Elusive Genetics: Choose that herd sire wisely

Updated 11/26/2012

Recently, I found three books that are a wealth of information: Animal Breeding, by Thomas Shaw, written in 1903, American Cattle by Louis Allen, written in 1868, and Stock Breeding by Manly Miles, written in 1879. These authors of a bygone era have much to tell us about the current situation of the cattle industry if we observe closely.  Certain information regarding the managing and breeding of heifers really got my attention.  Little did I realize how a heifer’s first pregnancy could have a profound influence on all her succeeding pregnancies regardless of which sire she was bred to after that.

Telegony is the name given to the hypothesis that offspring can inherit characteristics from a previous mate of the mother. Breeders call this "throwing back" and physiologists call it "infection of the germ". The idea here is that the sperm, enzymes, and hormones, which are injected by the male during copulation, affect the receiving female’s entire ovum apparatus from that moment forward. There is an absorption factor here and the ability of many substances to be absorbed through such ostensible membrane barriers is common knowledge.

In my estimation, the fact that these three authors, and others before them, observed this phenomenon was due to the pre-potency of the animals they bred and nourished. Their selection and careful guarding of the family lines produced animals that are something we can only aspire to today.

All three authors make a very distinct differentiation between purebred cattle and “grade” cattle. The easiest place to make a mistake is in purebred herds. Lack of selection and irresponsible out- crossing by a new owner can ruin the life work of a knowledgeable breeder in short order. Here, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind the blood elements (pedigree) of the females.  The closer related and more closed the breeding program, the faster improvements can be made. Without a proper knowledge of selection, defects can be bred in just as assuredly. Mr. Shaw elaborates upon this process: "The fact should not be overlooked, that upgrading will be more quickly accomplished when the females to be graded are already possessed of blood elements the same kind as those from which the males are chosen, and it will be facilitated proportionately to the degree in which these are possessed by the said females"  (Emphasis added).

Before starting, we need to know where the quality of feed fits into this paradigm. As we know that it takes 120 days to change out all of the red blood cells in the human or bovine body.  This is the minimum amount of time that the male and female need to be on the best forage possible to ensure that the healthiest sperm and egg are available to pass along the highest genetic potential. At this point the journey stops for the male, yet the female is required to create and sustain an intra-uterine environment so that the developing fetus will maintain its potential until the time of delivery. This genetic journey can be interrupted at any point or points along the way if the nutrition is taken away. As Mr. Shaw puts it, "Improved blood, therefore, <strong>without</strong><strong>suitable care and feeding</strong>, will not affect the improvement looked for by those who introduce it."

Starting in the 1930's, Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., M.D., conducted a now classic study on cats, which showed the power of nutrition in impacting multiple generations. Over a period of 10 years, Pottenger conducted studies involving upwards of 900 cats, which were fed either a healthy raw-food diet or a "junk-food" diet consisting mostly of cooked meat.

The cats on the raw-food diet thrived while those eating the cooked meat developed health problems – and the effects persisted in their offspring. While the cooked-meat cats of the first generation developed degenerative diseases later in life (and reportedly became lazy), the second-generation cats started to get sick in mid-life.

By the third generation, the cats developed degenerative diseases very early in life, had a shorter lifespan, and some were born blind. Many of the third-generation cats could not reproduce, and those that did produced even sicker offspring that often died within six months. By the fourth generation, the "junk food" cats died off completely.

You can read the details for yourself in the book Pottenger's Cats: A Study in Nutrition – the fact of the matter is, epigenetic changes have been found to be passed down through generations for decades now… (Epigenetic changes are how the environment we live in affects us).

Data from the <em>Dutch famine during WWII suggests specific types of diseases associated with specific windows of development during pregnancy. Women who were exposed to the famine during the first trimester gave birth to offspring with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease; women exposed during their second trimester gave birth to offspring with and increased risk of kidney disease; women exposed during their third trimester gave birth to offspring with an increased risk of insulin disorders. “You can’t starve a profit into your herd!” should be ringing loudly in our ears. Dick Diven says, “With limited nutrient availability, an animal will do only what is necessary and forgo other physiological functions. Life is necessary--conception, gestation and lactation are not.” Adequate energy from highly fertile soils will go a long way toward attaining the genetic potential of our animals.

“Bulls with perfect hair spirals - or symmetrical hair whorls in the middle of their forehead - may be more fertile than bulls with abnormally shaped hair whorls.

The research, released in 2002, suggests that hair whorls may be an indicator…. The effectiveness of a bull's sperm has been proven to be connected to the sperm's shape (normal or abnormal), known as sperm morphology. The tests were conducted on 150 black angus bulls.

Temple Grandin and Melissa Meola believe that the link between fertility and hair patterns on bulls may be explained by the fact that hair patterns and reproductive systems generally develop in the womb at the same time.” (Emphasis added)

If we have good-looking calves but our cows are falling apart, we have to suspect our soils. A human or bovine mother will nourish her offspring, robbing her very bones and organs to do so when necessary to give her young one all that it requires. If we see the cow going down hill, we have to look at our pastures, mineral box, and our management to find the answers.  Are our pastures full of weeds? Is our mineral box full of tainted minerals from China?  A better idea would be ancient sequestered mineral sources free of man’s pollution both for soil fertility and the mineral box. A cow with any kind of phenotypic, genotypic or endocrine deficiencies is going to suffer even more than one that is put together correctly. We must work at this problem from both ends. A combination of culling the “hard doers” and remineralizing our soils at the same time will give us the best long-term result.

What does this nutritional excellence bring to the breeding equation? Everything else being equal, bulls or cows with superior nutrition in their upbringing impart a constitutional vigor that enables them to stamp their offspring to a greater degree. As Mr. Shaw puts it, “Much depends upon the comparative physical power and strength of constitution in each parent, even more perhaps, than the composition of the blood.”  So much for relegating those fancy bulls to the south 40 until breeding season begins if you want all of the genetic potential you paid for!

Now that we have brought together a well-nourished male and female, what can we expect? If we fail to have a goal or target for our breeding program, we will always be looking for a new finish point. In this instance, a grass-finishing model will be used. We need animals that are consistently reproductively sound and functional on grass, have a high meat-to-bone ratio and produce fine textured, tender meat. The word consistently cannot be overemphasized here. If we get one animal out of twenty that fits all of these criteria, we may feel good about that animal, but what do we do with all of the “waste”?

Shaw refers us to Stonehenge’s 13 Maxim: “The more pure or less mixed the breed, the more likely it is to be transmitted unaltered to the offspring. Hence, whichever parent is of the most pure blood will be generally more represented in the offspring; but as the male is usually more carefully selected, and of purer blood than the female, it generally follows that he exerts more influence than she does.” Our first course of action then should be to acquire the bull that will make the improvements we desire to reach our goal. Buying one outright could be rather expensive and it will take time for the individual(s) to acclimatize to our environment. As a number of us have heard Gearld Fry state, “You can not buy a bull as good as one you can breed on your own farm.” Perhaps the best course of action is to take our females and artificially breed them to the bull that will simultaneously improve their weaknesses and add to their strengths. Mr. Miles points out something to keep in mind: “The number of cases in which the offspring resembles the male, are undoubtedly more numerous than the cases of resemblance to the female, for the obvious reason that the males selected for breeding, are as a rule, more highly bred than the females with which they are coupled and they have more numerous offspring from which the cases of resemblance are structured.” Thomas Shaw points out what happens when we do a poor job of selecting and nourishing the male: “It has been noticed that, in some instances at least, the whole female sexual system is less impressed when the male animals used in breeding are from any cost deficient in bodily vigor.  In other words, the sexual system of the female has been so feebly influenced, that it does not properly perform the function of which is capable through the strong impressions made upon it by the male element of fertilization.”

With a superior bull as a starting point, it is time to look at how the females and their many attributes can be used to help or hinder this program. A bull’s power to affect change in progeny will be regulated by the female’s purity, age and vigor along with her power to resist change. These are all mitigating factors on the influence of purity of bloodlines. The female will have more “resisting” power if she is matured, pre-potent and on good feed.  Bryan Sykes’ book Adam’s Curse and its description of the influence of Mitochondrial DNA come to mind!

Does or can the first bull that a heifer is bred to leave a lasting impression on her system that shows up in her subsequent offspring by other males? All three authors show that, the younger a heifer is when she is bred, the more likely this “impression” is to occur. Lewis Allen says, “The first breeding on a 14 month-old heifer leaves the greatest imprint because of her immaturity.” Thomas Shaw uses different words: “Such a result may arise, first, from the greater impressibility of the sexual system when first capable of being impregnated, on the principle that youth is always more plastic and therefore is more easily impressed than age.”  Mr. Miles states, “The most probable explanation is that as habit is the developed tendency to do again what has already been done, so the female reproductive system, having once given birth to offspring having a strongly marked character, becomes in a degree molded to that character, and tends to again produce it.  Young females especially should be carefully guarded from impregnation through inferior or ill bred sires.”

So how young can we breed if longevity in the cow is our goal?  Although all three authors said that the younger heifer is more “impressionable,” she is also less matured and her system is not yet ready for the strain.  Dr. Weston A. Price, in his watershed book <em>Nutrition and Physical Degeneration</em>, said that a human or an animal can retain about one-half of the minerals they ingest. This means that we have to have available to our animals twice their requirement in their feed and mineral box.  During times of stress, pregnancy, lactation, flight, etc. - their requirements are double.  At two years old, a heifer is not fully grown, is losing her teeth, and, if pregnant and lactating, she needs to be able to ingest twice her normal daily mineral requirements!  How can we expect her to finish maturing under these conditions?

Mr. Miles, over the course of twenty-five pages, maps out the theory of the influence of a previous impregnation.  This definition of telegony is summed up in his words: “The influence of the male in the process of procreation is not limited to his immediate offspring, but extends also, through the female that he has impregnated, to her offspring by another male.”  He listed a number of quite remarkable events in which females of various species, first giving birth from one male, then subsequently having offspring by another male of entirely different breed, coloring, etc., still had offspring resembling the first male.  He then quotes a certain Doctor Carpenter: “Some of these cases appear referable to the strong mental impression left by the first male parent upon the female; but there are others which seem to render it more likely that the blood of the female has imbibed from that of the fetus, through the placental circulation, some of the attributes which the latter has derived from its male parent, and that the female may communicate these, with those proper to herself, to the subsequent offspring of a different male parentage.” As Mr. Miles suggests, “…the mother was impressed with the paternal characteristics of the fetusduring its intra-uterine existence.”  Mr. Wright remarks, “This tendency greatly varies, and cannot therefore be calculated; but it exists” (Emphases added).

How is this possible? The authors all gave a number of good examples of habit, mental and blood aspects of this “impression.”  Professor James Law, after mentioning some of the theories that had been advanced to explain the phenomena under discussion, says, “… a simpler and more satisfactory explanation may be found.  It is a well known pathological fact that adjacent cells tend to engraft their plastic and formative powers upon each other.”  Cotyledons and Carunkles are the “connection” point between the cow and her calf while in-utero.  It is well known that the placenta and decidua are temporary organs that disappear at the time of parturition.  As early as the beginning of the eighth month a new membrane is being formed beneath the old.  This old mucous membrane is detached from the lining of the uterus at the time of birth. In this instance, we have adjacent cells, which could be “engrafting their plastic and formative powers upon each other.”

Shaw provides another explanation put forth by a Mr. Agssiz: “It therefore shows what I have satisfied myself to be the truth amongst the other animals, by numerous experiments; that the act of fecundation is not an act which is limited in its effect, but that it is an act which affects the whole system, the sexual system especially, and in the sexual system; the ovary to be impregnated here after is so modified by the first act that later impregnations do not efface that first impression.”  Could this be because the “heifer” had no drains on her system other than trying to grow and store fat?  Once she has a calf at her side, the demands on her system are greater and she has less “energy” to transmit to the genetic makeup of the next offspring or to resist the influence of a superior bull!

Chares Darwin was able to show that fertilization had an effect on the reproductive organs of the female and not just the embryo. Similarly, Mr. Shaw states, “The mere fact of the impregnation seems to determine the greater or less development and duration of the corpus leutium, it appears probable, from the facts that have been presented, that the corpus leutium of pregnancy derives its distinctive peculiarities from the direct influence of the male element upon the ovary.”Remember also that some of the excess semen during mating was also absorbed into her system. Assuming that this assertion by Shaw is correct, when the corpus leutium “diminishes” during the seventh, eighth and ninth month, this material, being a part of the father and absorbed into her system, leaves a “tattletale” of the sire’s impression on the female during the pregnancy.
Mr. Shaw describes very similar cases and says that
“…the succeeding progeny of the female previously impregnated, in some instances possess resemblances to the male by which she was thus impregnated cannot be gainsaid.  The instances in which it has been noticed have been so many and the resemblances have been so marked that they cannot be accounted for in any other way than by attributing them to the influence of such impregnation.”  With this caveat, Mr. Shaw sets out to describe three different theories about how the first breeding can set up patterns for the mother later in life.  His first theory suggests that the mother is impressed with the blood elements of the fetus during the time of pregnancy.  One-half of the elements are from the father, which she carries forth in future pregnancies. If different sires are used in the future, this similarity diminishes over time.
Enter Dr. Brooks:
“In the process of evolution, the development of the female has brought her to be more and more the protector and helper of the young. She gives to her progeny not only her share of its heredity, but she becomes more and more a factor in its development. In the mammalia the little egg is retained long in the body and fed, not with food yolk, but with the mother's blood. The parent thus becomes an immediate and most important part of the environment of the young.” The more we can get the blood elements of the female similar to those of the male, the more certain we can be of the offspring growing up to be consistently of the type we are looking for.

Mr. Shaw’s second theory suggests that the fetus impresses the placenta, which in turn impresses the cow’s system. Here is the “adjacent cells” theory talked about before.  His third theory is that an animal tends to repeat strongly marked characteristics out of habit.  Says Shaw, “It has been observed that impressions transmitted by males of the purest breeding are the most marked on the future progeny.”  He suggests that if we continue to breed a cow to the same bull for a number of years, her offspring will have ever more similarity to the bull.  I asked Ken McDowall about this in an indirect way.  He said that if he mated a heifer to a bull and the resulting offspring were of the quality that he wanted, he continued to breed that heifer to that bull until the option was no longer available.

How do we use this “theory” to our benefit in a purebred system?  Valuable, purebred stock should never be used for crossbreeding or out crossing.  Ideally we need a closed herd.  Second, because of their impressionability, young females should not be “crossed.”  Thirdly, we should guard our heifers diligently from impregnation by the wrong sires.

A new twist on this old theory would be to take half-blood cows to use as recipients for embryos. We would have the blood of the male parent already in the female. Her first calf would ideally be out of that same bull. I propose that the embryo calf out of this program would come out more phenotypically and genotypically correct. An assumption I made here is that the half blood recipient cow has all of the physical attributes required for being a recipient; wide, deep chest, broad rump, and a good escutcheon.

Improving “grade” cattle can be done very swiftly if the breeder has a practiced eye and is astute in selecting a herd sire.  Prepotency, phenotype and, if possible, proving up of the progeny are a must in the initial stages.  In this “grade” scenario, the form of the female, phenotype and meat quality indicators, are more important than the blood elements.  Mr. Shaw states…” When breeding grades the more mingled the blood elements in the females, the more marked will be the improvement in the progeny, since their power to resist change weakens with the increase of diversity in the blood elements."  Another version of the same is…” Cross the first sire chosen upon females of common or mixed breeding, since such material is not costly, and continue to use the sires thus chosen from generation to generation, upon the selected females of the progeny.  The blood elements in the foundation females, though a factor of some importance, are not as important as the -conformation;" in same." (Emphasis added) The author quotes a certain Earl Spencer: “The worse bred the female is, the greater the influence of a well bred male upon the offspring, and this accords with the observations of practical men generally.”  Everything else being equal, the people who are using superior bulls to cross and who see the least change at the half-blood level did the best job of selecting pre-potent cows to start with.

The model for the American Herbataurus Society is a perfect fit for this previous impregnations theory.  Assuming we manage our cattle correctly, selecting our females (commercial or pureblood) based on phenotype and meat quality characteristics is the starting point for a grass-finishing herd.  Linear measuring would be an excellent first step for most producers to select for the animals to put into their mother cowherd.  If nothing else, it is the fastest way I know to improve your “eye” for selecting animals in the future.  Our second step should be to select for as much meat quality in the females as possible, as they have more of an overall affect here. Quality can be observed visually with the presence of unusually small, fine cannon bones; a pointed poll; the adrenal hair whorl placed in the shoulder area or forward; a pliable, soft hide; short, shiny, early-shedding hair coat; an escutcheon with a broad “spade” and long “handle”; clean hock; flat rib bones, and a fine tail bone with a large switch. Using our own heifers that fit the foregoing description; allowing them to mature, and breeding them to a prepotent Rotokawa Devon bull or will be helpful in our journey.

Now that we have the cream of our crop as a starting point, we can look at the weaknesses in each animal and breed them to a bull whose breeding and physical characteristics are strong in the areas each cow is weak.  This will result in calves that will surpass their dams.  If the cows phenotypically averages a 3 and the bull a 4.5 on a 5 point scale, we should see offspring in the “3.75” area on average. The cows which have offspring exceeding this average, should be bred right back to the same bull. In some cases, those cows whose offspring saw very little improvement might be candidates to try a different mating the next time.

The longer a cow is bred to the same bull, the more her “blood” conforms to that of the bull according to the theory of telegony.  Mr. Shaw states, “It is easy to understand why intensity of breeding should more powerfully affect the sexual system of the females, but on the recognized principle that habit is usually strengthened with repetition, why should not those influences which first gave bias to the sexual system in a certain direction grows stronger rather than weaker?” If a two-year-old heifer is first bred to this superior bull, according to the theory described above, she will retain some of that influence even if bred to a different bull. The more we resist going with the crowd, changing to another outside bull every year or two, the more we maintain a closed herd, the more this “previous impregnation” can help us to build consistency in our herds.  So choose your herd sires wisely, especially for your heifers.    Hasty decisions could make your genetic target elusive.

Posted on September 4, 2015 .