purchase of a polled Holstein from Wisconsin launched the Burkets interest in polled genetics. “My dad wasn’t aware that this cow he purchased was polled. She turned out to be the best producer on our farm, and the polled part was secondary,” John said. “She became the foundation cow for all of our polled animals.”

Today, 90 percent of the Burket’s herd is polled. “This is the highest it’s ever been. We have gradually increased the percentage over the years,” John said. The Burkets 87-cow milking herd consists of registered Holsteins and Red and Whites.

“Fortunately for us, our best cows were in our polled family and our highest producing cow was polled. We tried to bring in the best genetics from the horned population to keep pace,” said John, who is a former President of the Pennsylvania Holstein Association and Holstein Association USA Director.

John and his family also raise registered polled bulls. Their bull Burket Falls ABC was the first known polled Holstein to enter the AI leagues and was leased to American Breeders Service.

Fellow member, Jimmy Conner of Floyd, Virginia, has used polled Red and White Holstein AI studs for the past 15 years. He aims to increase the number of polled animals in his herd of 65 Holsteins and Red and Whites.

“I thought I might try the polled genetics because nobody likes to dehorn,” Jimmy said. To start, he purchased a few bulls, but 15 years ago, there was a very limited supply.

“To me, in the last five years, there have been more polled genetics in black and white Holsteins and it’s really taken off. There are now top-of-the-line cows with some new polled bulls,” Jimmy added.

About 10 percent of Jimmy’s herd is polled with 15 percent carrying the polled gene, and 90 percent of AI semen he uses is polled.

Why so many horned cattle?

Despite the growth in polled popularity, horned cattle are still more prevalent today as many producers have opted to breed for production, confirmation, health, and other traits, instead of strictly for polled animals. And while the number of polled AI bulls has increased recently, the total number of sires providing the polled gene is still limited.

“Breeding for polled animals is a slow process,” Jimmy said. “Depending on the animal, you don’t always get the polled results in one generation. When using heterozygous bulls, it takes three generations.”

Despite representing a small population of available genetics, the quality of those bulls is increasing at a dramatic rate. “There are already polled bulls that are of similar genetic merit to some of the elite horned bulls. I suspect in the not-toodistant future, we will have polled animals that are rivaling the horned bulls at the top of the genetic merit lists – the gap between the two categories narrows a little more each year,” said Lindsey.

To producers who are hesitant to try using polled genetics, Jimmy noted “I don’t think they’d have any problem using any of these bulls. They all have good genetics behind them.”

Previously, there was the thought that breeding for polled animals would be a loss in net merit or production, but today it is less of an issue. “I can say today with confidence that if you breed for polled, you won’t lose other traits,” John said.

According to Lindsey, the use of genomics has been helpful to make faster progress in core production and health traits that are important to dairy producers, while still selecting for the polled gene.

The Burket’s animals are proof that polled animals can excel in type and production. More than half of the 150 Burket Falls bred animals that have classified as excellent are polled, with several of their polled animals boasting winnings at national shows.

“I think in time, not only our herd, but the entire Holstein breed will become polled,” John said. “I feel strongly that down the road, horned cattle will be discriminated against. Polled is the dominate trait, so it’s easier to breed for. As producers, we need to be ahead of the eight-ball; we should be breeding for polled animals voluntary, instead of waiting until we have to,” John said.

“We have had polled cows with production in the 25,000 to 30,000-pound range,” Jimmy added. Jimmy envisions that, in five years, his herd will be at least half polled or more.

Consumers, like dairy farmers, would like a world without dehorning. While that fairy tale isn’t a reality yet, dairy farmers like John and Jimmy are working towards making that polled utopia a reality.

The Science Behind the Tail Docking Debate

The FARM Program’s animal care checklist contains dozens of best practices designed to optimize the well-being of the cows at the center of the program. To enhance the credibility of the program, those requirements have to be defensible from an animal science perspective. Otherwise, the program risks losing its value to farmers and dairy customers.

Since FARM was created seven years ago, the program has opposed routine tail docking, precisely because a plausible defense of the practice is not supported by the research into the supposed benefits of docking. As the FARM Program moves toward a phase-out of tail docking in January 2017, we continue to receive inquiries about the evidence that says docking is not in the best interest of dairy cows.

We’re sharing this recent column from Hoard’s Dairyman because it directly addresses the main issues surrounding the continued use of tail docking.  As this paragraph below explains, veterinary medicine must be based on scientific evidence, and the evidence in this matter does not support the value of tail docking.  Thus, FARM cannot support it, either. And for the program to be relevant, credible and effective, the program cannot allow the routine practice of it to continue in the future.

“In veterinary medicine, we advocate “evidence-based medicine” as a means of setting the standards of care. There is a significant weight of scientific evidence that does not support the claims of any benefits to tail docking, and it is this scientific evidence that AABP has used in developing its positions on the practice of tail docking cattle.”

Consumers Care About Animal Care; Show Them You Do Too

This article originally appeared in the Farm Credit East 2016 Insights and Perspectives report. It was written by Jamie Jonker, vice president of sustainability & scientific affairs, at the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This farm is my business and none of yours!” It’s not hard to imagine hearing that response from a farmer a generation or two ago if a consumer asked about animal care on their farm. Some might even think this is an appropriate attitude today. However, expectations of customers and consumers have moved beyond merely trusting that a farmer is caring for animals properly, to asking for more transparency about production practices and demanding changes in some of those practices.

The roster of standard operating procedures and recommended practices on livestock and poultry farms is evolving, which is really nothing new. What is new is that this evolution is increasingly driven by both measurable animal welfare outcomes and by societal pressures about what is acceptable, as expressed by the clear and unequivocal expectations of our customers. The trust previously granted to farmers has been eroded, in part, by a continued barrage of coordinated campaigns promulgated by animal rights groups. In one recent study, more than half the respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs.” However, only one in four agreed that, “U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals.”

The consequences of not acting prudently and proactively on controversial animal care issues, but rather only reactively and defensively, can be seen on an almost daily basis. Whether through activist activity, customer requests, or for marketing distinctions, major U.S. companies are making increasing demands to change animal care and drug-use practices on poultry and livestock farms. By 2022, McDonald’s will only buy pork from farmers that do not use gestation crates. Chick-fil-A will only purchase products from poultry that have never received antibiotics for any reason by 2019. Wendy’s will use only cage-free eggs by 2020 . Additionally, state laws have been enacted outlawing some production practices. Tail docking of cattle and horses has been illegal in California since 2009.

Industry Response

Every livestock and poultry sector has on-farm animal care and drug-use programs to assist farmers in meeting these marketplace demands on production practices. These programs began decades ago as “Quality Assurance Programs,” educational programs focused on animal health and residue avoidance to improve the quality and safety of livestock products, and just as important, to increase the bottom line of farmers. Today, these have evolved into evaluation and certification programs where on-farm practices can be assessed and educational assistance provided to meet marketplace demands on production practices, while still helping to increase the bottom line of farmers. Links to these programs can be found at the conclusion of this article.

Nearly 10 years ago, the dairy industry saw a need for a national, industry-led, science-based animal care program. In 2009, the National Milk Producers Federation, with assistance from Dairy Management Incorporated (the dairy industry checkoff organization), created the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. Based on earlier guidelines from the Dairy Quality Assurance Center, the FARM program helps manage and direct these mounting animal care and drug-use pressures so that dairy farmers are not constantly whipsawed by demands from the marketplace. The FARM Program includes education, evaluation and thirdparty verification for the dairy industry to provide the transparency and rigor that any animal care program must use to build consumer trust.

To continue being relevant to customers and consumers, animal care standards need to adapt and change over time. It is important to defend practices that are defensible, critique those that are not, and exercise the wisdom and discretion to differentiate the two. This approach led to the decision in fall 2015 to accelerate the phase-out requirement for tail docking on dairy farms enrolled in the FARM Program. The deadline to end tail docking was moved up from 2022 to 2017, after which it will no longer be an acceptable practice.

When leading veterinary groups condemn routine tail docking, and no research exists to justify its practice from a milk quality or animal health standpoint, it becomes impossible to promote as credible a program that allows docking to continue. This decision effectively eliminated individual customers from enacting their own differing supply requirements for tail docking while retaining the integrity of a national industry-led, science-based animal care program — employed now by more than 90 percent of the U.S. milk supply in the nation. The practice is also no longer used in many major dairy exporting countries like New Zealand, and is banned by law in countries including Netherlands and Germany.

While transparency in animal care is new, quality animal care has always been the first and foremost focus for farmers. Farmers have a great story to tell when it comes to animal care on their farms. The goal of animal-care programs, like the FARM Program, is not to be an additional burden for farmers, but rather to collect the data that provides positive proof of what we already know to be true: farmers take excellent care of their animals. For dairy farmers, this quote from W. D. Hoard (1885 Hoard’s Dairyman) rings as true today as it did 130 years ago:

“The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated. The giving of milk is a function of Motherhood: rough treatment lessens the flow. That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle.”

Proper Animal Care Practices Need to be Shared with Everyone on the Farm

This post was written by Marie Goedert, a dairy farmer in Fort Morgan, Colo. 

June 6, 2015, was one of the hardest days of our lives. That was the day we were notified that our farm was under investigation for animal abuse, based on video footage of a few of our workers taken by an undercover Mercy for Animals activist who was employed at our dairy.

While we had already terminated the employees in question prior to any knowledge of the video, we decided to take this whole situation as a learning experience to improve our on-farm practices.

As we have grown our dairy from a 300-cow herd to a 2,500-cow operation, animal care has always been a priority since the beginning. What we quickly learned during this situation, however, was that we failed in keeping proper documentation. For example, we didn’t have anything verifying our trainings or employee agreements. Now, we keep records of everything and make sure they are readily available.

After the video incident, we started learning more about the tools and resources available to us through the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program. We worked with our cooperative field representative and staff from the FARM Program to create an improvement plan for our dairy. We had all of our employees sign cow care agreements. But it wasn’t just about getting their signatures; it was more about sitting down and making sure they understood our farm values and expectations around animal care.

For as long as this farm has existed, we have never allowed our employees to hit our cows. We trusted the people who worked here. We told all of our employees that animal abuse wasn’t tolerated on our farm, but I think we took for granted that they really heard what we were saying. Now, we’ve made it a priority that employees not only know our policies, but understand why they are in place.

The situation taught us that these expectations of animal care aren’t just something about which you train employees when they’re first hired, but something that needs to be communicated frequently to reinforce the concepts — and to continue to do things better on our dairy every day.

It’s also important that our employees realize they are our eyes and ears. If anything is happening that goes against our policies or endangers our animals, it’s their obligation to report it to us. Along with new trainings to keep our employees informed, we have posted signage around the dairy to remind our employees that if they see something, they need to say something.

The FARM Program helped us get through one of the most challenging times we’ve ever experienced on our farm, but we can say we’re a better operation now than we’ve ever been. This situation was a wake-up call for us and our employees. Now, continuous improvement — a principle of FARM — is something we work at every day. Our values and commitment to animal care hasn’t changed, but how we communicate and safeguard that commitment has.

(Photos courtesy of Marie Goedert)