PRODUCTION gains, improved animal welfare and reduced labour costs are driving a greater focus on horn status in bull selection.
Bull breeders switched on to the value commercial producers are placing on eliminating the need to dehorn are capitalising on technologies that identify homozygous polled sires - or bulls guaranteed to produce polled progeny.
Testing for the homozygous polled gene has been significantly ramped up at this season's northern bull sales, agents report.
The thinking is many producers may take the opportunity presented by the need to rebuild seriously depleted numbers to dramatically shift their herd's horn status.
The fear activists may soon start targeting dehorning, and the possibility veterinarian supervision will be required in the future for dehorning, is also fueling the trend.
The number of bulls listed as PP, which means DNA testing has identified they carry two copies of the poll variant of the homozygous gene and should always pass on a poll variant to progeny, was at a record high of 70 at this week's two-day Droughtmaster National in Rockhampton.
A further 228 bulls, of the 413 sold, were listed P - the physical appearance of a clean polled bull but with no test.
Such was the heat in the bidding on PP bulls, so long as other traits such as growth, structural soundness and fertility were also in good order, that many studs who listed bulls as P said they would definitely invest in the $40-$50/head test next year.
That included the Hicks family, Moura, who sold the top-priced polled bull Billabong Hendrix 8546 for $100,000.
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"We haven't tested for the homozygous gene even though we know our bulls throw polls but we will next year - it's been very clear there is demand for it," Catherine Hicks said.
Many of the buyers competing for PP bulls said they expected to pay $1000 to $2000 more for the guarantee, other traits being equal. They were pleasantly surprised by the good supply of PP offerings at the DN, which they said helped to keep a lid on the typical premium.
Elders stud stock manager for Queensland Michael Smith said the ramped up push towards polled genetics at bull sales was happening across the board.
"People perhaps see a looming animal welfare issue but of course there are big production benefits involved too," he said.
"However, it's important to be conscious that by going down that track, especially if you focus only on that trait, there is a risk of sacrificing performance - weight-for-age and potentially fertility as well," he said.
"It's always a juggling act and you can't take your eye off other traits."
Peter and Ann Woolett's Nardoo Pastoral Company north-west of Cloncurry runs 3500 Droughtmaster/Brahman breeders, producing steers for both the live trade and feedlot jobs and, at times, taking them through to 600 kilograms for processors.
They bought 17 bulls at the Droughtmaster National, all PP, to an average $6735 and top of $12000.
For the past decade they've been sourcing Droughtmaster bulls with the homozygous poll gene and have managed to bring down the amount of calves they dehorn to just five to 10 per cent.
"When we took over here, we inherited a good poll cow base and we started chasing the double poll gene in bulls immediately," Mr Woolett said.
"We want to do all we can to ensure a calf is not ever set back.
"Along with the PP we look for bone structure and length. The double poll is simply another tool.
"We expect to pay a bit more for PP but at this sale we found the choice and supply excellent and we actually came in under the sale average."
That premium paid in the past had been well and truly offset by the labour, production and animal welfare benefits, Mr Woollet said.
The Wooletts typically buy bulls out of Charters Towers in November but they've had a 'fair' season and this sale worked in neatly with their need to join more heifers this year.
They said Droughtmaster content provides wider marketing options for their cattle.
Brian and Yvonne Heck's Bryvonlea stud at Glastonbury Creek sold all 11 of their bulls to a top of $36,500 and average 15,500, a result boosted by PP offerings.
"We started testing last year on the back of clients asking for it," Mr Heck said.
"It's the less stress on the calf, no weight loss, no going backwards they are wanting.
"It's evident buyers are careful not to sacrifice anything else, like size. The PP is an add-on.
"We think that demand is worth the $50/head cost of the test."
Bryvonlea has been selling at the DN for 18 years and the 2019 result was one of their best averages.