Is there room for horned cattle in the beef industry?

PRODUCTIVITY: Genetic selection offers tools in promoting polled cattle. Picture: Supplied
PRODUCTIVITY: Genetic selection offers tools in promoting polled cattle. Picture: Supplied

Horns in cattle are a major cause of bruising, injuries and hide damage.

The CSIRO (2014) estimates that bruising in cattle costs the Australian beef cattle industry $30 million annually.

This equates to about $4 per head at slaughter.

Research has shown that the weight of bruised tissue trimmed from the carcasses of horned cattle is about twice that from hornless cattle (polled or dehorned).

Horned cattle are generally more aggressive and are more likely to hurt other cattle, are more difficult to handle, require more space when transported and when watering or feeding at troughs.

The safety risk to the handler is also increased. Public perception around animal welfare, and the economic and social licence considerations, will put the practice of dehorning cattle in the spotlight over coming years.

As seen in the sheep industry over recent years, the push back from end users to the practice of mulesing, has seen the industry move to alternate options, that are more socially acceptable and less painful to the animal. Brad Kupsch, Allanooka, Western Australia, agrees,

"As an industry, we need to be setting the trend not reacting to society's demands."

Brad crops 5000 hectares (wheat, canola, lupins and chickpeas), runs Tara Limousin and Black Tara Angus studs, and his own branded Limousin beef product, Tara Beef, selling direct to the public and the restaurant trade.

Brad's diversified approach, putting about 100 head through his branded beef label annually, selling stud bulls and replacement females, and rotating cattle through his stud to commercial herds, allows him to adapt to the variable seasonal conditions.

While an advocate for polled cattle, Brad believes the most important aspect of any beef production system is understanding your markets and their specifications.

"We run polled herds and use homozygous polled cattle in our breeding program. Polled cattle tick all the boxes for our markets. The absence of horns reduces the amount of carcase bruising and not having to dehorn cattle also saves us time and labour."

The Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Cattle, 2nd Edition (2004), states that cattle must be dehorned at six months of age or less, or when they are first mustered.

The requirements of the code are adopted into state legislation in all Australian states and territories with the exception of Victoria, which has its own cattle welfare code. In northern Australia, year-round mating is commonly practiced and calves can range from three to ten months of age at the time of first muster.

Dehorning older calves is not recommended as wounds take longer to heal, hence the risk of infection increases. Research also shows that short-term weight loss can occur, and is often more pronounced in the warmer northern Australian climate.

Research by the Beef Cooperative Research Centre (2014), found mortality rates in calves that were dehorned were two percent higher than polled calves.

Dehorning is labour-intensive, and although common practice and commercially necessary, dehorning is painful regardless of the method used. As a result the practice is likely to be subject to renewed animal welfare legislation over the coming years.

So what's the alternative? Breeding for polledness Selection of sires and dams with polled genetics will result in the largest gains, and identifying animals that have been DNA tested as homozygous polled will speed up the transition to a polled herd.

Polledness is a qualitative trait that is controlled entirely by genetics. Animals are either polled, horned or scurred, but large variations are seen in the expression of these genes within the three phenotypes.

Only a few genes control polledness, with the polled gene located in the region of the animal's DNA on chromosome 1. Two basic alleles, the polled and the horned alleles, have been identified for the polled gene.

Animals inherit two alleles for polledness with one coming from each parent. The polled allele is dominant over the horned allele. Cattle will only be homozygous horned if they inherit two horned alleles.

Homozygous polled animals (inherit two polled alleles) or heterozygous polled (inherit one polled and one horned allele) will be either polled or scurred.

The scurs gene is only expressed when the poll allele is present.

The expression of the scur gene is also sex dependent. John Thompson from The Rock, NSW, uses homozygous polled bulls in his self-replacing breeding herd.

The Thompson's target the vealer market, selling calves at 9-10 months of age, weighing around 350kg.

"We bought our first Limousin bull about eight years ago and when his calves hit the ground and started growing horns, we moved to purchasing homozygous polled Limousin bulls," John said. "Polled cattle are easier to handle and we find them quieter then horned cattle."

"We use to dehorn years ago, but it is labour intensive, and with our hay contracting business in addition to our beef operation, time is limited. If we can reduce labour intensive practices, increase handler safety and produce a product that appeals to buyers, we are on a winner," said John. Poll gene testing The Beef CRC first commercialised a DNA marker test in 2010, enabling polled cattle to be identified.

The more recent development of the SNP-based poll test uses SNP markers rather than the microsatellite markers. Phenotypic data is not required, the test results are more accurate and there are potential cost-savings for the industry through co-testing on compatible genomics platforms.

The test is simple, with hair, semen or tissue samples from individual animals submitted for testing.

The test is offered by a number of commercial companies and can be done as a standalone test or as part of genomics bundles.

The Australian Limousin Breeders Society are leading the way in the transition to polled herds.

Domestic market appeal looking over the fence and speaking with other producers around the district, dairy producer Michael Black, Heywood, Victoria, made the decision two years ago, to join his Friesian heifers to homozygous polled Limousin bulls.

"Most producers around Heywood are breeding F1 crosses, turning off vealer calves at around 10-11 months of age (450-500kg), selling directly to Coles and Woolworths," Michael said.

"The infusion of Limousin genetics gives the calves plenty of muscle. The added bonus of using homozygous polled genetics also means the issues experienced with horned cattle disappear." Michael said, "The Friesian Limousin steer is polled and looks almost 100 per cent Limousin with some white tip markings."

Mixed farmer Jim Parker, Yeo, Victoria, also supplies milk vealers to Coles and Woolworths.

Jim joins his F1 Friesian/Angus cows to polled Limousin bulls. "Coles and Woolworths have a requirement for polled cattle. Joining our F1 females to a polled Limousin bull allows us to meet the market specifications, with the Limousin genetics also adding the extra muscle into the calves," Jim said. "The absence of horns reduces the amount of space required for transport when compared to horned animals, and most importantly, the amount of bruising on carcasses is reduced, which means more money in our pocket."