Greg Palen July 2013
A polled heifer calf tops the Ohio Spring Production sale, selling for $14,000 (US). Not more than a month later, a polled heifer tops the National Heifer Sale selling for $26,000.
All three polled consignments exceed the sale average. What is going on here?
Basically, the polled possibility in Jerseys is having the same expansion in the population of breeding caliber cattle as it is having in the Holstein and Red & White breeds. This is in part driven by interest from globally marketed AI studs to provide more polled options. But it has been building behind the scenes for many years
As an example, there is the Northcoast Group, based in east-central Ohio, an association of Amish and Mennonite dairymen producing milk for local cheese plants, who switched to Jerseys from Holsteins in the 1970s, and by the 1990s had added “polled heads” to the list of traits and qualities they wanted their Jerseys to have. This group has been able to privately market semen across the country from their polled Jersey sires, mostly among a clientele involved in grass based and certified organic milk production. They have not sold any polled bulls to AI studs, having a “cow line” pedigree and phenotypic selection philosophy, but dissemination of their cattle around the country has influenced the rising interest in naturally hornless Jerseys for both purebred and crossbred use especially since they found their first homozygous (“pure polled”) sire over a decade ago.
Polled heads is the sort of “dominant” (single parent) gene trait that attracts the interest of the “dirt farmer” dairyman—the highly practical farmer putting his crops through cows as a marketing strategy, who wants no nonsense, easy keeping, highly adaptable cattle. The handful of breeders who kept track of breed sources of polled and multiplied their polled numbers, were not chasing indexes—they were chasing combinations of practical (health and fertility) traits they could align with the polled gene and produce seedstock for their dirt farmer neighbors’ use.
Thus polled is a trait that grew “under the radar” until the commercial demand for polled heads could no longer be ignored by AI systems trapped in the “ranking game”. Lack of awareness of polled gene sources led many to the misimpression that polled dairy cows must be crossbreds with beef ancestors (highly ironic in the case of Jerseys, because the original Jersey Island cows were ALL polled prior to the Enclosure Acts in the 1800s).
People in tune with market desires saw that polled sires would sell without ranking at the top of the genetic lists, which for too long were narrowly defined by “milk” and “type” alone, a focus narrow enough to produce a shrinking gene base in all major breeds. One of the overlooked factors in polled dairy cattle is that they represent a useful “outcross” to the popular genetic lines. Taurus Service in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, a regional AI system adept at focusing on market niches, began to specialize in bringing polled dairy sires to the broad AI market, and now boasts an ongoing program of polled Holstein, Red Holstein, Jersey and Milking Shorthorn bulls as part of their “New Age” alternative genes venture (with Genetics Australia).
Every major AI system in the US now actively seeks polled Jersey and Holstein sires.
Their stimulus was the exploding demand in Europe for polled Holsteins, a result of the animal rights initiatives that strongly affect animal agriculture across the EEC (dehorning according to regulations now costs the European dairyman E70 per horned calf!). But in the case of Jerseys and polled, the USA motivation relates more to the recognition that Jersey is the one major breed with a strong growth trend, and that polled is in demand in the same sort of geography where Jerseys are in demand—grass based dairy sectors, more semitropical climates, seasonal calving management, and large scale dairying with premium costs for purchased feed (affecting the supply of heifer replacements).
The advantages of polled show up faster as herds get larger. Dairy labor is at a premium, and dehorning is nearly the nastiest job on the herdsman’s list. Dehorned calves lose a months’ growth alongside their polled stablemates, proving there is a health reaction to dehorning no matter what technique is used. Where dehorning leaves wounds, parasites find entry to the calf’s head and force us to expenses of individual treatment, may cause disease or death if there is a shortage of attention to this age group. The odd cow with horns in a mostly dehorned herd is a constant risk of injury to her stablemates.
Thus the market value of naturally polled genes is rising as we better recognize the costs of dairying can rise faster than our incomes. Better managers know their costs and seek those that can be eliminated without affecting the income flows and profitability. Polled as a genetic option has actually made “genetics” more interesting to expansion dairymen who were increasingly sensing the index ranking game was a matured technology.
In our herd, starting twelve years ago to introduce the polled gene into our Jerseys, we are now at a point where we only keep polled replacements. We have found it easy to breed the kind of cows we wanted from the limited polled sources, utilizing a practice of mating our favored cows to a phenotypically compatible polled bull, saving any polled bulls born and using them for the following generations where we felt they fit. Over these recent years, mating a third of our herd to our own and Northcoast Group bulls, and occasional use of AI source polled bulls, utilizing the “aAa” Breeding Guide (Weeks’ Analysis) to determine the final mating, we now find that two thirds of our herd is polled cows, and the fertility and longevity of these cows insures we only need 20% of our annual heifer crop as replacements. Again, although a “stand alone” gene in nature, the pioneering breeders of polled Jersey cattle were breeding for their own profits rather than AI market popularity, thus favored “complete cows” (easy calving, fertile, healthy, long lived) as the dams of their polled sires, and these genes for superior strength of constitution show up as you multiply the polled effect over additional generations.
Our heifer raiser (who handles the marketing of all our surplus heifers) had a phone call this spring from a prior purchaser, who said “I want first chance at every heifer you will calve in 2014” to fill his recently building dairy facility. “Your heifers get better each year they calve, while the others we have bought just wear out too early.” What made our heifers more adaptable to his needs as a new dairyman? The bundle of selection traits and mating qualities we have assembled from polled Jersey sources, essentially an outcross to the mainstream of prior popular Jersey focuses. Anyone with Jerseys now has this opportunity available to them, across the Jersey world.
(Who is Greg Palen?)
Owner of Netherhall Dairy Farm (rotational grazed pasturage, forage based feeding) and Netherhall Polled Jerseys (selected for cheese yield component % levels and longevity).
This dairy began in 1979 with purebred Holsteins, added Jerseys in 1986, and became all Jersey in 1994 with a switch from TMR feeding to seasonal rotation grazing. Current management of the farm and herd is the responsibility of Tim and Liz Heinze.
Owner of Mich Livestock Service, Inc, an independent AI service based in and serving central Michigan, acting in distribution for smaller AI systems like Taurus Service, Inc and its affiliates, International Protein Sires, Trans World Genetics, featuring polled sires.
This business was begun in 1952 by his father, Charles, with Curtiss Breeding Service, and has three salesmen, including the recent addition of a full line of forage seed species.
Acted in wholesale distribution and dealer recruitment for Tri State Breeders Cooperative (now called Accelerated Genetics) for Michigan, Indiana and Ohio from 1980 to 1990, and then performed the same function for Semex Canada from 1991 to 1995 in the same states. Both companies now service these areas with exclusive employees.
Approved to provide “aAa” Breeding Guide (Weeks’ Analysis) in 1994, now with clients in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania (USA) and Ontario (Canada). This is my current business focus. “aAa” acts independently of any AI stud or herdbook and provides analysis of qualitative gene effects, distinct from linear trait evaluation methods.
Graduate of the University of Michigan School of Business Administration in 1975 with a major emphasis in marketing and a minor in finance. Married 37 years to Wife Sue, three grown children, one grandson.
President of the Ovid village Downtown Development Authority since 2004. Elected Supervisor of Ovid Township in 2012. Plays tuba in “Ovid-Elsie Community Alumni Band” and cuts firewood all winter for exercise.