The impact of hair coat color on longevity of Holstein cows in the tropics
© The Author(s). 2016
Received: 24 November 2015
Accepted: 1 December 2016
Published: 12 December 2016
Over two decades of observations in the field in South East Asia and Hawai‘i suggest that majority of the commercial dairy herds are of black hair coat. Hence a simple study to determine the accuracy of the observation was conducted with two large dairy herds in Hawaii in the mid-1990s.
A retrospective study on longevity of Holstein cattle in the tropics was conducted using DairyComp-305 lactation information coupled with phenotypic evaluation of hair coat color in two large dairy farms. Cows were classified into 3 groups: a) black (B, >90%); b) black/white (BW, 50:50) and c) white (W, >90%). Cows with other hair coat distribution were excluded from the study. In farm A, 211 out of 970 cows were identified having 4 or more lactations. In farm B, 690 out of 1,350 cows were identified with 2 or more lactations for the study.
The regression analyses and the Wilcoxon-Log-rank test for survival probability showed that Holstein cattle with 90% black hair coat had greater longevity compared to Holstein cattle with 90% white hair coat.
This study suggests that longevity of Holstein cattle in tropical regions was influenced by hair coat color and characteristics.
KeywordsHair coat color Survival Milk production Longevity Holstein cows Tropics
Turner and Schleger  reported that for each one point increase in hair coat thickness, there was an estimated 11.2 kg loss in average daily gain. The role of coat color in cattle was further highlighted by Finch et al.  who reported significant effect of color (dark vs light) and hair coat thickness (wooly) negatively impacted grazing time and growth. Gilbert and Bailey  did not find any influence in hair coat characteristics on post-weaning gain for the population of Angus and Hereford in a Canadian feedlot.
King et al.  suggested that white coat Holstein freshening in February and March had lower days open and required fewer services per conception. However, the higher milk production observed in white cows was attributed to the influence of sire. Lower milk production was reported for Holsteins cows with black hair coat vs white hair coat (3.3 kg. vs 1.5 kg.) in no shade environment . The number of animals in this study was small (9 white and 11 black cows) and the author stressed the need for further evaluation of hair coat and heat stress. Work in the US Virgin Islands, tropical climate with hot-humid weather showed that the majority of the Holstein cows in that study had black hair coat color . The milk production was not statistically different between black vs. white hair coat cows in that study.
Recent changes in climate  suggest that the interactions between hair coat and hair color in livestock needs to be reexamined. Increased frequency of heat waves have been noted in the past decade  and the more recent historic heat wave of 2013  warrants a better understanding of animals survival under such circumstances. In an earlier study with beef cattle, Frisch  reported that it was possible to select for animals with greater heat tolerance. Hence, the objectives of this study are to: a) evaluate the production (milk yield per lactation) of Holstein cattle in the tropics as related to hair coat color, and b) determine if there is a relationship between hair coat and longevity for Holstein herds in the tropics. Longevity is important in dairy cattle when the cost of raising heifers from birth to first lactation can be astronomical in places where land prices are high and most of the feed are imported; e.g. Hawai’i.
Data from two large commercial dairies in the Waianae district, within <0.25 miles apart, were used for the study. Farm A milked 950–1000 head of Holsteins while farm B milked 1,350 –1450 head Holsteins cows. Farm A employed fans with misters targeted at the loafing area and sprinklers at the feed manger to cool cows. Farm B had sprinklers at the feed manger with fans overhead and fans and sprinklers in the holding barn of the milking parlor. Both farms were open lot operations with corrugated roof for shade at 12–14 ft above the loafing area. They feed a total mixed ration; Farm A 4x per day and Farm B 2x per day. Dairy-Comp 305 software was employed in both farms for data keeping.
Cows that were included in the study had to meet the following criteria: a) minimum of 4 lactations in farm A and min. of 2 lactation for farm B, b) the body hair coat color had to be either 90% black or 70% white or 50:50 (black:white) by visual evaluation and c) had complete 305d lactation records. The minimum lactation set for the respective farms were decided base on the number of animals that can be identified with increasing lactation numbers. Farm B had less aged cows with 5 or more lactations (n = 56). Farm A had 114 cows with 5 or more lactations. This criteria on lactation ensured that there would be a minimum 30 cows for each lactation group in a farm.
Dairy Comp 305 database was used to generate the list of animals that met the milk and lactation criteria. Armed with the list, two individuals would performed independent visual evaluation of hair coat at each farm. They identified the color of the cows and the pens for the respective farms. Then the list was crossed checked. If there was any disagreement, the individuals would revisit the pen(s), reevaluate the cow and come to an agreement on the hair coat color. If they should failing to come to an agreement on the hair coat color, that cow would be excluded from the study.
Based on the complete list, the following analyses were done: a) distribution of animals by hair coat for the respective farms, b) evaluation of milk production by hair coat (multivariate analyses of variance), c) regression analyses by lactation number and d) further evaluation of data by Wilcoxon and Log-rank test for homogeneity.
In addition, samples of hair between the black and white animals (n = 11 cows for each group were randomly selected from cow ID draw) were clipped using a Wahl® Arco cordless clipper at the 11th rib region and evaluated for weight (μg/cm2).
Results and discussion
Population distribution by hair coat
Distribution of cows by hair coat: black, white and black and white in the farms
Number of cows
Hair coat distribution (%)
Black:white (%; 50:50)
Milk production (kg./305d lactation; mean ± SE)
Number of cows
11,535.0 ± 253
11,121.0 ± 330
11,830 ± 187
9,612.7 ± 207
9,920.0 ± 234
9,928 ± 214
Longevity determination by regression analyses
In commercial Holstein dairy operations, there are very few cows that made it beyond 6 lactations due to genetic gains from the replacement and other factors . A cow at her 6th lactations would mean she is over 9 years of age. The average productive life of Holstein cows is 2.5 lactations [28, 29].
The white cow population was 17.5% for animals with 4 lactations and this group decreased to 6.3% by the 7+ lactations (Fig. 1b). The lower population of animals with 7 or more lactation is to be expected due to genetic progress and aging of animals.
The distribution of the mixed color hair coat (black:white, 50:50) was relatively stable for the period examined (Fig. 1c; R2 = 0.017)). There was 30.9% of this population with 4 lactations and by 7+ lactation, this population was 37.5% of the group.
Analyses of survival by Wilcoxon test for homogeneity
Median lactation survival time (year) for cows by hair coat color (mean ± SE)
5.06 + 0.16
3.04 ± 0.14
4.98 + 0.13
2.97 ± 0.06
4.76 + 0.15
2.82 ± 0.09
In the USA, the average productive life of a dairy cow is 2 years. Eight months . In most cases, this equates to 2.45 lactations [28, 29]. Guernseys leave the herd fastest followed by Holsteins. Jerseys have the longest productive life. Longevity in dairy herds could potentially mean higher lifetime milk yield, more calves born, greater adaptability to the mirco-environment, greater contribution to genetic progress of a herd due to the availability of replacements and better adaptability to local management. All these factors lead to lower cost of production and greater profitability for a dairy operation.
Weight of hair follicles (μg/cm2) obtained on the 11th rib region of the cow’s body
No. of samples
μg/cm2 (mean ± SE)
8.2a ± 0.59
18.4 ± 1.28
Evidence of a major gene influencing hair length and heat tolerance was reported by Olson et al.  for Bos taurus cattle. The gene influencing hair length has been mapped on chromosome 20 in Senepol derived cattle . In cross-bred Holstein animals with this gene, the hair coat is short and shiny and the sweating rates are higher than their contemporaries and they had higher milk production Olson et al. .
In conclusion the study shed light on the relationship of hair coat color and survival rates for Holstein in the hot climates. Along with the pool of evidence in the literature, cows that have longevity in the tropics must have greater ability for evaporative cooling; and this was probably coupled with darker skin color (pigmentation), hair coat color and the physical characteristics of the hair. Further investigation in the relationship of thermal regulations to hair and skin color and characteristics are important in the presence of climate change.
The authors wish to thank Mountain View and Pacific dairies in Waianae for the collaboration and Mr. Andrew WY Kok for his assistance it collecting hair samples. This study was support by the USDA-HATCH project for the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of the USDA W-173 regional research program.
United States Department of Agriculture – HATCH funds to the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
Availability of data and materials
Dr. KSB - he helped with the identification of animals, collection of data and initial analyses of data. Dr. AP - she helped with the Wilcoxon test for survivability. Dr. CNL - he is the P.I., assisted in data collection, analyses and author of the paper. All authors read and approve the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interest.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
EX 98-006 (Exemption given by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, University of Hawaii-Manoa due to no handling of animals).
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