A discovery by CSIRO scientists is central to the Australian Poll Gene Marker test, which is helping Australian cattle breeders select the best breeding cattle for their herds. It may also help the industry end the painful practice of dehorning beef cattle.

The challenge

Dehorning cattle is costly

A farmer droving dehorned cattle on his horse

Improving methods to breed cattle without horns will improve animal welfare and benefit industry.

Australian beef cattle are often transported for long distances, however cattle horns pose an injury risk during transport. Dehorning is therefore routinely practiced by beef producers to prevent the significant injuries caused by horns. These include bruising, hide damage and other injuries in yards, feedlots and during transport.

However, the dehorning procedure is labour-intensive and has implications for animal welfare. It is known that the productivity of weaner cattle is impacted following the de-horning procedure. Breeding polled, or naturally hornless, cattle reduces the need for dehorning.

Our response

Markers for hornless cattle

As an alternative to dehorning, researchers have developed a DNA marker test that facilitates breeding of naturally hornless beef cattle.

The inheritance of horns was reasonably well understood in European Bos taurus cattle breeds, and DNA marker tests to predict polledness – the natural lack of horns – in these breeds were commercially available. However, these tests were not useful for Bos indicus or Brahman cattle and Bos indicus-crosses, which dominate the cattle population in northern Australia.

We identified an effective DNA marker for polledness in these genetically complex Australian cattle breeds.

The DNA marker proved successful in research trials conducted across Australia by the Co-operative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies (Beef CRC), CSIRO, and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), in collaboration with the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit (a joint unit of Industry & Investment New South Wales and the University of New England).

The results

A test to breed hornless cattle

The new and improved poll gene marker test will help Australian cattle breeders select the best breeding cattle for their herds.

In August 2010 a commercial test was offered to the beef industry for validation. In November 2013 an updated test using an additional nine markers was released making it more accurate across more breeds.

The current Australian Poll Gene Marker test is used to determine if an animal is 'true polled', that is, carries two copies of the polled gene, and naturally lacks horns. Initially developed for use in Brahmans, the test can now be used with a high degree of confidence across a range of tropical and temperate cattle breeds enabling breeders to reduce horns in subsequent generations.

The test is available from the Animal Genetics Laboratory at the University of Queensland and Zoetis Animal Genetics.

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