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2 questions that will transform the way you breed your herd

Chrissy Meyer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2017
Vet checking cows

There’s no other dairy farm in the world exactly like yours. So it should be logical that no single standard genetic index will fit the goals of all dairy producers.

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

As a reminder, Figure 1 shows the weights for the two most common U.S. genetic indexes.

The two most common U.S. genetic indexes

Since your farm is unique, your best option is to create your own customized plan so you get the right genetics to match your goals. Two important questions can help you determine which traits to emphasize in the plan you create.

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 into ice cream. Many cooperatives pay premiums for low somatic cell counts.

Regardless of where you ship your milk, the simple way to capitalize on pay and premiums is to select the right genetics to match your situation. To explain this, we focus in on the production traits of your genetic index, 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 the greatest return on your 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.

If your milk company offers milk quality premiums, genetic selection weight on somatic cell score is a logical choice to boost the benefits of your management even further.

Don’t leave dollars on the table. Make sure the emphasis you put on the production traits matches 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, trouble-free and longer-living cows.

Selection for sire fertility will help you create more pregnancies now, and selection for fertility traits like Daughter Pregnancy Rate will help you create a next generation of more fertile females. Your focus on both male and female fertility will aid your quest for the additional replacements you’ll need.

On the flip side, if your farm is at maximum capacity with more replacements than you can accommodate, different traits will make a bigger impact.

If your farm sells extra springing heifers or fresh 2-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 higher 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 missing out on future profits.

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

When your genetic plan also emphasizes those traits, and you don’t cull any animals due to poor udders or feet and legs, you miss out on the extra production, improved health and additional pregnancies you could gain from stronger genetic selection on milk, components and health and fertility traits.

Consider your plan

There’s no other dairy in the world that’s 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 genetic progress, it won’t necessarily be in line with your farm’s situation and goals.

Answer these two important questions to make genetics work for you. Customize your genetic plan to profit most from the way you’re paid for milk and the reasons your animals leave the herd.  end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Chrissy Meyer
  • Chrissy Meyer

  • Marketing Editor
  • Alta Genetics
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