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How Holstein, Jersey breeds are taking form for the future

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 24 August 2015

jersey and holstein cows

The future of the dairy industry is not just black and white; it is brown, too.



The Holstein and Jersey dairy cattle breeds are poised to meet the demands of not only dairy producers, but also processors and consumers. How are they positioned to do this? The chief executive officers for the nation’s leading dairy breeds shared their respective association’s initiatives with Progressive Dairyman.

john meyer

John M. Meyer
Executive secretary and CEO,Holstein Association USA Inc.

neal smith

Neal Smith
Executive secretary and CEO, American Jersey Cattle Association (AJCA) and National All-Jersey Inc. (NAJ)


1.Describe your association’s long-term breed improvement plan.

MEYER: One of Holstein USA’s primary goals when it comes to breed improvement and our genetic products has been and will continue to be to provide Holstein breeders with the information they need to breed the kind of cows that are most profitable for them on their individual dairies.

Our top initiatives focus around breeding healthier, more trouble-free cows and using genomics to help us identify individuals that possess those genetics. Breed improvement strategies are primarily driven by member input through work on our committees and board of directors.

Our Total Performance Index (TPI) is the gold standard in ranking worldwide Holstein genetics and serves as a rudder for breed improvement – not necessarily aimed at breeding individual cows but rather to advance the entire genetic pool.

We directly fund breed improvement research and indirectly support many research projects through access to our data, as well as helping connect researchers with other researchers and with breeders.

SMITH: The American Jersey Cattle Association’s approach to breed improvement traces to a program that was outlined in 1958 by then-Executive Secretary Jim Cavanaugh. That program had four points: to sell the dairy industry on the value of Jersey milk, to dramatize the efficiency of Jersey cows, to increase the production average of Jersey cows and to glamorize Jersey cows and Jersey milk.


Since that time, the AJCA has adopted or developed a series of breeding tools that have been used with great success. In their infancy, these were the USDA Predicted Difference sire summary (1968), our first multi-trait selection index (1978), linear functional type trait analysis (1980) and the Jersey Mating Program (1986). Incremental changes were made in these tools, and in 1995 the AJCA put the production testing, type evaluation and genetic tools into one program called REAP.

Major changes occurred in 2001 with the introduction of a computerized mating program (JerseyMate) that gave breeders three different choices, including for inbreeding management and corrective matings. The breed-specific Jersey Performance Index was implemented in 2002, followed by Jersey Udder Index.

Each update addresses one goal: to breed a more profitable, longer-living, more efficient Jersey cow. For the last two base updates (from 2000 to 2005, then from 2005 to 2010), Jersey total phenotypic progress has been 1,698 pounds milk, 114 pounds fat and 75 pounds protein – even as the number of Jersey cows has nearly doubled across that same period of time.

Also, the AJCA has recorded 20 years of continuous improvement in functional type, especially across the udder traits. In 2014, our staff evaluated nearly 110,000 cows and is on pace to score more than that in 2015.

2.What are the main areas/characteristics of the breedthat your association is focusing on developing? Why have you identified them as top priorities?

MEYER: Traits receiving the majority of development effort are those that will return multiple benefits for breeders in the areas of overall production efficiency, animal well-being and minimizing environmental impact.

Management of individual genes through matings will become a greater emphasis, with focus on minimizing increases in inbreeding levels while making genetic progress. Two key areas where efforts are currently being dedicated include:

  • Reproductive efficiency: Data shows Holstein heifers are more fertile than those of any other dairy breed. Holsteins have made positive progress in improving Daughter Pregnancy Rate over the past decade, being the only breed to show positive genetic gains for this trait in the last base change, and we hope to continue that trend.
  • Foot health: We are currently in the early stages of collecting data on hairy heel warts, with the eventual goal of developing a genetic evaluation for resistance to heel warts, which plagues cows of all breeds and farms of all sizes across the country.

SMITH: Jersey Performance Index has four main areas: production (58 percent), udder health (20 percent), herd life (11 percent) and fertility (11 percent). Breaking that down further, JPI is weighted 43 percent on PTA protein, 15 percent on PTA fat, 10 percent on PTA Productive Life, 6 percent on PTA Somatic Cell Score, 7 percent on Daughter Pregnancy Rate, 2 percent on Cow Conception Rate and 2 percent on Heifer Conception Rate.

JPI also includes our Functional Trait Index (FTI) at 15 percent. FTI puts 92 percent of its weight on the udder traits (also published as Jersey Udder Index), 7 percent on body traits and 1 percent on feet and legs. These are the traits that predict lifetime net profit, as determined by extensive research completed in the summer of 2014 from records on 328,312 Jersey cows.

3.Are there specific traits such as polled (or others) that your breed is placing higher emphasis on in the future than in the past?

MEYER: Consumers will make polled become a trait of economic importance to breeders, and Holsteins are the only breed of cattle with the sheer numbers and genetic base needed to fulfill future demands for milk produced by polled dairy cattle.

More polled Holstein bulls are becoming available all the time with genetic merit equal to or surpassing their horned counterparts, so using polled Holstein genetics is becoming an easier decision for many dairymen across the country.

Feed Efficiency and the Fertility Index are two new components which were added to the TPI formula in December 2014, reinforcing the importance of those Holstein traits. We want to see continued progress in helping Holstein breeders select genetics which will lead to more profitability through cows who get bred easily, stay pregnant and produce a large volume of milk relative to their body size.

SMITH: Multi-trait selection has been the most effective approach for Jersey owners. The JPI update last December increased emphasis on protein production and fertility traits. We want to focus on all the efficiency factors and strive for improvement in health traits related to reproduction and longevity. We also want to protect the Jersey cow’s advantages in calving ease and heat-tolerance.

4.Twenty years from now, what will the ideal Holstein or Jersey cow look like, phenotypically and genotypically? Fifty years from now?

MEYER: As documented by the CDCB-USDA, Holsteins, as a breed, continue to make faster genetic progress for all economically important traits than any other breed. With regards to overall profitability, the Holstein breed will pull away from its competitors at a faster and faster pace. The profitability of the Holstein cow in the future, whether that be 20 or 50 years from now, will be more pronounced and evident.

  • Phenotypically: The ideal Holstein will be mobile and athletic, with tremendous dairy strength and quality, and an outstanding udder capable of producing the high volume and quality of milk she has always been known for. She will breed back quickly, stay pregnant and calve easily. The polled gene will continue to be more common across the breed.
  • Genotypically: Holsteins will continue to improve fertility through genetics, with the use of existing data, and new traits such as the new Heifer Conception Rate, Cow Conception Rate and the Fertility Index. We will also breed a genetically healthier cow, with the availability of information that we don’t yet have access to today, including resistance to hairy heel warts, mastitis and metabolic diseases.

SMITH: Our Jersey cow will be an even more profitable version of today’s Jersey cow, and there will be twice as many of them. How? By maintaining current body size, continuing to increase production and, at a minimum, maintaining current fat and protein levels or, better still, improving component levels.

5.What role will genomics playin this progress?

MEYER: When you couple genomic testing with in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and the large population of the Holstein breed, we see genomics as a game-changing technology that will strengthen the position of the Holstein breed as the most important dairy animal in the world and lead to faster genetic improvements in the years ahead.

More genomic tests have been run on Holsteins already this year than any other breed has tested since genomic testing has been available. With more than 885,000 Holsteins genomic-tested since its inception, and more than 160,000 tested already this year (as of July 2015), Holstein breeders have embraced the technology, and have a tremendous opportunity to benefit from it.

Since the implementation of genomics, the Holstein breed has made faster genetic progress than ever before, and that progress will only continue as breeders have access to more accurate information to make better selection and mating decisions for their animals at a younger age than ever before.

SMITH: Genomics has had an enormous impact on Jersey breed improvement since official genomic evaluations were released in 2009. At the outset, there were several genomic-evaluated young bulls that were widely used and later returned to service with progeny proofs at the top of the active A.I. list.

AJCA registrations of calves sired by G-code bulls has increased every year since 2010, with 64 percent of registrations in 2014 sired by these bulls. Genomics has also almost doubled the Reliability of G-code bulls over their Parent Average to 70 percent for PTA protein.

To promote breed progress, the AJCA board of directors recommended in 2013 that Jersey owners make at least 80 percent of all matings to genotyped young bulls enrolled in progeny test programs.

As João Dürr of the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) said at our annual meeting this past June in Illinois, genomics is a management tool that dairy producers can use to manage the cow herd. Genomics will help us improve the Jersey breed faster and identify new traits that will be beneficial.We agree with him that the most important kind of data we have to work with are phenotypes.

That’s why the American Jersey Cattle Association has a type advisory committee that focuses specifically on our type evaluation program and why we are invested in how production, component, health and fertility information is collected and analyzed by National Dairy Herd Improvement Association, the Dairy Records Processing Centers and CDCB.

6.Today’s dairy cow has a long list of expectations. She must efficiently produce high volumes of milk with high levels of components to meet the demands of the dairy market. She is also an important contributor to the beef supply, as a cull cow herself and through her male offspring. How will the Jersey and Holstein breeds continue to evolve to meet these multiple demands for both milk and beef?

MEYER: Today, Holstein beef is an integral part of the marketplace because of the breed’s ability to produce well-marbled meat without excessive external fat cover. Its carcass size and fat composition fit well with consumers’ preferences. Holstein steers are the largest purebred population of feeder steers and provide a more consistent product than pens of unknown beef crossbreds.

Every Holstein calf born on the farm not needed for dairy purposes is considered suitable for beef production; there is no need to implement crossbreeding programs to maximize beef potential for the farm. Holstein bull calves are worth more at market than ever before, and with high cull cow prices and carcass weights from larger-framed Holstein cows, beef checks have provided real benefit for our breeders.

The Holstein breed has unquestioned superiority in milk production per cow and is the most well-recognized breed worldwide. Because of the very large Holstein population, there is an opportunity to genetically move the breed toward optimal performance in diverse environments.

SMITH: We are in the business, first and foremost, of producing milk’s most valuable components – protein and fat. And markets for those components are expanding worldwide. While all dairy producers are in the beef business, that is not their bread-and-butter source of revenue.

Today’s extreme beef prices are likely not sustainable. So given the rate at which the Jersey breed is growing in the U.S. and the demand we see for Jersey cattle and Jersey milk, herd owners should focus on producing more high-quality Jersey females and increasing efficient, profitable production within their own herds. PD

PHOTO: Staff photo.

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