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Prevent fresh cow failures with genetic predisposition

Mitch Amundson and Mandy Brazil for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2016

Would you invest in something that causes metritis, ketosis or mastitis? You probably already have. The unit of semen you purchased last week and thawed this morning could actually cost hundreds of dollars in transition cow treatments about three years down the road.

Every day, we create thousands of future herd replacements that are predisposed to more transition problems than the average cow. Genetics can either set heifers up to be healthy and trouble-free, or be cause for expensive failures in the fresh pen.

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What have you done lately to prevent transition cow diseases?

Producers do their best every day to react to health issues that arise during the transition cow period by investing in personnel training, health products, facilities and nutrition variations. Unfortunately, the gains from these efforts are often capped at a certain level where no further progress is made. The frustrating cycle continues as these methods don’t seem to end the fight once and for all.

The trifecta for optimum cow performance is having the best management, environment and genetics. The missing piece for health problems in cows has historically been genetics.

It has been difficult to pinpoint genetics which tell a reliable story about health. However, in recent years, improved data recording tools on dairies have allowed the industry to look for correlations between specific health issues and genetics.

Now, traits can be used to precisely select animals that are genetically inclined to have fewer expensive transition incidences. Starting at conception of your next herd replacement, you can choose to invest in genetics that are more or less likely to have transition issues.

The expense of not changing tradition

Transition health disorders cost dairies serious time, money and productivity. Seventy-five percent of disease incidents occur within the first 30 days in milk. Generally, about 50 percent of the high-producing cows in the herd are affected with at least one transition issue.

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In a year, it is not uncommon for typical dairies to lose up to 10 percent of fresh cows within two months post-calving due to transition cow problems.

Three of the most common transition cow diseases in Holsteins are mastitis, ketosis and metritis. Jerseys often are noted as having metritis and mastitis as their transition inefficiencies. The costs for these disease cases add up quickly when considering decreased milk yield or quality, unsalable milk, treatments or vet bills, reduced fertility and involuntary culling prior to 60 days in milk.

The behind-the-scenes costs to deal with transition cow incidents add up quickly. On most dairies, mastitis costs about $200 per case. Metritis costs approximately $354 per case and ketosis $290 per case. If one cow experiences a single case of mastitis, metritis and ketosis in a single lactation, she has solely generated over $800 in economic loss.

Fresh cow diseases take a major toll on a dairy’s profitability. A 2,500-cow dairy with the industry average metritis incidence rate of 15 percent will have 375 cases annually. With $354 as the average cost per case, this dairy will accrue an annual loss of $132,750 based on metritis alone.

It is likely some of these disease cases are not the fault of anything that happened to the cow or heifer leading up to calving. Some cases were probably inevitable due to a genetic trend the animal inherited. Consider how your operation’s profitability could change just by investing in different genetics.

Daughter performance demonstrates the difference

Indeed, areas such as diet deficiencies, unclean environments and suppressed immune systems after a difficult calving increase a cow’s risk for mastitis. However, if you skim the list of your mastitis cows this month, consider why some cows in the same pen under the same conditions get mastitis while others do not.

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This is because genetics play a larger role than most may think when it comes to post-calving disorders, just as family history influences which health disorders run in a human family. While environment does play a role in health, living creatures are also largely products of their genetics.

Producers can now choose sires that are genetically geared to create healthier daughters with fewer transition problems when they freshen, compared to herdmates from other bulls. The difference is demonstrated in daughter performance. In fact, data from Holstein and Jersey dairies around the world shows a significant correlation in daughter disease incidence when compared to genetic predisposition.

Prevention through genetics

ABS Global’s extensive real-world data set illustrates this correlation between genetics and disease incidence. More than 22 million cow records from herds in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile and UK contributed to the database, with the average herd size being approximately 1,500 cows. More than 18,000 sires have been analyzed around the world for disease-incidence correlation.

According to this database, 25 percent of daughters from poorly ranking metritis Holstein bulls develop metritis within the transition period. If you had a crystal ball to know one in four daughters would result in costly cases of metritis, would you purchase that bull’s genetics?

Looking at mastitis in Jerseys using the genetic selection index tool tells us that we can expect to see 10 fewer cases of mastitis out of 100 daughters when using top-performing transition health bulls over other sires. At $200 per case, that is a $2,000 savings in treatments and non-salable milk – solely from strategic genetic investment.

The easier a cow transitions into the milking string, the more optimistic we are of her total lactation and lifetime performance. Instead of relying on general, correlated health traits (improved health, immunity or longevity), you can now directly select traits with direct association to individual diseases.

Don’t let fresh cow performance hang in the fate of whether or not a cow’s genetics will help or hurt her ability to resist transition disease. Investing in disease-resistant genetics will set up your dairy for future generations of healthier, trouble-free cows.  PD

Mitch Amundson is global dairy brand manager with ABS Global. Mandy Brazil is a genetic specialist with ABS North America.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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