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1106 PD: History of a national dairy record system

Ted Ferris Published on 10 November 2006

In the years since the formation of the Newaygo Dairy Testing Association, the first Cow Testing Association (CTA) that started in America in the fall of 1905, production records have become the foundation for herd improvement. This was noted in the early years by the fact that the name was changed nationally in 1927 to the Dairy Herd Improvement Association or DHIA.

With computerization of herd records in the second half of the 20th century, DHIA records became the vehicle for genetic improvement of dairy cattle in the United States.



The first association summary
The first cow pages for CTAs were printed by the State of Michigan Dairy and Food Department in thick bound books and included recordings of pounds of milk and fat, percent butterfat, fat price, pounds of various roughages and grains fed and feed prices. For each cow, the tester spent time computing values, including the total value of product (pound of fat times the price of fat), cost of grain and forage fed and total feed cost, along with the cost to produce a pound of fat and the profit or loss each month for each cow in the herd. Interestingly, total milk solids were estimated from a lactometer reading, and from this solids (not fat) were computed that first year.

The type of information to record was likely garnered from previous work in Denmark and from U.S. State Experiment Station efforts. Much of the information on the 239 cows in the 31 Newaygo County herds is summarized in the first summary reported by the Michigan Dairy and Food Department in 1907. This summary was probably done by Helmer Rabild, who worked for the Dairy and Food Department and helped start the Newaygo CTA. The production average that first year was 5,336 pounds of milk and 215 pounds of fat with a 4.04 percent butterfat test.

Feeding, weeding and breeding
With the first set of herd averages, professionals began communicating the benefits of cow testing in countless articles in local newspapers and magazines. A dairy column in Michigan Farmer often included related articles expounding the merits of feeding the better cows more and weeding out unprofitable cows. One of A.C. Baltzer’s articles on “Why the Tester is Popular” stated, “From the experience of the Michigan cow testing associations’ members it is clear that the joining of a cow testing association will mean much to the individual owner, for he will get the exact facts about each of his cows. He will feed more economically. He will be able to tell the breeding value of his sires through the records of their daughters. He will be able to create and establish values on the cows in his herd.”

The role of the cooperative extension service
A number of agencies helped to foster the DHIA dairy record system in the United States. Before 1914, the Dairy Division of the USDA, under the direction of Helmer Rabild, was the driving force behind the spread of cow testing associations nationally. In most states, the organization and supervision of the program was under the direction or sponsorship of the state departments of agriculture (their predecessors) or the state agricultural colleges.

Some colleges had extension faculty and departments even before 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act established the cooperative extension service nationally. By then, CTAs were such a promising source of practical information that they became a key project for state agriculture extension services.


Faculty at land-grant universities working with CTAs took on the title of extension dairyman. Their responsibilities included education, promoting testing, training cow testers and publishing herd and state records. In addition, county agricultural extension agents worked directly with local cow testing associations, often playing a key role in the management of the associations, starting new associations, providing management advice to producers and publishing herd and cow performance records in local newspapers.

Over time, the extension program played a key role in coordinating DHIA efforts across states. In 1924, a national committee was established by state extension specialists under the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) to develop a uniform set of rules and guidelines for CTAs. This committee recommended that the name “Dairy Herd Improvement Association” be used and that employees be called “DHIA supervisors.”

Cooperation between local CTAs, state extension services, dairy workers of the USDA and ADSA resulted in the development of a coordinated national cooperative DHIA program with records collected nationally for use in management studies and genetic evaluations. F.J. Arnold noted that the early promoters saw the direct benefit to the producer but also that all dairymen would benefit from production and other data on herds. This realization provided the stimulus and justification for the time and effort devoted to the record system by the early leaders.

The 1950s and 1960s brought statewide DHIA organizations with elected farmer boards. They hired statewide managers who began to take over the many tasks involved in running the DHIA record system. This change allowed extension dairymen to focus on educational efforts that involved using DHIA information for decision making and managing the dairy herd.

In 1950, computerization of DHIA records first occurred in Utah. Computerization eventually led to fast and more accurate transfer of records from state DHIA associations to the USDA-AIPL (Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory) allowing for growth in national sire and cow genetic evaluation efforts. Today, on-farm computerization allows farm managers to develop their own custom management reports that are generated daily, and many carry cow data with them in handheld computers allowing them to look at a cow’s history or enter new information on the spot.

Improved data handling has allowed the amount of information recorded on each cow to grow since 1905. Since then, reproductive, health, genetic and other data have been added to the dairy records.


National coordination efforts
Discussions in the early 1960s resulted in two changes nationally. A national DHIA organization was outlined by three dairymen representing Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina DHIAs and three extension dairymen from Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. This National DHIA, Inc. began October 5, 1965, with eight states as charter members: Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

In April 1966, the National Dairy Herd Improvement Coordinating Group was established, bringing together members representing the Agricultural Research Service, the federal extension service, regional extension dairymen, ADSA, the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association, National Association of Animal Breeders and the newly formed National DHIA. With the formation of National DHIA, the responsibility to coordinate DHIA across states shifted to the dairy producers on a national level, diminishing the need for extension’s role and leadership of the DHIA program.

Today DHIA, breed associations and the A.I. industry still work together as the Council of Dairy Cattle Breeding to oversee dairy records used in national genetic evaluations.

Recording of cow records started in earnest in the United States in 1905. Today, the percentage of cows on DHIA has grown to 46 percent nationally and dairy record processing centers provide a wide array of data and services to producers, consultants, A.I. organizations, the USDA and researchers.

In 1956 F. J. Arnold said, “From almost any point of view, the DHIA is an ideal result demonstration. The records provide a detailed study of the dairy enterprise on each member’s farm. The data thus obtained not only are valuable to the association member but also serve as basic information in educational meetings with other dairymen. Today, a large part of the husbandry extension work is founded on results of dairy herd improvement associations.”

“Last but not least, thousands of dairymen have received production testing benefits through the medium of artificial insemination. Bull studs put a high premium on meritoriously proved sires, and every dairy farmer who breeds his cows artificially profits from it.”.

The DHIA records system has been an indispensable cog in herd improvement, providing records for culling, herd management decisions, research and sire and cow proofs which all leads to tremendous gains in production per cow, milk quality and herd profits. Much progress has resulted in the U.S. dairy industry because of the DHIA system and the cooperative spirit that has evolved around it over the last century. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

—From Michigan Dairy Review, Vol. 11, No. 2

Ted Ferris, Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University