Coat Colors of Braunvieh and Brown Swiss Cattle

We have included Braunvieh and Brown Swiss cattle in some of our DNA studies and the information on this webpage is an attempt to summarize this.

I took the photo of Brown Swiss cows, complete with bells on a hillside near Fussen, Germany several years ago. There was a small dairy selling cheese and ice cream nearby.


This webpage was mounted on April 17, 2014 last updated on January 15, 2016 by Sheila Schmutz.

This study is now concluded. A student in our lab, Natasha Baier, genotyped several percentage Braunvieh cattle during the summer of 2014. Additional research was conducted by Dr. Sheila Schmutz in 2015.

Neither us, nor any other group, has yet discovered the genes that cause the unique coat color in Brown Swiss, let alone what explains why an ED allele in the MC1R gene is not enough to cause a crossbred to be black.


The cow at the left is a typically colored Braunvieh. She has been selected for beef traits and so is known as a Braunvieh in North America. The cattle of this breed that have been selected for milk traits are known as Brown Swiss.

Braunvieh and Brown Swiss cattle always have black nose leather with a ring of cream colored hairs around this. Their body is a taupe brown color but there is shading also. Note that the legs are paler and the rear is paler than the shoulder area.


The MC1R gene or E locus alleles

Black

In recent years in the U.S., there has been interest in introducing black coat color to the Braunvieh beef cattle. This was primarily done by crossing with Black Angus, but black Simmental and even black Brahma were used on some ranches. Some of the calves produced is this program are not black. What has perplexed the breeders is that commercial DNA testing labs report these cattle as "homozygous black" or "heterozygous black". These labs are testing only the MC1R gene or E locus for the ED, E+ and e alleles. It is clear, that another gene or genes interacts in cattle with a Braunvieh background that is epistatic or "masks" the black coat color typically caused by having an ED allele.

The bull at the right is black. His genotype at MC1R is ED/E+. His E+ actually also contains a duplication, first reported in Switzerland in 2002.

  • Graphodatskaya D., Joerg H., Stranzinger G. 2002. Molecular and pharmacological characteristics of the MSH-R alleles in Swiss cattle breeds. J. Rec. and Sign. Trans. 22: 421-430
  • The heifer at the left, has shading on her body similar to the traditional Braunvieh cow above, however she is much darker in color. She also does not have the characterictic cream circle around her nose, or pale color hair in her ears. Her genotype at MC1R is ED/ED.

    Other offspring are not quite as dark, but certainly darker than the traditional taupe brown of a fullblood Braunvieh. This young heifer's genotype at MC1R is ED/E+. Her E+ also contains a duplication. Note that since the black bull above and this heifer have the same genotype at MC1R, it would appear that the E+ with the duplication is not the cause of the paler coat color.

    Yet other offspring are even paler.

    A few cattle have a black or very dark "cape" over the head and neck and then a paler body. This young heifer's genotype at MC1R is ED/ED.


    The TYRP1 gene or B locus

    In some other animals, such as dogs and cats, brown coat color is caused by mutations in the TYRP1 gene. In cattle, brown occurs in Dexters due to a mutation in this gene also.

    It would have seemed likely that the taupe brown coat color of Brown Swiss and Braunvieh would also be caused by a mutation in this gene. The entire coding sequence of TYRP1 was obtained from a purebred Brown Swiss calf. Only one base pair difference or SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) was observed. In Exon 5 of this 8 exon gene, a SNP occurred that caused the amino acid to be changed from a lysine to a glutamic acid. Both Braunvieh, the heifer on the left and the bull on the right have the same TYRP1 genotype, even though they are not the same shade. The bull is at ED/ED at MC1R.

    When more Braunvieh cattle were studied some were found that were homozygous for either base pair and there was no correlation with the shade of their coat. Furthermore, other cattle of other breeds also had either amino acid. Hence, this SNP is unlikely be to a mutation that causes a particular coat color.

  • Berryere, T.G., S. M. Schmutz, R. J. Schimpf, C. Michael Cowan, John Potter. 2003. TYRP1 is associated with dun brown coat colour in Dexter cattle or how now brown cow?. Animal Genetics 34:169-175.

  • The PMEL gene or D locus

    In cattle, the "diluter" locus has been found to be the PMEL gene. There is more than one mutation in this gene that causes dilute versus Dark shades. Charolais cattle have one mutation which we'll refer to as dc. A typical white Charolais has the genotype dc/dc. A smoke calf, such as a crossbred from a Charolais and a black Angus has the genotype dc/D. A dark calf, such as a black Angus is D/D.

    This dc allele was not found in Braunvieh cattle, whether they were the classical brown coat color or black.

    There is another mutation which is a deletion of an amino acid occurs in Highland cattle and also acts in a co-dominant pattern of inheritance. Cattle that are homozygous for the deletion are very pale, almost white. Cattle that are heterozygous for the deletion are either dun or yellow, depending on their E alleles. Highland cattle that do not have the deletion are black or red, again depending on their E alleles.

    This deletion was not found in Braunvieh cattle either.

    A SNP was found in Braunvieh cattle in exon 2 that changed the 36th amino acid from serine to leucine. However, this amino acid change also occurred in other cattle breeds and does not seem to affect coat color.


    The MLPH gene

    Late in 2015, the genetics group in Belgium discovered that a few Belgian Blue cattle that were gray instead of black were homozygous for a mutation in exon 2 of the MLPH gene. They also reported that this mutation was not found in any other breeds they examined.

    We studied this area of the gene in Brown Swiss, as well as Murray Gray and Piedmontese cattle, and the mutation was not present in them either. (see GenBank KU306733)


    CONCLUSIONS

    This study has shown that there is no simple single gene explanation for either the color of Brown Swiss cattle, nor the reason that many or most of them that are crossed to introduce an ED allele in the MC1R gene are not completely black. Unfortunately many Braunvieh owners and breeders choose to call the later problem a "diluter" problem. It is not caused by the known cattle "diluter" mutations and their color is not black diluted to gray anyway.

    There are some traditional fighting cows bred in the Alps in Switzerland. This cattle breed is called Ehringer or Herens. The cow at the left is blackish with tinges of red. Not all Herens cattle have this pattern, but many do. This coat color is quite similar to many of the crossbred Braunvieh cattle. This suggests that there are likely other genes that are yet undiscovered in cattle that cause this pattern and it seems as though these other genes are epistatic to the ED allele or have other types of gene interaction.



    Albinism

    Albinism occurred at very low incidence in this breed for many years. It was reported by Winzereid and Lauvergne in 1970. Thanks to the donation of an albino calf and its dam to our research program, the mutation in the tyrosinase gene was discovered in 2004. A DNA test became available and so albinism is no longer a problem in this breed.


    Links

    Genetics of Coat Color in Cattle, Main Page


    Sheila M. Schmutz, Ph.D.

    Department of Animal and Poultry Science

    University of Saskatchewan

    Saskatoon, Canada S7N 5A8

    phone: (306)966-4153 fax: (306)966-4151

    e-mail schmutz@sask.usask.ca