Beefmasters come in a very wide variety of colors and patterns,
and we have had quite a few different ones in our herd over the years. I kept looking at all the wild and weird colors,
and got very curious about how coat color inheritance works in cattle. The entire subject is
fascinating -- so I'm presenting some of the info I found here, as related to our herd, for your information.
Interestingly, some of our cattle display inheritance patterns that don't quite seem to fit the mold.
See the discussion below on brindle. And, we have two different paint patterns, one of which
I can't explain. If anyone has any information on what could be causing these colors, I'd love
to hear about it -- email me at
Cattle have three basic coat colors: Black, Brown, and Red. These are caused by a single pair of genes which govern
how much (and what color) of pigment is produced. The black gene is dominant over the other two, and causes the hair to be
black. The red gene is recessive to the other two, and causes the production of red pigment only. The brown gene, which is
probably the original, "wild" type color, causes the production of both red and black pigment in varying degrees,
resulting in a color that ranges from red with some dark on the legs and head, to nearly black. Usually these nearly-black
cattle have a brown or mealy muzzle. Also, brown bulls tend to be darker than brown cows; the shoulders, head, neck, and
legs are typically darker than the body, and the color darkens with age.
In our herd, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a red cow or bull and a
brown one, until the babies start coming. Also, we have noticed that our cattle that have the possibility of being
homozygous for the brown color (i.e., have two brown genes) are generally darker than than the ones that we know carry
a red gene. Coincidence?
All the other colors, including dun, yellow, white, and a variety of patterns including spotted, paint, and
brindle, are the result of other genes acting on these basic coat colors.
A red cow
A black cow
A brown bull, 14 months. Note the darker head and neck.
Dilutes and Duns: Whites, tans, Grays, Grullas, Yellows, Oranges, Creams
There are several genes that will wash out the basic coat color. The Dilute genes (there
are apparently several of these which do slightly different things) are incompletely dominant one copy
turns red to light red or orange, black to grey, or brown to lighter brown. Two copies turn the animal lighter still
red to yellow or cream, black to light gray, brown to dun. One variant of this gene in Charolais turns cattle nearly white in its homozygous
form. We had a cow for several years who was half Charolais/half Angus. She was a very light smoky grey. However,
the gene did not pass on to any animals that we have retained so it's no longer in our herd.
There is also a Dun gene that primarily acts on red. It is incompletely recessive -- one copy will turn red to dun,
while two copies will be lighter. The only effect on black cattle is to fade the poll and topline to brown.
Brindle is an interesting combination of black and brown, or brown with red or yellow. We were very surprised
when this showed up in our herd in a calf by a reddish brown Beefmaster bull out of an Angus/Hereford cross cow.
The information I have found on this color is a bit contradictory and does not completely match with what
we've seen in our herd. According to most sources, a brindle animal must have both a brindle gene
and a brown (wild-type) base coat color gene, and it cannot have a black gene, or else the brindle will be masked.
However, it seems that in our herd at least, an animal with both a black and a wild-type gene, in combination with a
brindle gene, will be brindle, and is capable of producing solid true black in about 25% of the offspring when
mated with a red or brown bull.
Apparently, a number of Angus and Hereford cattle carry brindle which is masked by their coloring (the brown
gene is not present in these breeds). So, in our case, the black 3/4 Angus cow undoubtedly carried the
brindle gene, and the bull had one gene for the brown coloring and one for red. That's
clear enough. Where it gets confusing was the first calf (a steer) that we got out of our brindle cow and a red
(possibly brown) paint bull. The calf should have been red, brown, or brindle, and he did start out as a dark
rusty brown like his grandmother. But when he shed out at 4 months, he was a shiny true black calf, with no
hint of brindling or mealy muzzle anywhere. And there was no question of who was the father.
I've talked this over with a geneticist, and what may possibly be going on here is a variant black gene.
The 3/4 Angus cow, who was born on our farm out of an Angus/Hereford cow and a registered Angus bull,
was dark brown when she was born. When she shed out her calf coat, she was pure, shiny blue-black with no
brown hairs anywhere. She had nine calves for us, all by red or red/brown bulls. All of them were black
except for the one brindle, but 2 of them were born a rusty dark brown and shed out black at several months.
If the cow carried one brown or wild-type gene herself, she undoubtedly would have had a red or
red/brown calf at some point in her career with the bulls we were using. And that still doesn't explain
how her brindle daughter had a black calf.
So, if we are dealing with a variant black gene, the 3/4 Angus cow must have had one variant plus a
standard black gene. When she passed on variant black without brindle, the calves started brown and shed out
to black. When she passed on the standard black, with or without the brindle, the calves started black and
stayed that way. When she passed on the variant black and the brindle, we got our brindle heifer.
On the other hand, many other breeders have the same experience that we have -- brindle cattle producing solid
black offspring -- and it may be simply that the standard wisdom is wrong. Brindle may be able to operate even
in the presence of a black gene as long as a wild-type brown gene is also present.
Jerry Hemphill, the BBU Field Service representative, says this is fairly common in his experience --
there have been a number of incidents of brindle Beefmaster cattle throwing black when bred to red.
He has an article on this that he has promised to send me and it may cast more light on the subject.
The Angus/Hereford cow is no more, but we have had 4 of her daughters in our herd -- the brindle, one black baldy,
and two black lightning streaked paints. The baldy has produced eight calves, none of them brindle (three black, five
red or brown base colors). The brindle cow has produced two blacks, a brindles, a brindle paint, and one red calf. The oldest
brindle heifer had her first calf in 2004 and it was a solid black bull, followed by a solid black heifer in 2005 before we sold her.
The paint brindle has had two red paints and a solid black. One of the black paints has had two black paints, a red paint, and a red
calf. The other black paint cow had a red calf and was then sold.
Roan is an intermixture of white hairs and colored hairs which is caused by an incompletely dominant gene.
A single copy can be expressed by just a few white hairs on the face or extremities, unevenly roaned patches,
or an even mix of white and colored hairs all over the body. Two copies produce an almost white animal,
with some pigment around the ears. We had a bull who was a brown paint with roaning. There was enough roaning
that it faded out his spotting pattern and gave him an almost tan appearance (see below). We thought that he might have
a dilute gene as well, and a base coat of red rather than brown, but he never had a dilute calf for us and as that is
incompletely dominant it is unlikely that he carried that gene. He did, however, have several clearly brown calves out
of red cows so clearly did carry the dominant brown gene and his own rather pale color was all a result of the roaning.
He had 8 calves for us, and 3 of them had roaning. However, we have sold all of them so no longer have that gene in our herd.
There are a number of genes that cause white spotting, plus a number that may affect the amount
of the spotting.
One of the most familiar is the Hereford pattern, with white head, legs,
and underline. This is apparently caused by an incompletely dominant gene, and if an animal
has two copies of this gene they will have more white than an animal with only one copy.
However, it may be that the amount of white is also affected by other spotting or modifier genes. The
heifer below left is by a solid faced bull (who had a bald-faced sire) out of the black baldy
cow pictured below right.
2X heifer showing the full Hereford coat pattern
1X cow showing the typical "black baldy": pattern
One pattern of paint is caused by a simple recessive gene. If you have two of them, you have paint -- if you have
only one, you don't. Our cattle that have carried for paint, however, usually have small spots in random places, and
frequently have a white-tipped tail. This may be just coincidence, or the gene may express slightly even if there
is only one copy.
Black paint bull calf (in background)
This is another paint pattern we have in our herd that seems to be caused by a different gene or by the
interaction of genes at two locations that may allow partial expression of a single copy of the recessive gene. I call
it the "lightning streak paint" because it usually comes up in lines from the flanks and behind the shoulders.
We bred one of the lightning-streaked cows to a paint bull and
got a solid-colored calf, which means the lighting streaking is not caused by a double copy of the paint gene. My theory is
that it may be the result of a single copy of a standard paint gene and another white spotting
or white modifier gene that is allowing some expression of paint even when neither is homozygous -- all our
lightning streaked cows have had at least one parent that carried for paint or was paint. Three of them
have produced calves so far --
one has had two standard paint and two solid colored calves; one had one standard paint, two solid colored, and
two lightning-streaked calves; and the third had a solid colored calf.
Genetics of Colour Variation, by T.A. Olson, Animal science Department,
University of Florida. Chapter 3 from a book on Cattle Genetics, this is an excellent
technical presentation of cattle color genetics.
The Genetics of
Coloration in Texas Longhorns, by David M. Hillis, Double Helix Ranch,
Professor, University of Texas at Austin. My favorite site on this topic, with lots
of well-explained technical information and great pictures. Longhorns and Beefmasters
have many of the same colors.
The Color Of (Longhorn) Cattle, by Larry Griggs This is a nice short article with a small color gallery.
Some good pictures of paints here. Also an interesting
comment that often black cattle are brown until they shed their baby coat.
Genetics of Coat Color in Cattle,
by Sheila Schmutz, Department of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Good information on inheritance of different colors and patterns.
The Genetics of Color,
by Robert Schalles. Colors of Gelbvieh cattle explained -- mostly information on blacks, reds, and
Cattle Color Genetics, by ?. Handout from Texas Tech University, showing
a pdf table with some color genes common to different breeds. Good tool for seeing which
genes may be present in your breed of cattle.
Our Colourful Icelandic Cows, by Langhus Ranch. This page contains
a small photo gallery of different colors and patterns in this breed. No genetic info,
but interesting to look at.