On June 3, 1987, an average heifer was born on my family’s dairy farm and named Melamar Astro Jet Wendy.
Ukrainians in Canadian agriculture: Daryna Putintseva
This is the first of a series highlighting Ukrainian contributions to Canada’s agriculture sector. Daryna Putintseva is a Ukrainian digital…
She wasn’t remarkable. Many Astro Jet daughters were being born in southern Ontario at that time. The United Breeders Inc. bull was popular and known for daughters with great udders, decent butterfat per cent, and suspect leg set and rump angle.
However, when our veterinarian at the time, Alex Strong of Wingham Veterinary Clinic, came to dehorn her, he was perplexed that she had no horn buds and decided she was genetically polled. It was quite a curiosity and something we had not heard about on our small farm in the north end of Huron County.
By that point, polled beef cattle were rapidly on the path to becoming dominant, so it made sense that the trait could have been in Holsteins, hanging around, waiting for two polled-gene-expressing animals to find each other.
From those early days, and years of selection by small breeders like my father Mel Greig at Melamar Farm, polled has reached the mainstream. There are excellent polled bulls available around the world that compete with the best of the non-polled population.
Large farm players in dairy genetics, such as Stanton Farms at Ilderton, have focused on polled bulls as they build their own bull semen sales business. It struck me as I talked to people at a recent open house at Stanton Farms that polled is now a serious part of the breeding conversation, especially among commercial dairy farmers.
What I would have liked to have known in 1987 was that it would take 35 years for the polled trait to reach mainstream use. I expect it will take another 20 years for almost all Holsteins to be polled, but it will happen.
I was interested in Holstein genetics as a teenager and my dad and I searched for more information. It was slow in coming in those days of the early internet.
We talked to someone who put us in touch with Burket-Falls farm in Pennsylvania, where they’ve been breeding polled Holsteins since their first one showed up in 1960.
Semen was imported from bulls like Burket-Falls Dispatcher and Priority Policy-P and we were off on a slow-moving experiment that kept the breeding game interesting.
Understanding polled genetics was a great science lesson. I learned about dominant and recessive genes and haplotypes and Punnett Squares for figuring out the percentage chance offspring would have the polled trait.
There was a bunch of head scratching about the original polled cow on our farm. She was purebred Holstein by records, but some wondered if there were beef genetics in her background. Larry Specht, a professor of dairy science at Pennsylvania State University who combed herd books across Canada and the U.S., even visited us and decided the polled gene was a mutation.
That polled family didn’t turn out to be the most profitable on the farm, with poor udders and mediocre milk production. However, we kept breeding them and the genetic line continues to exist, nine generations after Astro Jet Wendy, in the form of cows that are now classified Very Good at Markvale Holsteins, owned by the Markus family, who bought my parents’ herd. (How much do I love the genetic line search capabilities of Holstein Canada?)
In the 1990s we started to apply polled genetics to some of our better families, with some trepidation, because the polled bulls were well below our baseline expectations for bull selection. Most of the polled breeders at the time were also breeding for red, which we discounted as too much to ask of a bull — to be genetically superior and also have two marginal traits.
By the time my parents sold their dairy cows, about five years ago, 25 to 30 per cent of the herd was polled. For his last several years of milking cows, my father used more and more polled bulls as they became available and small companies like DairybullsOnline focused on genomics and the polled trait.
However, it took the large genetics companies and the larger breeders to bring polled traits into the top production cattle, foisting it into the mainstream.
In the background, there were several people, like my father, who doggedly worked to breed the trait into the Holstein breed, setting the platform for its success today.
That’s where innovation starts, in the hands of people doing the work and making decisions every day.