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If you are are interested in history, especially cattle history, then you might enjoy this article written by W.A. Beattie and which was originally included in "Murray Greys; Australia's Own Beef Cattle" - one of the finest books ever published on any breed. WARNING - a long read

The Case of the Curious Colour

To trace the true origin of the Murray Grey breed it is necessary to go back in time a good deal farther than the birth of that first grey calf in 1905. Indeed one must go back several centuries, as we shall see. It seems to be generally agreed that racially the Murray Grey is predominantly Aberdeen Angus. The main bone of contention is its colour. It has been said, and fairly satisfactorily established, that the breed as we know it originated from the crossing of Aberdeen Angus males with a particular Shorthorn cow on the Thologolong property beside the Murray River and that this cow produced exclusively grey calves. Mr. R. C. Buchanan, whose property was quite nearby at Tallangatta, says he actually milked this cow. At the time of writing, Mr. Buchanan is over 90 and is going blind; but he is of clear mind and memory and recalls the procession of grey births which started when he was 23 years of age. As an Aberdeen Angus breeder, he was obviously fully aware of what must have been an interesting phenomenon.

So the real questions are simply these: Why did these grey calves appear consistently, and why did they breed pure? Then, why do grey bulls, mated to black cows, so often sire these grey calves? And further, why - even if the calf is not grey - does she have grey progeny when mated with a grey bull?

Generally speaking, breeders turn to genetics to explain these things; but they oversimplify a very complex matter. The average breeder thinks of genetics in this way: An animal possesses genes - as do all other forms of life - and these determine heredity. But then comes the difficulty: Genes are divided into those which are dominant and those which are recessive - by this the average breeder understands that some genes are more "potent" than others, hence they dominate when an animal is mated to another with "less potent" genes. Thus the expression: "A prepotent bull" - meaning a bull which stamps the mark of his quality on practically all the progeny of the cows with which he is mated. The ten-n "recessive gene" covers those which are so dominated. But if two animals - both with recessive genes of the same nature - are mated, these must come together and govern the characteristic in question. Such a line of argument is not wrong; but it is just too simple to cover, by any means, all cases.

When examining a phenomenon such as the colour of the Murray Grey, it is essential to go right back and examine as much of the history of the breeds involved as evidence will permit. Much research is now being done into the history of all breeds of cattle, but it is mainly recent; so it is still very imperfect. Let us accept that one Shorthorn cow was involved, and more than one Aberdeen Angus bull. Firstly, what is a Shorthorn? It originated from the Holderness cattle, of the East Riding of Yorkshire, and the Teeswater cattle, of the North Riding; and the colours were red, roan and white - alone and in combinations. Both these breeds were of Dutch origin. In colour one would have to admit that white alone, or in the roan or combinations, was very important, followed by red. And we know that we have pure white and pure red Shorthorn herds because they have been so selected. At the time of their ascendancy in North-East England, the British Wild White cattle roamed in much the same area as the Shorthorns; they were white with black points. It would be most unlikely that there would not have been some crossing between them, accidental or otherwise; one can still see descendants of these cattle among the famous herd which roams at liberty the 1,000-acre park of Chillingham Castle, in Northumberland. Thus there can be no mystery surrounding the origins of genes for white colour.

In the case of Aberdeen Angus cattle, they are said to have originated from the Angus Doddie and Buchan Humlie cattle of EastCentral Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, like the Shorthorn. They were black with some reds. Both blacks and reds are eligible for the Scottish Herd Book, started in 1862, which also included the Galloway. The Galloways included black, brown and dun cattle and some - the Belted Galloway - with a distinctive white belt. Some Aberdeen Angus' seem to have a greyish undercoat, others reddish. Historically we know that Scotland was often invaded from Scandinavia; in fact the Scandinavian element in North Scotland is very evident in the people and also in the place names. just as the early settlers in Australia, in the days of sailing ships, brought cattle for milk and meat during the voyage and to establish small herds on landing, so did the Scandinavian people bring cattle - and they would obviously have mated with the local stock. One must look at what these Scandinavian cattle were like. The farthest West to which such cattle would have been taken would be Iceland; and as this island was isolated for so long, it is interesting to see what cattle are there. Icelandic cattle date from as far back as the Tenth Century and are of Norse origin; they are 86 percent polled. They are red or red-and-white and there are also some which are brown, black, grey, white, pied and brindle.

In all breeding histories there is the powerful human influence. It seems clear that Aberdeen Angus are principally black simply because breeders, who exercised a great deal of influence in comparatively recent times, said that black was to be the colour; hence other colours were culled. One must never underestimate the fact that certain dominant people - specially landlords whose word was gospel - did impress their preferences in most breeds; and, by selection, obtained a uniformity which was not necessarily part of nature. just as an example, in the last Century and even early in this, the Ayrshire breed was of two distinct types. The landlords developed a magnificent animal with a very small udder - because a large udder was regarded as somewhat indecent in their parks and meadows and at Shows and Exhibitions. But their tenants, who had to produce milk, bred cows with large udders. in our severely practical age, it is the tenant type which has won the battle; but some of the small-uddered type keep cropping up and have to be culled. In Northern Australia - for some strange process of arguing, probably because sunburnt stockmen look more the part than pale ones - there has been a strong prejudice against all Shorthorns which were not deep red. But white and roan Shorthorns, the former with some pigment round the eyes and in the skin - usually yellow to brown - are much better adapted to the heat. So is the Brahman with a grayish coat.

To apply all this to Murray Greys, it would not be in the least surprising - accepting that the original Aberdeen Angus-Shorthorn cross is correct - if the genes for white in the Shorthorn cow did not help bring to prominence the "latent" genes for white or grey in the ancestry of those Aberdeen Angus bulls with which she mated. Despite all the manipulations of various prominent breeds, nature often will out; and it is only when one is able to study the history of the breed that otherwise surprising things become perfectly simple.

Variation is the soul of nature and enables us to change arbitrary decisions. One sees these colours changes, for example, in the breeding of flowers, of budgerigars, of dogs and cats. Genes are not like railway loops, turning trains this way or that. They interact as well as act; they are responsible for thousands of things which effect an animal, not least the production of protein cells. So a good breeder is not a mechanic, but an artist - using form, colour, nuances; having a tremendous sense of harmony, and at the same time not loosing sight of the practical and of method. He has to study the history of his breed, of the strains within the breed; and he has to be able to detect slight differences for good or ill so that he knows where he is going. It is no job for the complete amateur, and even performance testing only touches the fringe.

So why does anyone want to breed Murray Grey cattle? What do they do that can't be done equally well by any other breed?

First of all, they appear to have inherited - from their Scandinavian ancestry - a very docile temperament. This is practically important because a nervous animal just can't, for proven scientific reasons, make tender meat. Because of this docility, they grow fast and have won many carcase competitions. Secondly, their colour makes them very suitable for sunny and hot conditions; they seem to be doing very well in tropical Queensland, for example. With black cattle there is often some doubt in the mind of the butchers whether they are pure, black being so dominant. They fear there may be some element of dairy breed in them, making yield lower than expected. But there is no room for doubt over the Murray Grey; it is an obviously pure beef breed. It also has another valuable characteristic: Commercial herds of purebred catle - be they Aberdeen Angus, Hereford or another breed - may suffer from in-breeding without the owner knowing. Often, for example, a certain strain becomes tremendously popular and everyone tries to buy bulls of that strain - a fashion springs up, in other words; and that blood is spread through too many studs and too many commercial herds. There can as a result be deterioration through unwitting in-breeding. If one suspects this in an Aberdeen Angus herd, it can immediately and safely be overcome by using a Murray Grey infusion - because this is using a distinct strain of a basically similar breed.

If one looks on the Aberdeen Angus breed, as it is today, as one consisting of three basic families distinguished by colour - Black, Red and Murray Grey - then one can use this fact to avoid commercial in-breeding, probably gaining some degree of hybrid vigour and certainly retaining that basic quality and yield of meat which is the right basis for the whole industry.

In Summary, let me answer the uninformed critics who say that if the Murray Grey is the progeny of an Aberdeen Angus-Shorthorn cross then it is a "sport". The Murray Grey is no "sport". It is the natural product of the genes - dominant and recessive - handed down from the Teeswater, the Holderness, the Wild Whites, the Angus Doddie, the Buchan Humlies and the Norse Cattle (all from the same latitudes within a radius of a few hundred miles), channeled through the Aberdeen Angus bulls and the Shorthorn cow. If only the research was better and the historical records fuller, instead of saying "the natural product" we would certainly be able to say "the inevitable product". For that is the way genetics work.

By W. A. Beattie

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