Skip to Content

Category Archives: Dairy Basics

Two questions that will transform the way you breed your herd

There’s no other dairy farm in the world exactly like yours. So it’s important to ask yourself a couple questions to determine your ideal breeding goals.

You could use one of the US industry standard indexes to select the genetics for your herd. Their split weights on production, health and conformation will certainly help you make genetic gains in your herd. But will that progress actually match your farm’s current situation and future plans?

As a reminder, the following charts show the weights for the two most common US genetic indexes.

TPI:
Image to show the weights on production, health and type for the TPI Index
NM:
A bar showing the breakdown weights of Net Merit $ as 45% on Production traits, 40% on health traits and 15% on type traits

Since your farm is unique, your best option is to create your own customized genetic plan to get the right genetics to match your goals.

Ask yourself these two important questions to decide which traits to emphasize in your genetic plan.

1. How do you get paid for your milk?

The majority of dairy producers make their main profit from the sale of milk. How that milk is priced varies greatly from one part of the country to another. Most milk produced in Florida is sold for fluid consumption, while much of Wisconsin’s milk goes into making cheese. The milk from some farms goes strictly into butter. Others’ is made into ice cream. Many cooperatives also pay premiums for low somatic cell counts.

Regardless where you ship your milk, the simple way to maximize your milk check is to select the right genetics to match your situation. To explain this, we focus in on the production traits of your genetic plan, which include milk, fat and protein.

If your farm’s milk is made into cheese, you’re likely paid on components, rather than total fluid volume. In that case, selection emphasis on protein will garner your greatest return on genetic investment.

If you farm in a fluid milk market, strict selection for NM$ could actually hinder your progress since NM$ includes a negative weighting on total pounds of milk.

Management practices play the largest role in the performance you see, but the right genetic choices will aid your future profit potential. For example, it takes top-level management practices to achieve ideal somatic cell counts. Yet, if your milk company offers milk quality premiums, genetic selection for low Somatic Cell Score is a logical choice to boost the benefits of your management even further.

Don’t leave dollars on the table. Within your genetic plan, make sure you emphasize the production traits to match how you get paid for your milk.

2. Why do your cows leave the herd?

Regardless if you are in expansion mode or maintaining steady numbers, some animals will leave your herd for one reason or another.

If you’re gradually growing to prepare for a future expansion project, you’ll benefit from heavier genetic selection emphasis on traits like Productive Life. This will keep your cattle numbers on the rise by creating healthier, longer-living cows.

Selection for CONCEPT PLUS high sire fertility will help you create more pregnancies now. Selection for fertility traits like Daughter Pregnancy Rate will help you create a next generation of more fertile females. If you focus on both male and female fertility you will end up with the additional replacements you’ll need.

On the flip side, if your farm is at max capacity with more replacements than you can accommodate, different traits will make a more profitable impact. If your farm sells extra springing heifers or fresh two-year-olds for dairy purposes, you know that buyers choose the stronger, well-grown animals with ideal feet and legs and favorable udders. In that case, a heavier selection emphasis on Udder Composite and Foot & Leg Composite can provide profitable returns on your genetic investment.

However, when your herd size is steady and you don’t sell extra heifers for dairy purposes, it’s important to question your selection for conformation traits. How many cows have you culled in the past year for poor udders or feet and legs?

If the answer is none, you could be limiting your future profitability.

AI companies already provide you with a high level of selection intensity for conformation. Their sire criteria often uses those industry standard indexes with 26% or 16% emphasis on conformation.

If you emphasize conformation traits, but you don’t cull any animals for poor udders or feet and legs, you are missing out on future profits. When you put your weight on conformation, your sacrifice extra selection for production, improved health and additional pregnancies.

Consider your genetic plan

There’s no other dairy in the world identical to yours.

Keep that in mind as you choose the genetics to create your next generation. While industry standard selection indexes can improve your genetics, they don’t necessarily align with your farm’s situation and goals.

Think about how you get paid for milk and the main reasons that cows leave your herd. When you customize your genetic plan to fit your farm’s needs, you will maximize your future milk checks and minimize your involuntary culls.

0 Continue Reading →

A genetic approach to improved fertility

We’ve all heard the statement, “genetics can’t make an impact without first creating a pregnancy.”

Realizing this truth, if improved fertility is one of your ultimate goals, genetics can help get you there – both now and into the future.

Get more pregnancies now

If you’re looking for a fertility advantage on inseminations today, sire fertility rankings are where you’ll want to focus. Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation ranks each sire on his ability to get cows pregnant. Sires with the high fertility ConceptPlus status will give you a 2%-5% conception rate advantage over the average service sire.

Why should you trust Alta’s ConceptPlus rankings? They are based on real pregnancy check results from herds in the US, Canada and Germany. The evaluation also maintains accuracy by accounting for factors like number of times bred, month/season, technician and breeding code effects.

If you’re more familiar with sire conception rate (SCR), keep in mind that Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation served as a basis for SCR, and the table below compares what’s included in Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation and SCR.

Comparing sire fertility informationSCRConceptPlus
Based on real pregnancy check dataXX
Accounts for various factors affecting fertility, including age, month, herd, service number and lactationXX
COMPLETE
Accounts for additional factors affecting fertility, such as technician and breeding code effectsX
Data is collected from herds in the US and Canada and is not restricted to US herds on official testX
CURRENT
Ongoing data is collected from herd management software through our partnership with VASX
CONSISTENT
Data is only from progressive, large herd environmentsX

You can see that both fertility evaluations include a great deal of factors and information, but ConceptPlus takes it a few steps further for greater accuracy. If improved fertility is your current goal, ConceptPlus sires will provide that boost to improve your herd’s conception rates. But it doesn’t stop there.

Create more fertile cows for the future

While sire fertility selection can get you more pregnancies now, it takes genetic selection for female fertility to ensure your herd’s reproduction continues to improve.

Daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), heifer conception rate (HCR) and cow conception rate (CCR) all provide a genetic basis for creating more fertile females. Emphasizing one, or any combination, of these traits within your customized genetic plan means you are breeding a next generation of cows with a greater ability to conceive.

Daughter pregnancy rate is defined as the number of non-pregnant cows that become pregnant within each 21-day period. When a sire has a DPR of 1.0, it means that his daughters are 1% more likely than the average herdmate to become pregnant in a given 21-day window. And each added point of DPR equates to 4 fewer days open.

When referring to HCR and CCR, these traits are defined respectively as a virgin heifer or lactating cow’s ability to conceive. For each of these traits, when a sire has a value of 1.0, it means that his daughters are 1% more likely to conceive than daughters of a sire with an HCR or CCR of 0.0.

While DPR is a slightly different calculation than HCR or CCR, all three are a way to measure the fertility of the female herself.

Improve fertility results – now and into the future

So if you’re looking to improve fertility and reproduction in your herd, take these steps for best results:

1. Improve conception rates now by using sires with the high fertility CONCEPT PLUS ranking to get a 2%-5% boost on current breedings.

2. Improve fertility for the future of your herd by including DPR and/or HCR and CCR in your customized genetic plan to create a next generation of more fertile females.

0 0 Continue Reading →

The top three ways to make genetic progress

Progress is a good thing…

And that rings true as much with genetics as in any area on your dairy operation.

In the simplest of terms, genetic progress is making better cows, faster. Before we can share tips on how to make genetic progress in your herd, it’s important to understand the actual equation for genetic progress. It depends solely on four factors.

Genetics Progress Equastion

Selection intensity:  the proportion of the population selected to become parents.

Do you use artificial insemination rather than a herd bull? Do you code cows with poor production, udders, or feet and legs as Do Not Breeds? Do you flush your best females and use your low end animals as embryo transfer recipients?

A yes to any of these questions means you are increasing selection intensity on your dairy by simply being more selective on which males and females you choose to be parents of your next generation of cattle.

Accuracy of selection: the average reliability of genetic evaluations used to make decisions about parents of the next generation of animals.

In the world of genetics, accuracy is primarily measured in terms of reliability. And in terms of genomics, accuracy is a function of the size of the reference population that is used to compare against a genomic-tested animal. Currently, the genomic reliabilities for production traits are often 70% or greater in North American Holsteins, which is twice the level of reliability that we used to achieve with traditional parent averages computed based on pedigrees.

Genetic variation: the degree of difference that exists between the best animals for a given trait and the worst animals for that trait.

If all animals were clones of one another, the variation among animals would be zero, and the opportunity to make genetic progress in any and all traits would cease to exist. Different genetic makeups and pedigrees lend way to variation among animals.

Genetic variation can be quite different from one herd to another. A herd that has used a focused genetic plan to select AI service sires for many years will have much less variation than a herd that has purchased animals with unknown pedigrees.

In comparison with other factors in the equation for genetic progress, little can be done to increase the amount of genetic variation within a given population. However, since inbreeding decreases the effective population size, by avoiding overly excessive inbreeding levels we can prevent a decrease in genetic variation.

Generation interval: measured as the average age of the parents when an offspring is born.

As the prevalence of genomic sires has increased over the past five years, the generation interval has been on the decline. Now, instead of waiting a minimum of 4.5 years to use traditional progeny-tested bulls, both farms and AI companies can more confidently make use of genomic-tested bulls in their on-farm AI programs or as sires of sons by the time an elite sire is roughly one year of age, decreasing the generation interval on the paternal side by more than three years.

So to put these factors of the genetic progress equation into play on your farm, what management strategies can you implement to make the most genetic progress possible?

1. Set your own genetic plan

You can make genetic progress in a variety of ways. First and foremost, you want to ensure you’re making progress in the right direction. To do this, set your own customized genetic plan, placing your selection emphasis only on the traits that matter to you – whether that’s production, health or conformation, and any specific traits within those categories. This way, you’ll not only make progress, but it will be in the direction of your goals in order to maximize progress and profit on your dairy.

2. Use the best bulls to suit your genetic plan

Once you’ve set your genetic plan, select the best bulls to fit that plan. You can take advantage of the amplified selection intensity put into place by your AI company, knowing that from the thousands of bulls they are genomic testing each year, they select only the best of the best to be parents of the next generation.

If you also select only the elite sires that fit your genetic plan from your AI company you maximize your on-farm selection intensity as compared to using just any cheaper bull off the proof list.

3. Utilize a group of genomic proven sires as part of your genetic program   

There is no need to fear genomic-proven sires. By making use of the best and brightest genomic-proven sires available, you make strides in all areas of the genetic progress equation. You decrease the generation interval as compared to waiting to use daughter-proven sires. You also step up the genetic selection intensity on your farm.

The accuracy gained from an ever-growing reference population of genomic-tested males and females is another benefit of selecting from a group of genomic-proven sires. And by utilizing a group of these sires, rather than one individual, you can maximize the genetic variation when pedigrees differ among them.

You can take these tips one step further using a strategic approach with the females in your herd. However, these are the top three, simple ways to make genetic progress on your dairy.

If you implement these steps, you will increase selection intensity, accuracy and variation, while decreasing generation interval. The progress you make will be in the direction of the goals you’ve set for your farm, so you can capitalize on the genetic profit and progress potential.

0 0 Continue Reading →

Genetic thresholds versus genetic plans

“Give me a bull that’s over 1,000 pounds of milk and positive for DPR.”

Does this sound like you describing sire selection criteria for your dairy? If so, you are among the many other dairy producers who are leaving extra pounds of milk and additional pregnancies on the table.

The traditional threshold method can be a risky approach to selecting bulls when you are aiming to maximize genetic progress.  Setting a minimum level for any given trait and completely eliminating sires that fall short of those minimums means you could be missing out on a number of bulls that could actually help propel your genetic level to new heights.

A genetic threshold versus a genetic plan

Take for example, the old-fashioned threshold method for choosing the bulls you pick. If you direct your AI rep to drop off five bulls that are over 1000 pounds of milk and over 0.0 for DPR, he may leave you with a group of sires like those in Table 1 below.

Since your AI rep did his/her job and followed your wishes, you can see the averages for milk and DPR are pretty good – even above your set thresholds. But is that really the best group of bulls you can get?

If you reset your thought process for sire selection, you can choose to set a genetic plan that aligns with your goals. The previously mentioned thresholds would equate to a genetic plan with about 50% emphasis on production traits, 50% emphasis on health traits, and 0% emphasis on conformation or type traits.

By using this 50-50-0 genetic plan for selecting your bulls rather than limiting yourself by thresholds, you could end up with a genetic package like the five bulls shown in Table 2.

Table 1. SirePTA MilkDPR
Al11810.6
Bob11430.1
Carl11400.6
Doug10270.1
Ed10230.1
Average11030.3
Table 2. SirePTA MilkDPR
George2207-0.1
Henry2171-0.1
Ivan1986-0.1
Jack9725.2
Kurt9004.6
Average16471.9

Not even one of the five bulls selected based on the genetic plan fit both the criteria of being over 1,000 pounds of milk and being positive for DPR, but you can see they just barely miss the mark on one trait or the other.

Looking at Jack, you can notice that by sacrificing a few pounds of milk below your 1000 pound threshold, you gain an extra 5.2 points for DPR. And even though George and Henry both fall 0.1 short on their DPR values, they provide well over double the pounds of milk that your thresholds would have dictated.

So if you look at the average genetics of this group, they are above and beyond what you achieve with the group of sires that meets both criteria. In this case, by setting a genetic plan to select your bulls, you will gain almost 550 additional pounds of milk and see nearly a two percent higher pregnancy rate than by stating clear-cut threshold limits.

The tables above illustrate that setting a genetic plan to put emphasis on the traits that matter to you can boost your genetic levels well beyond what you achieve with restrictive thresholds.

Genetic plans – not just for sire selection

When setting a genetic plan, the most common focus is on sire selection. However, with genomic testing and various reproductive technologies readily available, many dairy farmers also rank females to determine which cows or heifers should receive sexed semen versus convention semen, or to know which animals are the best candidates to flush, versus which should serve as recipients.

If you rank your heifers and cows, it is important to remember to use the same genetic plan on the female side as you use for selecting your sires. Otherwise you will lose the full effect of the genetic progress you could make with the sires you select.

If you select your sires based on a genetic plan of 50% production, 50% health and 0% type, but then you rank females by TPI, NM$, or a completely different index your overall genetic progress toward your goals will suffer. A mixed approach will slow your progress and lessen your results.

In a nutshell

Maximize genetic progress in your herd by setting your own customized genetic plan to emphasize the traits that matter to you, rather than limiting your options with strict trait thresholds. To drive your genetic progress even further, make sure the genetic plan you put in place for sire selection matches the one you also use to rank your females.

0 2 Continue Reading →

Inbreeding: manage it to maximize profit

Inbreeding is a hot topic…

Are you concerned about whether genomics is creating too much inbreeding in the dairy cattle population? Many producers express their concern that sire options to prevent negative inbreeding effects continues to dwindle. We certainly don’t want to mate an animal to her father or brother, but we do need to ask what the real goal is in terms of inbreeding. Should we aim for zero percent inbreeding or rather manage it to maximize profit?

The linear effect of inbreeding depression

As animals become more related to each other, inbreeding depression, or sub-par productive performance, can occur. Inbreeding depression is not ideal. Yet you should still weigh the negative effects against the added profit you could see from greater genetic gains.

Many producers buy in to the common misconception of a magic level of inbreeding that we should never exceed. In reality, we’ve seen results from numerous studies over time that show the effects of inbreeding depression to be linear.

For every 1% increase in inbreeding for a mating, you will realize $22-24 less profit over the life of the resulting offspring. You will see the same cost, or loss, when going from 9% to 10% inbreeding as you see between 1% and 2%.

Genetic progress

It’s well-documented that inbreeding has risen each year since the mainstream adoption of AI. Despite this increase, dairy cattle have made significant strides in production traits like milk, fat, and protein. It’s safe to say that producers would not trade today’s high producing cows for the less inbred, but also lower producing, cows of the 1960’s.

Inbreeding and milk production graph

Real-herd examples

Let’s look into the records of a random cross-section of 10 upper Midwest dairies averaging 1,500 cows, who implement a mating program on their farm. This analysis shows how cows with superior genetics are more productive than cows with inferior genetics, despite the more highly productive group also being more inbred.

In this analysis, cows born between 2005 and 2010, with at least one lactation on record were included. Each individual herd was first analyzed separately, and cows were split into quartiles based on their individual level of inbreeding.

Total # of cows% InbredNM$Milk Deviation1st Lact 305-Day MilkPTA DPRAvg. 1st Lact Preg RatePTA PL
25% MOST inbred from each herd38107.0158649282580.422.51.4
25% LEAST inbred from each herd37844.5121296278750.422.60.9

Here, you can see the difference in genetics, 1st lactation milk production, and NM$ between the top 25% most inbred from each herd and top 25% least inbred animals from each herd. The most highly inbred quartile of cows was also the most genetically superior group of cows in each of these ten herds.

When we measure actual performance, genetics more than make up for inbreeding depression. The NM$ levels, pounds of milk and milk deviations were all favorable for the more highly inbred, but also more genetically superior group.

This doesn’t mean that a mating resulting in 25% inbreeding is the best option. Rather, when managed properly as part of a program, excellent genetics can outweigh the results of inbreeding depression.

You may not realize that current proof values already account for the bull’s level of predicted future inbreeding. Outcross sires see favorable adjustments. Whereas, PTA’s on sires that are more closely related to the average population are negatively impacted because of these adjustments.

Determining matings

Let’s check out an example to see how managing, rather than avoiding, inbreeding is the best route.

The example below shows three sire options to use for a mating in your herd. Sire 1 and sire 2 both offer high Net Merit $ levels. However, their 8% and 6.5% inbreeding levels would be above the suggested 6.25% industry standard. That alone could eliminate them as potential mating sires in many breeding programs. Sire 3 would be a logical outcross mating in this example, resulting in a mere 1% inbreeding.

Sire OptionSire NM$Inbreeding % with cow being bredEconomic loss due to inbreedingAdjusted NM$ for level of inbreeding
18548.0184693
28456.5150695
36051.023582
0 0 Continue Reading →

The genetic guide to healthier cows

Industry buzz has been booming about new genetic programs that promise to create healthier cows.

That means it’s the perfect time to revisit the impact that selection for Productive Life within your genetic plan can have on the overall health and longevity of your cows.

 

The Productive Life (PL) number that appears for any given sire on your proof sheet is defined as the number of months longer (or shorter) that his daughters will be productive in your herd as compared to herdmates. If a bull is 7.0 for PL, his daughters within a given herd are predicted to live seven months longer than the average cow in that herd. If a bull is -2.0 for PL, his daughters are predicted to live about two months less than the average cow in that given herd.

PL is often associated with old cows. However, if you think about which cows live longest in your herd, it would be those that have no troubles calving, fewer incidences of mastitis, no respiratory issues, fewer hoof problems, and so on.

Four-event cows

In reality, genetic selection for PL doesn’t just mean more old cows; it predicts which cows are toughest, healthiest and easiest to manage. We call those the four-event cows. If you look at a cow card on your herd management software program, a four-event cow has only four events listed throughout her lactation: 1-fresh; 2-bred; 3-confirmed pregnant; and 4-dry.

If those four events are the only major things a cow experiences throughout her lactation, chances are she’s trouble-free, making you money, and will stick around for several lactations.

Any time an event takes place, such as milk fever, a displaced abomasum, retained placenta, mastitis, pneumonia, or any other disruption to the normal progression of a cow’s lactation, milk is lost. In addition to lost milk production, vet and treatment costs add to the dollars lost.

The proof is in the numbers

Selection for Productive Life propels you toward the goal of a herd full of four-event cows. Since the actual measure of PL is not calculated until after a cow leaves the herd, we can use other ways to see if higher PL bulls actually create healthier and more trouble-free cows.

# of cowsSire PLAborts‘Do Not Breed’SoldDiedMastitisRPDAKetosisPneumoniaMetritisInjuryLame
Top 50%: High PL478>3.515121136331155118
Bottom 50%: Low PL502<3.6709024152309612153762930

Table 1 breaks down the events within a real 2,400-cow Holstein herd on all first lactation animals with known sire ID’s. Based only on the animal’s parent average or Productive Life, this shows the extreme difference in health events between cows with a high PL pedigree versus those with a low PL pedigree

These are real numbers, recorded on this farm’s herd management software program. Keep in mind, management is consistent throughout the herd, and no preferential treatment is provided for any given cows.

As the table clearly illustrates, far fewer of the high PL cows had issues after calving and throughout their lactation. Fewer cows from high PL group were coded as ‘do not breeds’ (DNB) and therefore, fewer of the high PL cows died or were sold. This means more cows from within that high PL group claimed the title of trouble-free, four-event cows.

On your dairy, how much does a displaced abomasum decrease a cow’s profitability over her lactation? How much of your milk check is sacrificed with every case of mastitis? How many dollars are lost for every lame cow or case of pneumonia? If you put a dollar value to the lost production and treatment cost associated with each extra health event experienced by the group of low PL cows it adds up significantly.

Want healthier cows? Let Productive Life get you there

While environment, cow comfort and overall management practices all play an integral role in the health of any given herd, genetic selection can also aid your quest for a herd of healthy, trouble-free cows. To do that, keep these points in mind.

  1. Genetic selection for PL will help you create longer living cows.
  2. Despite new genetic programs promising added immunity or greater health during a cow’s transition period, PL remains the standard for breeding tougher, healthier cows with fewer issues throughout their lactations.
  3. Include selection for PL as part of your customized genetic plan in order to build your herd of the profitable, four-event cows.
0 2 Continue Reading →
x

Get the BullSearch App!

For the best experience on a mobile device, download the Bull Search App

Download the App
Go to desktop site anyway