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Matrix the Bull and the "Woolly Calf" Cattle Mutation
Matrix the Bull
In 2010 a bull called Matrix was promoted as a sire for dairy cattle. Only after many farmers had selected this sire for their herds did problems start to emerge with his progeny. Due to how rapidly sires can be used with modern artificial insemination techniques, about 900 New Zealand farmers used this sire to breed their replacement dairy cows. before the problems were apparent.
About 50% of Matrix's offspring has unusual traits:
- Rough hairy coat
- Stocky body type
- Poor milk production
- Easily stressed by high temperatures
Not only are these calves a commercial loss as they cannot produce good milk, but they seem to suffer compromised welfare as their heat sensitivity leaves them scrambling for shade, panting and even climbing into water troughs.
Matrix was sired by a bull called Halcyon. Halcyon was an unusually hairy bull but seemed to be otherwise normal.
However, in addition to the problems with Matrix's offspring, the daughters of Halcyon were also producing hairy calves. This suggests a spontaneous mutation in Halcyon is the cause.
Early in 2012 testing of Halcyon's daughter showed that those with hairy appearance carried a mutation on a section of chromosome known to be related to lactation and coat type. In March the effect was narrowed down to a single base pair.
"Most farmers recognise that these rare mutations are naturally occurring and simply a fact of life" -- LIC genetics general manager.
Should farmers be compensated for hairy calves?
Livestock Improvement (LIC)
Livestock Improvement (LIC) sold the semen from Matrix. They claimed that as Matrix was carrying a spontaneous mutation they were unaware of, they should not have to pay compensation to the effected farmers. Instead, farmers should accept that mutations of this type are a risk of using any bull semen.
As the mutation is new, it could not be tested for and was discovered only when the effects were seen in calves. So LIC points out there was no way they could have known about the mutation when the semen was sold.
LIC is a farmer-owner cooperative not well placed to afford the $1000 per cow cost of compensation payments. This would be multiplied by an estimated 1500 effected animals.
The Underlying Problem
Genomics companies encouraged farmers to rush to use the current "top bull" based on genetics markers. In the past bulls would tend to only gradually become popular as their offspring proved their worth as milk cows.
In 2013 the New Zealand Commerce Commission cleared LIC of making any misleading claims. However there is still a great deal of debate over just how much farmer should be able to expect when to comes to the performance of bulls that may be carrying new spontaneous mutations.