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Four dairymen share their strategies for genomic technology

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2016
Genomic testing

How are genomics working on your farm?

That was the topic of a panel discussion at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference held in February in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

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The panel included Steve Maddox of Maddox Dairy, California; Jonathan Lamb of Lamb Farms Inc., New York; Gary Blair of Double Eagle Dairy in Michigan; and Luke Haywood of Sand Creek Dairy, also in Michigan.

Double Eagle Dairy is a 3,500-cow dairy that was an early adopter of genomic technology in sire selection. Their genetic strategy set a strong foundation for health and fitness traits, and this focus has impacted their performance results: The 12-month pregnancy risk is 34 percent in the first-lactation cows and 28 percent in mature cows.

With that foundation for health established, recently more intense focus has been placed on production traits without sacrificing the gains that have been made in health traits.

Double Eagle has also been successful with investments in high-ranking females and developing an on-farm in vitro fertilization (IVF) program. The focus of the Double Eagle genetics program is to develop males and females that will have high-end market value to meet the needs of commercial and purebred breeders alike.

The resulting bulls are marketed to an A.I. stud, and females are selected to either return to the Double Eagle genetic program as donor dams or marketed to return cash into the business.

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“We use genomics pretty much solely to identify elite cattle. We are not using genomics to test and cull off the bottom end,” said Jonathan Lamb, as he began his introduction of the genetic program at Lamb Farms Inc. that includes 6,500 cows with the same number of replacement heifers.

“We have a pretty intensive embryo transfer program where we transfer about 4,500 embryos a year,” explained Lamb. Lamb Farms Inc. has been using genomic testing for some time. He said, “We genomically test as early in life as we can. Hair is pulled on a bull the same day it’s born, so the earlier we can find out the genetic merit, the better for us.”

Sand Creek Dairy, owned by the Haywood family, consists of 2,000 cows with a mixed herd of 80 percent Holsteins and 20 percent Jerseys. In late 2011, the Haywoods genomically tested all of the replacement heifers and implemented testing of all new heifers born on the farm.

The initial management plan was to identify the animals below breed average early on and sell them to avoid custom growing expenses on those animals. An unexpected outcome was finding a few elite Jersey animals that were high enough to flush to produce bulls for stud.

It was also quickly determined that there were not very many animals below breed average, and the management strategy changed to use the lower-genomic animals as embryo recipients. Luke Haywood commented, “We use the best and propagate the rest.” The farm now utilizes IVF and embryo transfer on their elite females.

The Sand Creek genetic program has evolved over the last four years and a large number of heifers and cows are sold for dairy purposes, and a portion of those sales are re-invested in high-genomic heifers. The next goal of the embryo transfer program is to have an on-farm IVF collection and fertilization facility where trained technicians perform all of the work on-site.

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With more than 140,000 embryos transferred at Maddox Dairy through the years, 55 percent of the calves born are embryo transfer or IVF calves. Steve Maddox commented, “Basically, you’re just trying to maximize your best cattle in the herd. But over the years, what we found out about our breeding program was that our heifer program, for most people, just wasn’t good enough, so genomics has allowed us to fine-tune our breeding program.”

The expense of genomic testing is a large consideration, and the panel offered their cost perspective. Maddox Dairy has had their own on-farm veterinarian as part of the staff for 35 years, and they have their own on-farm lab. Maddox said, “I wanted to test everything across the board, and now we are taking the bottom 25 percentile and culling them out, and we are also identifying the haplotypes that aren’t necessarily desirable.”

Sand Creek Dairy has a different situation. “We had the pleasure of too many animals on the farm and had to make the decision on whether to keep or sell our excess cows and heifers,” Haywood explained. “As far as funding the genomic side, we have traded dollars and used the genomic testing to determine the animals that we want to sell, and those animals have paid the bills.”

Haywood went on to explain, “We’ve continued that same general train of thought, as we continue to sell off some of those commercial-type animals and re-invest those dollars into the higher-end genomic animals, just to try to increase overall herd genetics.”

Lamb explained their genetic focus is one-quarter type and three-quarter index. He commented, “In the old days before we had genomics, I would have to wait a long time before we could figure out whether that heifer was going to be any good or if those sires were any good.

Now with genomics, when the calf hits the ground I can pull some hair, and I can identify the ones that are 5 to 10 percent over parent average and focus on those animals early. So a $40 to $45 genomic test is pretty cheap considering we were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars flushing, and that $40 test has allowed us to determine which animals were more likely to produce elite offspring.”

Double Eagle Dairy has always tried to breed their cows to the best bulls. Blair explained that their goal is to produce genetically superior animals to justify the cost of the IVF work and ultimately build a better genetic herd.

While the cost of genetic testing is a factor, Lamb encouraged dairymen to focus on semen selection as well. He said if you believe in genomic testing so much that you’re willing to cull off the bottom 25 percent of your heifer crop, don’t just buy the cheapest semen available. “It’s more important to buy good genetics first before employing the test-and-cull strategy,” Lamb explained.

Lamb added, “Genomic testing has really brought to light how important genetics are to the commercial dairy.” He continued, “Before, they were pulling out a unit of semen to breed a cow to make a pregnancy, and now maybe they are thinking about the value of that pregnancy two or three years down the road.”

Haywood agreed, saying the money invested in genetics can pay big dividends down the road. He explained, “We saw that in 2002, when we built and expanded the dairy and we paid a little more for genetics at that point. In general, that has built our herd, and we have a better herd because of that.”

Haywood continued, “Now we are at the other end of the spectrum, where we are trying to propagate the best genetics and our real value is in the young bulls, where there is a higher potential to make the greatest gains.”

Blair added that they try to buy the best semen possible and feel that’s where they see most of their gains, while Maddox emphasized that they have specific breeding criteria, but they still want to enjoy the view in the barn. “I like the type.

I still have purebred disease. I like to show a little bit, and I like them to look the part out in the barn, but they also have to milk,” Maddox said. “We are also selecting for individual traits our customers prefer like A2A2 (milk) in the Holsteins that are being shipped to Australia.”

Pounds of milk production has been a long-time emphasis for Sand Creek Dairy and, in turn, they have historically been a low-testing herd. Haywood said to counter-balance that they have been looking at a net merit strategy that not only brings components into that calculation but also health traits that have not been focused on in the past. Haywood said, “We put a lot of faith in the scientists that developed that formula, and we are selecting more and more based on Net Merit Dollars.”

For the commercial dairyman who wants to begin using genomics as a management tool but does not want to use IVF or embryo transfer technology, the advice from the panel was to genomic test the heifers, identify the elite individuals and breed those heifers to sexed semen. Haywood said when the barn is full you need to “determine who deserves that stall – the cow that is milking or a heifer?” And genomics is a management tool that helps make that decision.

The panel addressed inbreeding, and Lamb said he would rather have a little more inbreeding and use a better bull than to have a low inbreeding percentage while using inferior genetics. Lamb uses the inbreeding calculator on the Holstein Association USA website to keep track of it, while Blair works with his A.I. consultants to keep track of the inbreeding in his herd. Maddox commented, “I don’t pay any attention to it.”

Maddox concluded, “We are all still learning as we fine-tune the genomics, and next week, next month and next year will be even more exciting as we progress with genomics.”  PD

PHOTO: For the commercial dairyman who wants to begin using genomics as a management tool but does not want to use IVF or embryo transfer technology, the advice from the panel was to genomic test the heifers, identify the elite individuals and breed those heifers to sexed semen. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer from North Adams, Michigan

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