Red and Black

This page is part of a series "Genetics of Coat Color in Cattle"

This webpage was last updated on January 19, 2016 by Sheila Schmutz


The photo at the left shows two calves. The bull calf at the left is a classic red (with a white face). The bull calf on the right is a classic black Angus calf.

Red and black are probably the two most common coat colors in cattle. They occur as an either/or in breeds such as Angus and Holstein. In other breeds, modifier genes change the shades of these colors to a much wider range of possibilities. Red is more popular in some countries and black in others, but both are common throughout the world.

The gene causing red/black is the the Melanocortin 1 Receptor gene (MC1R), formerly called the Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone Receptor Gene (MSHr). This gene has two common alleles ED and e. In addition, a less common allele, E+, also called "wild type" occurs. When ED is present in an animal, it is typically black. This is the dominant allele in the series. Cattle that are e/e are red. This is the recessive genotype.

However E+ appears to act as a "neutral" allele in most breeds and we think ED /E+ cattle are typically black and E+/e cattle are typically red. E+/E+ cattle can be almost any color since other genes, such as the Agouti gene, take over in dictating what pigments are produced. Although such Agouti alleles have not yet been documented in cattle, we have proven this in recent studies in dogs. Oulmouden's group has found a mutation causing brindle in the Agouti gene of cattle. All brindle cattle have at least one E+ allele and none have an ED allele. (See the Patterns Page for more information on brindle).

Note that the ED allele has been reported to be nonresponsive to agouti and constituitively expressed in cattle by Klungland. It is therefore probably a preferrable allele in cattle which are meant to be solid black in coat color. The E+ allele is responsive to agouti and is the allele in cattle with shaded body color such as Brown Swiss or Braunvieh, Jersey and several other rarer European breeds.

Although there are a few other reported variants in or near the MC1R gene, none have yet been shown to cause any other effects on coat color.

DNA diagnostic tests are available from several laboratories throughout the world.

  • Klungland, H., D. I. Våge, L. Gomez-Raya, S. Adalseinsson and S. Lien. 1995. The role of melonocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) receptor in bovine coat color determination. Mamm. Genome 6:636-639.
  • Joerg, H., R. Fries, E. Meijerink and G. F. Stranzinger. 1996. Red coat color in Holstein cattle is associated with a deletion in the MSHR gene. Mamm. Genome 7:317-318.
  • Graphodatskaya, D, Jörg, H., and G. F. Stranzinger. 2000. Polymorphism in the MSHR gene of different cattle breeds. Veterinarni-Medicina 45: 10-11.
  • Schläpfer, J, N. Stahlberger-Saitbekova, J.E. Womack, C. Gaillard, G. Dolf. 2000. Assignment of six genes to bovine chromosome 13. J. Anim. Breed. Genet. 118:189-196. (mapping agouti using somatic cell hybridization)
  • McLean K.L. and Schmutz, S.M. 2009. Associations of melanocortin 1-receptor genotype and growth and carcass traits in beef cattle. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 89:295-300.

    MC1R Holstein Exceptions

    Variant Red or Dominant Red

    All Holstein cattle have white spotting, with various amounts of white. They can be either black or red. Most of the red Holsteins have the MC1R genotype of e/e.

    However, some Holstein cattle have been reported with yet another type of red coat color. These cattle are red and white in the absence of the e allele, and even in the presence of the ED allele. These cattle are indistinguishable from red cattle of the e/e genotype. The Holstein Association of Canada has termed this "Variant Red", which is designated by VR on the pedigree. Several cattle owners use the term "Dominant Red" instead. This type of red acts like it is dominant to black, but it is more correctly epistatic since it is not caused by a MC1R allele. Although one of our studies suggested this trait maps to cattle chromosome 27, in the region of beta-defensin 103, we were only able to show that all members of a prominent cattle family, i.e. the family of Rosabel, had the same group of variants (or haplotype) in the promoter region of this gene. Other cattle of other colors also had this haplotype, so it was not diagnostic for Variant Red.

    Recently, other researchers in Sweden and Canada have shown that this phenotype is caused by the COPA gene on chromosome 3. A diagnostic test is apparently available in some laboratories. Another group in France also reported this at the World Congress of Genetics Applied to Livestock in August 2014 in Vancouver.

    We have subsequently studied some of the Variant Red (Dominant Red) Holstein cattle samples in our lab and confirm that cattle with this phenotype also had the COPA mutation in exon 6 (p.Arg160Cys) they reported.

  • Dreger, D. L. and S. M. Schmutz 2009. The Variant Red Coat Colour Phenotype of Holstein Cattle Maps to BTA27. Animal Genetics 41:109-112. [Note - this phenotype has been shown to be caused by another gene on another chromosome in 2013]
  • Dorshorst B, Henegar C,Liao X, Almén MS, Rubin C-J, Ito S, Wakamatsu K, Stothard P, Van Doormaal B, Plastow G, Barsh GS, Andersson L. 2015 Dominant Red Coat Color in Holstein Cattle Is Associated with a Missense Mutation in the Coatomer Protein Complex, Subunit Alpha (COPA) Gene. Plos One 0128969
  • "Changeling" or Black/Red (BR) Holsteins

    To add to the complexity, some Holstein cattle change from red to black or less commonly from black to red as they age from calf to adult. Such a "changeling" about half way from red to black is shown in the photo above. She comes from a family where this happens often, but not in every generation! The Holstein Association of Canada has termed this "Black/Red". As an adult, such cattle are black and indistinguishable from those that were born black.

    Leduc suggests this phenotype is recessive but the gene causing it has not been identified. A pedigree showing the 6 changeling offspring and 10 black-and-white offspring from one black-and-white Holstein bull is illustrated above. The MC1R genotypes of the bull and his changeling offspring are shown. Assuming the pattern is inherited as a simple recessive, the research of Dayna Dreger has excluded the genes MC1R, ASIP, ATRN and MTNR1A.

  • Leduc, M. 2006. The various mechanisms of red colour transmission in the Holstein breed. Holstein Journal. May: 17-19.
  • Dreger, DL. The Genetics of Variant Red and Chanegling Coat Colour Phenotypes in Holstein Cattle. M.Sc. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan submitted for examination on October 8, 2008.

  • for further information contact:

    Sheila M. Schmutz, Ph.D., Professor

    Department of Animal and Poultry Science

    College of Agriculture

    University of Saskatchewan

    Saskatoon, Canada S7N 5A8


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