When everybody else I knew wanted to be teachers and doctors and astronauts when they grew up, I wanted to be a geneticist. I read the entry on genetics in our encyclopedia more times than I can count. (You know, back in the day before Google answered every question.) By the time my fifth grade teacher first drew a Punnett square on the chalkboard, I could have taught the whole lesson.
My interest in genetics came almost entirely from our dairy cows. Our herd was made up of multiple combinations of Holstein, Milking Shorthorn and Brown Swiss genetics. We had blacks, whites, reds, red roans, blue roans and dark chocolates. We had solids, patches, speckles, and spots. The combinations of colorings and markings were always interesting and exciting.
My favorites were the blue and red roans. To this day, I still love the way two colors blend to make roan markings.
That's a good part of the reason why Glory is one of my favorite cows. (She also happens to be a gentle, trouble-free cow with great conformation.) Glory is a blue roan, the daughter of Ginny, my Milking Shorthorn cow. Glory was born the year after we bought the herd from my dad.
I was so mad when Ginny settled to a Holstein bull. But, I couldn't be too mad; she hadn't settled to any of the Shorthorn bulls we'd tried and, at her age, it was critical that she settled, regardless of the bull's breed.
I had to eat my angry words when Glory was born with dark blue, white, and blue roan markings. It had been several years since a heifer calf with any roan was born into the herd. And it was especially surprising because Ginny was not roan. The closest roan in Ginny's pedigree was her great-grandmother.
Since Glory's first mating, I have been trying for a roan daughter. She has delivered calves sired by both black and white Holsteins and red and white Holsteins, but none of them have been roan heifers. One of her bull calves was what we call a navy blue roan, so I know she can produce roan calves. She's pregnant again now with a Milking Shorthorn calf; I've got my fingers crossed that the roan will come through on a heifer calf.
Garnet, one of our non-roan Milking Shorthorn cows, delivered a calf sired by the same bull that Glory is bred to. Garnet's calf, a bull of course, was heavily speckled, but not quite roan. So, maybe, with Glory's roan, her calf has a better chance.
I was talking with a rancher from South Dakota at a recent meeting. He raises registered beef Shorthorns. We got to talking about roans (because his son prefers to show blue roans) and the challenges of breeding for roan calves. He said the best way to increase the odds of getting a roan calf is to use a white bull.
For all my early interest in genetics, I never knew white bulls would throw roan calves. Apparently, I should have asked Google a long time ago. A quick search confirmed what the rancher told me and provided a little more information on the complexities of roan genetics.
After talking with the rancher, I figured my chances of getting a roan calf from Glory were pretty slim. I know Glory's calf's sire has roan daughters in other herds, but I don't know if he's white.
I also figured that Glory was my only chance for getting another roan. But I was wrong.
A couple weeks ago, I walked out to check the dry cows in their pasture and saw that Gala, a first-calf heifer, had calved. At first I was concerned because I didn't see a calf anywhere. Then I found her calf hiding back by the grove. I almost did a cartwheel; Gala's calf was a red, roan, and white heifer calf.
Gala is Glory's red and white granddaughter. Gala was bred to a red and white Holstein bull. A roan calf shouldn't have been possible. But there she was. There hasn't been a calf like her in the herd in over 20 years. I was, and still am, ecstatic.
We named Gala's calf Gloriana, in honor of her great-grandmother and her roan heritage. I still can't believe that Glory's roan came through three generations later. But, then again, Glory's roan came from her great-grandmother, too.
Maybe, with the help of a white bull or two, Glory and Gloriana will add a few more roans to the herd.
Dairy cattle genetics are as interesting now as they were when I was a little girl.