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Breeding from the inside out

Mandy Schmidt for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 October 2017

Historically, dairy cattle breeders had limited tools to work with. Genetic selection was based only on what could be seen. Decisions were handicapped to visible and subjective conformation traits.

Attempts were made to correlate what was seen on the outside of the cow with internal traits. However, we could not explicitly select for higher fat percent or improved female fertility. It was really a rough caveman selection when compared to the expansive library of traits on a modern bull proof.

Evolved technology brought us the gift of data. We collect it, analyze it and make decisions to drive our business profitability based on it. Data capabilities give us the opportunity to make accelerated genetic progress on specific, non-conformation traits.

To maximize efficiency and productivity, producers should shift their mindsets to making genetic progress by fixing what’s inside the cow.

‘In God we trust; all others bring data.’ 
—W. Edwards Deming

The majority of sire selection traits are calculated in the form of a Predicted Transmitting Ability (PTA). The value expressed in a PTA is equivalent to the amount of progress you can reasonably expect for the next generation.

For example, using a sire with a PTA for Productive Life (PL) of +5 means you can expect the resulting calf to have an additional five months of productivity compared to an average cow.

Data inputs for PTAs are collected by milk processing centers. They save information regarding production, herd health and reproduction. The data is eventually transmitted to the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, the branch of the USDA-AIPL in charge of dairy cattle evaluations.

The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding calculates values for daughter-proven and genomic-only dairy cattle evaluations. The calculations create a standardized comparison for all dairy cattle in the U.S.

The dozens of separate traits available to select for today have been correlated and confirmed to have a direct effect on their designated area of influence. It has taken the guesswork out of breeding for high performance.

Being in the know on inside traits

Put sire selection in the same realm of business decisions as nutrition. When designing a TMR, you pencil exactly what will give you the most production and ensure the highest level of herd health. When auditing TMR effectiveness, the goal is consistent and known outcomes to maximize what is on the inside.

Select for X; predict Y as an outcome. The same cause-and-effect concept applies to selecting genetics.

The big difference is this: Changing rations will be a nearly instant causation compared to genetics. Genetics will not create change until the next generation. This also means if you incorrectly use genetics, it will take at least one generation to even begin fixing it.

If genetic management decisions are not well-thought-out, you risk milking cows that are not as effective or lucrative as they could be for their entire lifetime. Few other operational management decisions could affect an entire generation. Choose genetic investments wisely.

Major areas of profit traits to consider in selections

  • Economic index – The best way to make balanced genetic progress is using an economic index with weightings on several individual traits relevant to your dairy’s income and expenses. Traditional indices include Net Merit Dollars and Cheese Merit Dollars. For some herds, making a specialized custom index might be the most appropriate.

  • Production – Make a product relevant to your milk market. Choose between increasing production of solids or fluid production or decrease water weight in milk while increasing percent components.

  • Health and longevity – Understand why cows are leaving your herd. Investigate what diseases are wasting time and money on your day-to-day operations. Consider selection for mastitis resistance, reduced cell count to meet quality standard bonuses or increase lifespan in your herd.

  • Fertility – While male fertility should certainly be monitored, poor conception rates are only partially the male’s fault. Ramp up female fertility with selection for traits such as Daughter Pregnancy Rate or conception rate.

Every uterus is valuable

We are in the milk-making business as far as product leaving the farm. Dairy producers are also in the baby-making business as well. Consider what every confirmed pregnancy check means to you.

The obvious meaning: The cow is pregnant and will hopefully carry the calf to term. In relation to the milk-making business side, this cow will be headed back to work in the parlor making salable product. What about the other part of the equation – the calf itself?

Typically, you make a calf with the goal of adding it to the production group someday. When making the calf, were you cautious to design a genetically worthy animal to enter your herd?

It is easy to make breeding decisions with the end goal being a pregnancy, but getting a cow bred within the 21-day period is not the long-term investment. The resulting calf, which could cost upward of $2,000 in raising to production, is the future of your herd.

Ensure you are putting a calf in the uterus, which is going to give you adequate return on your investment from birth to production.  end mark

Mandy Schmidt
  • Mandy Schmidt

  • North American Dairy Genetic Services Specialist
  • ABS Global
  • Email Mandy Schmidt

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