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Your genetic decision today IS your future herd

The future of your herd is more than just your youngstock. It’s found inside your semen tank.

Think about the semen just delivered to your dairy and added to your tank. It’s an investment. And it’s a decision that will impact your operation for years to come. Your genetic decision today becomes the calves, heifers, and milking cows of your future herd.

Timeline graphic from semen purchase to milking female

The BIG decisions

When it comes to making big decisions – the type that affect your livelihood, your future, or your financial well-being – most people work with a trusted advisor to make the best possible choice.

When you buy a house, you work with a realtor. To deal with your retirement investments, you likely work with a trusted financial advisor. Decisions about both types of investments have a major impact on your life for years down the road.

Your dairy herd is no different. The genetics you use have a lasting impact on your livelihood, your future, and your operation’s financial well-being.

Your Alta advisor can help ensure that your investment creates genetic progress aligned with your farm’s situation and future goals. That means everything from setting the right customized genetic plan to selecting the right investment level to fit your long-term strategy. Because when it comes to genetics, you get what you select for.

Find your proof

How can we be sure that genetics make a difference? We know from countless examples of what we call ‘Proof in the Numbers’ that what you breed for today is directly correlated to the results you see in your future milking herd. Want to see real example to understand more? Check them out HERE, HERE, or HERE.

Just remember, the results these herds realize for production, fertility, and health stem from the genetic decisions they made more than 3 years ago.

With that in mind, don’t make light of the BIG decisions. Work with your trusted Alta advisor to ensure your genetic investments and strategy align with your situation and future goals. Because the genetic decision inside your semen tank is your future herd.

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What you need to know about the April 2020 US Genetic Base Change

A genetic base change is an adjustment of predicted transmitting abilities (PTAs) for all animals in a given breed. This change resets the average PTAs for each trait within a new reference population back to zero.

With the April 2020 US genetic base change in mind, here are five key points to remember.

1. THE BASE CHANGE HAPPENS EVERY 5 YEARS.

It happens this frequently to ensure that the values for traits and indexes don’t grow to unrealistically high levels. The last base change took place in December 2014, and the next one will be in 2025.

2. THIS BASE CHANGE ACCOUNTS FOR THE AMOUNT OF GENETIC PROGRESS WE’VE MADE SINCE THE LAST BASE CHANGE.

Dairy cattle genetics are continually improving, and the base change is the way to quantify the actual amount of progress that we’ve made for each trait within each breed.

For example, the base change for PTA Milk in the Holstein breed is 492. That means that the average genetic level for pounds of milk in the Holstein breed has increased by 492 pounds over the past five years. To account for this progress, the PTA Milk value for all Holsteins will automatically decrease by 492 pounds with April 2020 proofs.

3. THE NEW REFERENCE POPULATION WAS BORN IN 2015.

The base change means resetting the average PTAs for the reference population to zero. The previous reference population was made up of the sire-identified animals born in 2010. Since the new reference population is animals born in 2015, that means this current base change will now set the average PTA of cows born in 2015 back to zero.

4. DOWNWARD ADJUSTMENTS ARE ACTUALLY A GOOD THING!

In general, a downward adjustment for a trait is the amount of genetic progress we’ve made for that trait. So a larger downward adjustment is actually a good thing – it just means we’ve made that much more genetic progress for that given trait!

Because of the downward adjustments, we’ll need to get used to new, generally lower reference levels for the traits and indexes that we affect our genetic selection decisions.

5. THE BASE CHANGE DOES NOT AFFECT THE RELATIVE RANK OF ANIMALS.

Even though the base change will cause PTA values for bulls and cows to appear lower for most traits, it is the same adjustment for all animals. That means individual rankings will not be impacted.

WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL CHANGES?

Wondering what the actual changes will be? Table 1 below lays it all out.

Because a positive value is the amount of progress we’ve made, it also means the PTA for that trait will decrease by this amount. Conversely, negative values mean the PTA for that trait will actually increase by that amount.

To clearly assess the overall picture of genetic progress, trait changes shown in black show positive progress. Traits shown in red have made negative progress over the past five years.

*Please note that the CDCB will recalculate these values with April 2020 proofs using more complete and current data. So there may be slight changes between now and then.*

Table 1. PTA difference of cows born in 2015 compared to those born in 2010. PTAs will decrease by these amounts in April 2020.

TRAITUNITSHOLSTEINJERSEYBROWN SWISS
MilkPounds492524214
FatPounds24258
ProteinPounds18208
Productive life | PLMonths1.861.540.24
Daughter pregnancy rate | DPR%0.24-0.99-0.62
Somatic cell score | SCSLog base 2 units-0.0800
Heifer conception rate | HCR%0.50.44-0.24
Cow conception rate |CCR%0.38-0.9-0.74
Cow livability | LIV%0.740.08-0.28
Displaced abomasum | DA%0.21--
Ketosis | KET%0.2--
Mastitis | MAST%0.6--
Metritis | MET%0.34--
Milk fever | MFEV%-0.06--
Retained Placenta | RP%0.05--
Early first calving | EFCDays1.51.40.5
Gestation length | GLDays-0.350.3-0.03
Sire Calving Ease | SCE%-0.4--0.3
Daughter Calving Ease | DCE%-1.9--0.6
Sire Stillbirth | SSB%-0.3--
Daughter Stillbirth | DSB%-1.6--
Final Score (PTAT)Points0.760.70.4
Udder composite | UDC / JUI0.85--
Feet and leg composite | FLC0.49--
Lifetime Net Merit | NM$Dollars23119160
Lifetime Cheese Merit | CM$Dollars23919663
Lifetime Fluid Merit | FM$Dollars21917956
Lifetime Grazing Merit | GM$Dollars20714238
StaturePoints0.470.50.6
StrengthPoints0.200.2
Dairy formPoints0.380.40.3
Foot anglePoints0.50.10.1
Feet and leg score0.54
Rear legs - side viewPoints-0.0200.1
Rear legs - rear view0.49
Body depth0.14
Rump anglePoints-0.020.40
Rump widthPoints0.360.10.1
Fore udder attachmentPoints1.010.70.3
Rear udder heightPoints1.20.60.3
Rear udder widthPoints1.160.20.3
Udder depthPoints0.840.90.2
Udder cleftPoints0.540.10.1
Front teat placementPoints0.520.30.3
Rear teat placement0.49
Teat lengthPoints-0.270-0.2
Body weight composite0.15

HOW DOES THIS COMPARE?

Are you curious how the amount of progress over the past five years compares to the progress we made before that? The tables below lay it all out for the Holstein and Jersey breeds.

HOLSTEIN BASE CHANGE COMPARISONMilkFatProtPLDPRNM$
2020 CHANGES (progress made from 2015-2020)49224181.9 0.24231
2015 CHANGES (progress made from 2010-2015)38217121.00.2184
JERSEY BASE CHANGE COMPARISONMilkFatProtPLDPRSCSNM$
2020 Changes (progress made from 2015-2020)52425201.54-0.990.00191
2015 Changes (progress made from 2010-2015)38219120.80.00.04124

You’ll see that for the production traits, both Holsteins and Jerseys made significantly more progress in the past five years, than in the five years preceding. That means, as an industry, we’re making huge strides. Have confidence that the bulls you use now will deliver profitable results through their offspring.

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Sire selection vs. mating

“What is the true value of a mating program?”

Many producers around the world have used a mating program within their herd for many years. However, not all producers have put that keen focus on SIRE SELECTION. If you are in that same boat, you may be missing out on the best genetics to drive profitability on your farm.

Selection vs. mating – which is more important?

Before answering this question, it is important to realize what both of these terms mean.

SELECTION – The process of documenting genetic goals to determine which bulls will help you achieve those goals the fastest. In other words, it is identifying which bulls from the available population will be utilized in your herd.

MATING – The process of choosing which individual bull (of those selected for use in your herd) should be used on each individual cow.

Mating programs generally correct problematic type traits of a cow by using a bull whose trait strengths match a cow’s weaknesses. The goal of mating is to breed a consistent herd of cows. There is great merit in consistency, but it’s easy to see that when the right sires are not SELECTED, then MATING has little impact. If you desire to improve the udders in your herd, and only select sires with poor Udder Composite (UDC), you will not improve udders, regardless of whether your cows are mated or not.

Another frequently overlooked point is that even when you SELECT the right bulls, mating also has little impact! For example, if you select only the best UDC sires for your herd, the effect of individual matings will be minimized. Even if there was no mating program in place, you would still be improving udders in your herd simply by using those udder-improving sires.

Are you sacrificing genetic progress?

The value of a mating program is questioned by many dairy farmers. One in particular, who we’ll call Joe, wants to improve the production and health of his herd. With a nice, consistent group of cows, he has determined that the conformation of his herd is already more than adequate. (This is a common thought. You too can test this in your herd by asking yourself or your herdsman how many cows have been culled for conformation reasons in the past month or past year.) For many years, Joe has had his cows mated, but never put much thought into selection.

In Joe’s case, the mating program was run by allowing any bulls from the available lineup who were at least +500 PTAM and >1.0 UDC to be individually mated to each cow. This process meant semen from at least 20 different sires always remained in the tank. Although the topic of this article is not to discuss how many sires should be used at a given time, clearly having that many bulls increases the likelihood of recording errors and reduces efficiency for the breeders.

So, will Joe make more genetic progress for production and health by continuing his current method of mating without selection? Or would he be better off selecting a group of 5-8 bulls that meet his production & health goals, and randomly using those sires within his herd? Hopefully the answer is becoming clear.

Proof in examples

To break it down in the simplest form, if you want to use two different sires on two different cows, you have two options. The first option, shown below in blue, is to mate Cow 1 to Sire A, and Cow 2 to Sire B. The second option, shown in green, is to mate Cow 1 to Sire B and Cow 2 to Sire A.

Sire vs Cow Comparison

Within the table, you can see the resulting offspring’s parent average figures for PTAM and UDC. As you can see, the offspring genetic average for PTAM and UDC are exactly the same, regardless of which cow is mated to which bull. Mating option 1 will give more consistency between daughters, but mating option 2 yields exactly the same genetic average between offspring.

So once you select certain bulls, the average genetic progress of your herd will be the same in the next generation whether the group of bulls are mated to individual cows, or if one bull is randomly selected for use each day of the week.

In one more example, let’s say Joe does an experiment on his farm. He randomly selects half of his herd to breed to Group A sires, and the other half of the herd to Group B sires. Just for the fun of it, we will say that the Group B sires are mated with a traditional program, and the Group A sires are randomly selected, with one bull being used each day of the week.

Group A: 5 sires that average +100 CFP and +4.0 PL

Group B: 5 sires that average +30 CFP and 0.0 PL

The offspring from Group A sires will average 70 lbs more CFP and four extra productive months in the herd than daughters of Group B sires – even though Group A was randomly bred with no mating program. If both groups were individually mated, the difference between the offspring of each group would still be exactly the same. Daughters of Group A sires will still yield 70 lbs more CFP and four more productive months in the herd than daughters of Group B sires!

What is the value in mating programs?

The quick answer from a purely genetic standpoint is that the value in mating is minimal at best. But there are a couple benefits.

First of all, the mating staff is often the same staff with whom you set your genetic goals.  Having people you trust help you design and build your genetic program is extremely important.

The second value of a mating program comes through inbreeding protection.  We do not want daughters of a given bull to be bred to their brother, uncle, nephew, or worse yet their father himself!  Mating programs do a good job of reducing inbreeding within your herd. However, in order to maximize this value from a mating program you must have two things in good order on your dairy:

  1. Your Identification must be accurate – not knowing the real sire of a cow, makes inbreeding protection impossible.
  2. The technicians must closely follow the mating recommendations. There are way too many herds that go through the process of mating the cows, but very few of those mates are actually followed.

 

This article is not written to discourage anyone from mating. Mating can help create a consistent group of cows. And for those interested in breeding a “great” cow, protecting faults is important.

However, if inbreeding prevention is the reason for mating, you must ask yourself if it is still necessary to have someone look at cows to mate them. Both a pen mating, which tells which bulls should be avoided on an individual animal, or pen of animals, and a pedigree mating are effective options to minimize inbreeding.

Drive genetic progress – put a plan in place

There are two important concepts to remember when setting genetic goals, and selecting bulls that fit those goals.

  1. We cannot mate our way out of a bad selection decision
  2. When you select the proper bulls to fit your genetic plan, you will maximize genetic progress, even with no individual matings. However it is good practice to utilize a pedigree or pen mating to ensure inbreeding is managed.

The most important concept to remember is that genetic progress is driven by the goals you set and the bulls you use on your dairy – not the individual cows to which those bulls are mated.

So in order to maximize genetic progress and profitability on your farm, be sure to spend at least as much time setting your genetic goals and defining your selection program as you do on your mating program

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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.

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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.

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