Monday, 19 June 2017

My third trip to the Lippeaue

By the end of April, I visited the Lippeaue, Germany, again and met with the workers of the ABU Soest to have a look at the Taurus cattle herds and discuss. As usual, it was a very enjoyable and informative trip and I took a lot of photos. Please don't use them without permission. 
For my first trip in 2013, go here. For my second trip in 2015 go here

What has changed since 2015

The two years since I visited the herds the last time in fall 2015 saw some deaths of good individuals unfortunately (Liberta, Lambada) but also a number of calves turned into interesting animals. As a whole, the herds were quite a bit less numerous compared to 2015 and 2013 sinc a lot of individuals were sold because the herds got too big (now there are about 85 individuals in total grazing in the Lippeaue). Two herds have new breeding bulls: Disselmersch and Klostermersch-Süd. The former bull at Disselmersch, a son of Laokoon and Larissa, was slaughtered because of his small Chianina-like horns shortly after I visited the herd. Londo, the former breeding bull at Klostermersch-Süd, was slaughtered too last year. He was too dachshund-legged and small overall, and all of his offspring turned out to be dachshund-legged as well – this an interesting and actually not all that negative fact. Londo was one of the very few “true F2” crosses, and even a cross between siblings, so I predicted him to be to be stable for a number of traits that he possessed – the good ones just as much as the undesired ones. The fact that all of his offspring shared his dachshund-leggedness shows that the concept working with “true F” crosses actually works, it just happened to work on an undesired trait. Having luck with another true F2 and using it as a breeding bull might stabilize the herd in a desirable way. The new breeding bull at Klostermersch-Süd will be introduced in the section “the herds”. We did not have enough time for Disselmersch this time unfortunately, but I saw a photo of the new bull, and it looked pretty good.

Breeding-strategies – why still back-crossing?

In the past we already discussed why limitations of area size, conservational aspects, animal welfare as much as practical obstacles make it impossible to shift to a completely different breeding scheme in the Lippeaue (or all other grazing projects, by the way), f.e. such as trying a “true F2” scheme as described in this post. Further problems would be a high degree of inbreeding and a high portion of animals not suitable for further breeding. However, I suggested that paying attention on producing single “true F” individuals that look good and using them as breeding animals might speed up the process without any additional costs or effort. While that may or may not be true, Margret Bunzel-Drüke told me that she would be cautious on increasing the degree of inbreeding that much in a cattle herd, because of the danger of fixating deleterious alleles. Cattle are not laboratory mice, after all. Nevertheless, “true Fs” are still produced in the Lippeaue, but coincidentally; f.e. the breeding bull “Laokoon’s brother” is placed among two cows of the same breed combination as he is.
Another aspect that we discussed is back-crossing with the founding breeds. The Lippeaue population actually has almost all possible combinations of the three main founding breeds already, and also in an advantageous relation: in 2013, the genealogical contribution to the gene pool was 47% Sayaguesa, 29% Heck, 20% Chianina and 4% Lidia – an almost ideal relation of breeds. Back-crossing with the founding breeds and using half-pure individuals as breeding bulls instead of working only with advanced crosses will always slow down the breeding process. So why not closing the gene pool and working with the genes that are present in the population?
I and Margret talked about this issue and the main reason for continuing the back-crossing with the founding breeds is to increase genetic volume. In the 1990s, they started with only very few individuals of Chianina and Sayaguesa (two in the case of the former and three in the case of the latter), so the genetic basis for the whole herd, which has produced hundreds of individuals since then, was comparably narrow. So they continue to back-cross them with good animals of those two breeds in order to increase the genetic diversity of the herd, which is vital, especially when considering that the Lippeaue is the main source for Taurus breeding individuals in Germany and therefore has a big influence on the Taurus and Heck cattle gene pool as a whole. And they do have really good pure Sayaguesa, such as the red cow Julia or the one at Klostermersch-Süd, and also the Chianina cow Laura is really good and of Rainer Titzentaler’s large-sized strain. The Wörth Heck cow Nadia’s job is not only back-crossing but also to increase the horn volume in the herd, and I am really looking forward to see the results of mixing the Taurus and Wörth lineage.
Of course traditional breeding and continuing back-crossing slows down the progress a bit, but I was told that they do not feel the need to hurry up – not to forget, the Lippeaue is not an aurochs project per se, but conservational management of a reserve using cattle, and breeding them towards an aurochs-like phenotype is a side-project, so to say (and this is the case in all grazing projects, by the way).

Bull sizes

A pretty interesting question for me has always been the size of Taurus cattle. In 2015, we managed to measure two cows (Bionade and Liberta, somewhere between 153 and 155 cm at the withers). More interesting is the size of the bulls, of course. Lucio, a pretty early cross bull, was measured somewhere between 160 and 165 cm at the withers, and it was the only bull for which height data was known so far. Because it was such a large individual, we assumed most of the other bulls would be smaller. Then there was the notion that Olaf Nowacki’s Taurus bulls (both born in the Lippeaue) would have reached 170 cm at the shoulders – I was sceptical at first, because they would have surpassed Lucio, a bull that already was seemingly an exceptionally large bull.
However, I once again took my yardstick with me. When we took at the look at the Kleiberg herd, Matthias Scharf managed to measure the breeding bull Linnet. The result was somewhere between 155 and 160 cm. However, Linnet is known not to be the tallest due to his shorter legs compared to other bulls. So when we moved on to Hellinghauser Mersch, where 42 623 (“Laokoon’s brother”) is the breeding bull, we measured the height of the arresting gear’s top bars, for which 42 623 was large enough to scratch is shoulders when he was in it last time for routine examination. It turned out that it was 170-175 cm high, so 42 623 must be 170 cm tall at the withers at least! This is a good size for an aurochs bull. These data, from Linnet and 42 623, sets whole new standards for the size of Taurus bulls. It means that 170 cm for both of Nowacki’s bulls is absolutely plausible and that Lamarck, which is taller than Linnet, is probably about 160-165 cm tall. It also means that Taurus bulls are, with the exception of the few pure Chianina and large Holsteins that might be here, the largest cattle in Central Europe.
Confirmed: 42 623 is a giant
On the small end of the spectrum, there was Londo. In the field we took a look at its decaying skull, and I measured the distance between his horn tips and it was exactly 70 cm long. Then at home I used the photo of Londo in profile looking exactly towards the camera and tried to calculate his withers height. The result was 148cm – the size of a very large Heck bull, and considering that he is about the same height as many of the Taurus cows on the photos, it might be an accurate approximation. So Margret and I concluded that the size of Taurus bulls usually varies between 150 and 170 cm. For the cows, two individuals might be too few to give such a broad statement – I am pretty sure the upper size limit of Taurus cows is 160cm at the withers (Larissa is bigger than Liberta or Bionade), and I do not know the lower size limit.
Londo's decaying head. Horn span 70 cm
The herds

- Kleiberg

Bionade is a grown cow now and produced interesting offspring, such as the daughter 01 861 together with Linnet. In such an advanced cross like this, it is unnecessary to calculate the exact genealogical breed combination because it will not match the actual genotype, let’s just say she is more than the half Sayaguesa plus a bit of Heck and Chianina and she absolutely looks like it. She might be the best-looking cow in the Kleiberg herd, despite her horns facing not inwards. 55 400, a daughter of 42 623, although quite good regarding body and horn shape, is another one of those with the mysterious creamish colour variant with diluted nasal mucosa. We do not know which breed is responsible for this variant, perhaps more than one, and it might also be coupled with some abnormities in keratin development because their coat and horns are rather brittle. The oldest cow is Ludovica, 17 years, the only remaining first-generation cross from the 90s and Heck x Chianina. The young cows look promising. The young bull (I do not know its mother) looks quite good so far, maybe it will grow into a good possible breeding bull. Linnet himself has comparably short legs, as typical of all the offspring of the Sayaguesa bull Churro, which happened to have short legs as well. But nevertheless, Linnet is a valuable bull. Not only for his muscular build, but especially for his thick, inwards-curving horns. Truly inwards-curving horns are comparably rare even in primitive bulls (exception: Maronesa f.e.), and Linnet is the Lippeaue bull with the most inwards-curving horns. In an aurochs, they would curve even further inwards, comparable to those of this wild yak.
Father and son: Churro and Linnet (photo of Churro: Matthias Scharf)
Bionade (Sayaguesa x Chianina)
01 861
55 400
Old lady: Ludovica
- Hellinghauser Mersch

Hellinghauser Mersch is usually the largest of the herds. Dona-Urraca, the oldest of the cows (21 years) is grazing there. She is rather skinny now and probably will not calf anymore, but she produced many good individuals in the past. Her horns are remarkable for the inwards-curve that she passed on to a lot of her offspring. Another very good-horned cow is 79 813. She is a daughter of Lamarck and Lepisma, and therefore quarter Lidia. She is one of the more cautious individuals, but not nervous or aggressive. Lepisma herself clearly shows her half-Lidia descent in looks, but is comparably gentle. Two other rather good cows in the herds are Laola and 42 028 (now nicknamed “Dunja”). Both are 50% Sayaguesa 50% Heck x Chianina and therefore produce “true F2” individuals with the breeding bull 42 623 (“Laokoon’s brother”, still has no proper own name). About half of the young bulls in the herds are rather light in colour, they either have a saddle or are almost cow-coloured in one case; I suggested selecting them out, because the father 42 623 already has a saddle himself and continuing to use such a lightly coloured offspring might bear the danger of perpetuating this trait. Nevertheless, looking at 42 623 himself, I really like this giant. Not only for his size, but also for his muscular body with the well-developed hump. The horns are ok as well, the body a bit heavy on the other side. Apart from Dona-Urraca, there are three more Sayaguesa cows in the herd: Julia, a red one that looks rather aurochs-like, Baba, another brownish one (her male offspring, unfortunately, often had short faces and a heavy belly as far as I can tell), and Augustina. One of my favourite Taurus cows, 42 604, is having an injured foot since about half a year or so, and it is not clear if she is going to make it. That’s a bit depressing since she is a real beauty in my opinion, but she seems not to be that tall. There is one young son of her in the herd, a black one, perhaps he is going to develop well. Another young bull, a son of 72 813, has a surprisingly diluted colour – keeping in mind that both its parents are 12,5% and 25% Chianina, however, it might not surprise that much anymore.
42 623 and the Sayaguesa Augustina
Lirgit (mostly Heck, a bit of Chianina and less Sayaguesa)
Lepisma: half Lidia, half Heck x Chianina
42 028
Lirgit again
42 028 again
...and again
...and again
42 604 and her son
79 813
...and her son
...having horns shaped like the breeding goal
Sayaguesa cow Baba
One of 42 623's sons: too much red colour areas for its age

- Klostermersch-Nord

Klostermersch-Nord is the herd of my favourite Taurus bull, Lamarck. With the age of 10 years, he is one of the oldest bulls now, but still well in shape. Give him more inwards-curving horns, a slightly longer snout and a slightly more athletic body and he would match my conception of an aurochs bull very well. Linea is of the same combination as Larissa – half Chianina, half Lombritz (50% S., 25% H. & C.). 79 845 is a daughter of Linea and Churro, so mostly Sayaguesa and Chianina, yet her horns are quite Heck cattle-like. 55 386 is cow with good colour, horns and acceptable body shape. She is a daughter of Lamarck and 1/8 Lidia.
Klostermersch-Nord is also where Nadia, the pure Heck cow from the Wörth herd, grazes. She was pregnant when she arrived, and gave birth to a bull calf. They did not keep it, as a pure Heck bull would deplete the success that has been achieved regarding size, proportions and body shape. However, this year, she calved again and gave birth to a daughter of Lamarck. Therefore it is about 62,5% Heck, 25% Sayaguesa and 12,5% Chianina. I am looking forward to see this cow grow and see what a mix between the best Taurus bull and best-horned Heck cattle lineage is going to look like. If she is good enough to be kept, she could produce a good future breeding bull that has an impressive horn volume.
Lamarck: ten years old now and still in shape
79 845
Heck cow Nadia from Insel Wörth

- Klostermersch-Süd

This herd contains several good cows – 18-year-old Lerida, one of the very first Heck x Sayaguesa, Larissa, the largest cow to date, 79 815, a long-faced good-horned daughter of Laokoon and Liberta, plus Lena II, a well-horned daughter of Larissa and Churro. There is also a daughter of Laokoon and Laniana (01 870) that is somehow short-necked but otherwise rather good overall, plus a Sayaguesa cow with good horns. Londo’s short-legged offspring has been removed, and there are some grayish half-Chianina in the herd. The preliminary breeding bull of the herd is quite young yet, and has been nicknamed “Laniel” so far. It is a son of 42 623 and Augustina, therefore 75% Sayaguesa, 12% Heck and 12% Chianina. He seems to be short-snouted and has the slightly hanging back that many Sayaguesa have, but he also has the chance to grow big and also has really thick horn bases, probably inherited from its Heck great-grandfather Lancelot. Together with Larissa, he might produce some really good individuals: they would consist mostly of Sayaguesa and Chianina, and have the chance to be large-horned a the same time. I am looking forward to it. There is also a young Sayaguesa bull in the herd. As far as I know, they don’t have a plan for him yet.
Laniana: 1/8 Lidia
pure Sayaguesa
01 840
Lena II
... and again
Larissa and 79 815
79 815 again
... and again
Chianina cow Laura
The new breeding bull
The young pure Sayaguesa bull

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