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Genomic testing: Feeding the world with profitable cows

Mandy Brazil Published on 31 March 2014

Top 25

This article was #1 of the Top 25 most well-read articles on in 2014. It was published in the April 1, 2014 print issue.



A growing world population and fewer resources are driving the efficiency of agriculture production, and in the dairy industry, genomics is an example of one technology positioned to take the dairy cow we know today to a whole new level.

Genomic data empowers dairy producers with its various applications. For some, it drives decisions on which females to keep, cull or produce more of by coupling with other technologies like embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization.

Others enjoy the increased reliability, heightened intensity of genetic selection and shortened generational intervals. These benefits combined, genomics certainly has its place at the table for feeding a hungry planet.

We asked the experts,
Q. In the fast-paced world of genomics, what further advancements did we see come out in 2014, and at what rate are dairy producers adapting to the multiple uses of this technology?

With the strong dairy economy and beef prices, this past year has seen a tremendous increase in the number of producers relying on genomic evaluations for herd management decisions, such as replacement heifer breeding program management and culling decisions. Due to the strong shift in genomic testing utilization for commercial dairy applications, the most enthusiastically welcomed advancement in 2014 was not in the area of technology, but rather in the process itself.


In November, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) accelerated the timeline efficiency of receiving evaluations and began releasing results weekly.

Dairy producers have been adapting to this technology at an impressive rate because they realize the value investing in genetics and managing their replacement heifer breeding program differently can have for their bottom line. In the upcoming year, with a more efficient turnaround time to receive evaluations, the amount of producers using genomic testing is expected to continue increasing.

—Source: Mandy Brazil, Accelerated Genetics Program Services Coordinator


The dairy industry has greatly evolved over the years with necessity-driven innovation. In order to be efficient in feeding a growing world, it has to.

Dairy producers have to find ways to excel faster and further than they ever have before. Genomic testing, one of the fastest and most powerful breeding tools we have today, does just that.


Genomic testing is no longer a new tool in the dairy industry. However, the innovations for applying this tool are continuing to be discovered at a rapid pace. The practicality and economic logic for utilizing genomic evaluations in commercial female settings is real.

We know more than we ever have about the bovine genome. Even better, we know how to utilize the data for improved profitability and efficiency. Genomic testing is a powerful management tool for realizing maximum gain for return on investment of herd replacements.

The need to increase production efficiency with technology innovation

The agriculture industry needs to continue striving for innovation to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population and increase the average life span with fewer natural resources.

If producers can’t grow larger due to limited space and resources within an operation, they need to strive for efficiency. Growing profitability from a genetics standpoint in replacement heifer groups is one of the most efficient places to experience this gain.

Genetic innovation for increased efficiency within the dairy industry will continue to grow in importance. Genomic-testing calves before making a large initial investment to raise them for replacements reduces resource spending on predicted unproductive cows. Genomic evaluations are a predictive tool for screening herd productivity for the type of cows who will be entering a farmer’s parlor as 2-year-olds.

Applications today in large herds

Since the introduction of genomic evaluations, the Holstein breed has seen an increase of about $80 per year in average net merit value. According to Dr. Paul VanRaden of USDA/AIPL, at the 2014 Advancing Dairy Cattle Genetics: Genomics and Beyond Conference, an increase of $90 per year is realistic.

This expeditious advancement is an example of how powerful the shorter generation interval is at creating higher-profit animals. The female side of genetics has truly had the most benefit from genomic testing technology.

Producers are now able to be more selective for genetics with higher reliability in their replacement heifers, instead of primarily relying on sire selection for genetic advancement.

Producers who are expanding through purchasing large groups of replacement heifers with limited record availability on the group can use the predictive power of genomic testing to obtain a more accurate idea of the type of heifers they are bringing home.

Even if heifers have some pedigree information available, genomic evaluations combined with pedigree information is a much higher reliability prediction of the group’s performance. In addition, a farmer can receive parentage verification for more accurate parent average ranking, genomic inbreeding values and identification of expensive genetic recessive carriers.

Accelerate genetic progress from the female side of your herd with genomic evaluations for breeding program decisions. Depending on your annual needed replacement rate, the cost of testing all or the majority of heifers born can be economically justified from the gain in genetic value and lifetime profitability.

The heifers in a herd are going to be the most genetically valuable animals in a herd because they are one generation further along in progress.

Pre-screening for future high-performing cows gives the ability to shorten the generation interval in your herd with heifer donor selection for ET or IVF procedures. Creating more replacements from the highest heifers in the herd will drastically increase the average genetic value of replacements in just one generation.

Other breeding program strategies include using sexed semen on the top genetically elite heifers to increase the number of future replacement heifers from these higher heifers, culling heifers with lower predicted performance or breeding them with beef semen.

Mating decisions for heifers can be made more accurately using genomic evaluations in sire selection. This data will be more reliable and predictive than solely using pedigree information.

It will also be a stronger line of defense for protecting against potential inbreeding losses. The genomic inbreeding value will be a true measure of how much gene relatedness is in the animal’s DNA.

Testing animals as carriers for expensive recessives and fertility haplotypes will give farmers a better tool to manage the frequency of these genetics in their herd.

It is more genetically efficient to manage the use of carrier sires who do offer profitable mating matches in females than to completely avoid these sires. Genetics can advance aggressively but still protect for recessive dangers.

Managing recessive carriers through a mating program that will protect against two known carriers allows safe use of elite sires who are carriers of the fertility haplotypes.

Herds do not need to completely avoid profitable matings with a particular sire because he is a carrier – but simply to identify and eliminate matings between two carriers. The benefit from reducing losses in abortions and shortening days open intervals would be a high-realized gain from genomic evaluations on replacement heifers.

Ancestor recovery will help producers with data management, which in turn will help them to more correctly identify heifers they believe to be elite based off of pedigree and dam performance compared to herdmates.

The larger a herd, the more calves being born each day and the greater the opportunity for calves to be misidentified at birth. According to VanRaden, more than 50,000 misidentified sires were discovered in genomic sample submissions in 2013.

Applications tomorrow in novel traits

Researchers and academia are pushing forward with hopes of discovering genetic correlation to dairy cattle health traits that will be applicable in everyday herd management. The subjectivity of categorizing health events is the major challenge in advancing these efforts. In order to collect and utilize data from on-farm health events, systems for standardization across the industry need to be established.

The health traits currently in the midst of being researched include a high health immune response for reliability in disease immunity and hoof health traits. Other novel health traits being developed for genetic correlation include a feed efficiency index, heat stress measurement and methane emissions.

As with all new technologies, it takes time to adapt management styles to utilize that information for increased overall herd profitability. The tool will continue to be developed upon and more unrealized potentials for utilizing genomic evaluations on modern, commercial operations will be released.

The dream cow can easily become reality

Writing up a wish list for a producer’s made-to-order ideal cow is easy. A group of moderate-statured, highly productive, feed-efficient cows with sound feet and legs, as well as trouble-free health, paints a general picture of a profitable barn in any region of the U.S.

However, actually, making that dream cow a reality takes a little longer than ordering your next piece of custom equipment. However, thanks to genomics and research efforts, the dairy industry will continue making steps in the right direction at a faster pace with a focus on the commercial producer’s ideal barn cow. PD

mandy brazil

Mandy Brazil
Program Services Coordinator
Accelerated Genetics