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Chestnut Red Oberhasli
Sparks Scientific Interest

By D. P. Sponenberg, DVM, PhD

Professor of Pathology and Genetics
Department of Biomedical Sciences
Virginia-Maryland Regional
College of Veterinary Medicine

New colors in goats always fascinate me, so I was tantalized recently when Sandy Van Echo, Sir Echo Farms, Arizona, contacted me about a potential new red color in Oberhasli goats. This article explores what we know so far about this new color. Throughout this article the "ordinary" color of Oberhasli will be referred to as bay, or blackbelly, instead of chamoisee. The reason for that is the frequent use of chamoisee to define goats that are a lighter tan with a different black striping pattern, such as is common in Alpine goats with tan bodies, striped legs, striped back, and a pale belly—which is clearly not the usual Oberhasli color.

Oberhasli goats are generally a single color pattern, which is in keeping with the overall strategy of breed standardization in Switzerland. Basically, in most of Switzerland, goats of any specific breed are supposed to be all one color. This attitude is a holdover from breeds being standardized from more variable local landraces centuries ago. For some breeds the standardization of color works easily, for others there is always the persistence of recessive color genes, which pop out as surprises when goats carrying these are mated together and the recessive genes pair up.

Most Oberhasli breeders are familiar with solid black kids occurring in the breed. These happen regularly enough to be routine and really are part and parcel of the breed. The black Oberhasli goats have genetic control at the Agouti locus. The main genetic address controlling color in goats is the Agouti locus, and the general pattern in this locus is that blacker is more recessive, while more extensively tan is more dominant. So, it comes as no surprise that the beautiful bay combination of dark tan body and black points of the Oberhasli can hide a black recessive gene.

Cute as a button, this purebred Oberhasli doeling, born at Sir Echo Farms in Arizona, lacks the typical black trim markings for the breed. Her coloring has sparked intrest from an Italian lab doing molecular level research as well as scientific study by Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, at Virgina Tech, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
Cute as a button, this purebred Oberhasli doeling, born at Sir Echo Farms in Arizona, lacks the typical black trim markings for the breed. Her coloring has sparked intrest from an Italian lab doing molecular level research as well as scientific study by Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, at Virgina Tech, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

When solid red kids occur, though, then obviously something different is happening, because red cannot hide at the Agouti locus! Red kids have recently started occurring as surprises, which points to a recessive genetic mechanism. The color for these chestnut red kids is most likely coded by a recessive gene at the Extension locus. This source of red is rare in goats, but is common in horses (where the result is chestnut) and also in cattle (think Red Angus cattle). These chestnut red goats occur in only a very few other breeds—at least as far as has been documented. They occur rarely in colored Angoras (I know of one!), and also seem to be occurring in Nigerian Dwarf goats as well — but only as the occasional surprise. Hairs from these chestnut Oberhasli goats have been sent off to a lab in Italy that is interested in goat colors, and hopefully we’ll know the final genetic details soon.

The overall pattern for Oberhasli colors (bay, black, and chestnut) is that the ordinary bay can mask both colors (black or chestnut). Not all Oberhasli goats will carry these colors, but several do carry them, and carrying or producing them is no indication of impurity. It is just the interesting sort of genetic "noise" that occurs in any population. Black, in turn, could carry chestnut, so that a black x black mating could on occasion produce a chestnut kid. Chestnut cannot really carry "nonchestnut," so that chestnut x chestnut matings will always produce red chestnut kids.

A potential surprise could occur, though, if black is mated to chestnut, because most chestnut Oberhasli goats will mask the genetic piece of information for bay—and once the black provides the "nonchestnut" choice, the bay could be expressed. As a result, most black x chestnut matings will indeed produce bay kids!

Many breeders worry somewhat about just what to do with recessive colors. It is common for breeders of breeds that tend toward one common color (such as bay in Oberhasli goats) to be tempted to eliminate the recessive colors. In numerous breeds this can work reasonably well by culling the youngsters with the offending color. An even more severe approach would be to also cull the parents of the youngsters as well, because these must also carry the gene.

In rare breeds this drastic culling can cause real and serious problems, because every time an animal is culled for having a color gene all the other genes of the animal are also culled. It is important to remember that culling takes the entire animal out of the breed gene pool! Most rare breeds simply cannot survive if breeders cull otherwise sound and productive goats on the basis of color alone.

An opposite approach to culling "off color" kids is to allow them to be registered along with their more usually colored herdmates. This strategy could easily result in higher gene frequencies for the recessive colors, so that they are more frequently produced. In rare breeds this can be necessary for overal genetic viability of the breed. A middle approach is to allow the recessive colors in females, but not in males. The reasoning behind this is to assure that widely-used males are only the desired color. This, in turn, assures that they have at least one copy (if not two) of the desired dominant color genes. Using animals with recessive colors does, after all, assure that all of their offspring, even if appropriately colored, will be carriers of the recessive color. Depending on the degree of bias against these colors, breeders may still shun these. If this is taken to extremes, though, the overall breed genetic health can indeed suffer, because the recessive colors are more likely in certain bloodlines than they are in others. This means that some bloodlines swamp the breed, while others run the risk of dwindling.

In rare breeds, especially, it may be wise to take a slower approach, and allow recessive colors in males as well as females, with the restriction that they always be mated back to mates of the dominant colors. That is, all black goats would be mated to bays, all red goats would be mated to bays, and never would black-to-black or red-to-red matings be accomplished. This manages the genes to stay at relatively low levels, and in a heterozygous condition in most animals. It also provides for these goats with rare colors to contribute to long-term breed survival.

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