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Producer panel shares views on how health traits might fit in management

Progressive Dairyman Editor Dave Natzke Published on 29 December 2017

Five dairy producers discussed if and how new genetic evaluations for health traits might be incorporated into their herd management during the Council for Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) annual meeting, held Oct. 3 in conjunction with World Dairy Expo.

Dan Sheldon
Woody Hill Farms Inc.
Salem, New York

Sheldon, who is a CDCB board member, took over the dairy operation from his father in 1974. Today, the family partnership milks 1,280 cows in two rotary parlors.

Sheldon, whose personal focus has been on the cattle and dairy records, said he sees value in the new health traits.

“Milk production is driven by the health of animals and the ability of dairy managers to capture the genetic improvement of each generation,” he said. “The addition of health traits will help expand the pipeline to bring more data than the traditional DHI data. If these health traits can contribute to a healthy animal, then I think it’s valuable.”

Sheldon said he believes the health trait evaluations, incorporated into the Net Merit index, will give dairy producers the opportunity to choose the best sires for their herd productivity and management goals. However, good on-farm records will be necessary.

Future data collection, including recording types of management, housing, milking systems (robotic versus traditional) will help researchers investigate the influence of management on genetic expression, he said.

Simon Vander Woude
Vander Woude Dairy
Merced, California

Vander Woude and his family moved their dairy from Southern California to the Central Valley in 1997. At the home farm, they milk 3,200 cows in two double-30 parallel parlors they built themselves. Another 600 cows are milked at a second location.

Cattle identification is critical, and they utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, milk meters and sort gates. Hand-held computers are located around the facilities to record health events.

Five years ago, Vander Woude made the decision to reduce the number of heifers raised on the dairy, focusing on those with the highest genetic potential while keeping more compact, healthier, longer-lasting and profitable cows longer. Genomic testing has been done for more than five years.

“I am always looking for better ways to mate animals and progress my business,” Vander Woude said. “We have had a philosophy for many years of trying to breed healthy, long-lasting animals.”

When making genetic selections, Vander Woude does look at health data. He currently uses information provided through Clarifide Plus and believes that database is more comprehensive than the one initially offered through CDCB.

“I don’t know what the CDCB indexes will look like compared to Clarifide Plus or other indexes or numbers out there,” he said. “The more information we have is good, but we have to zero in on a few key items.

“One thing I have learned talking to other progressive dairymen in the genomic area is: We all have a little different take on the cow we want to breed,” he said. “None of these philosophies are wrong, but all are well-thought-out strategies always open to change and enhancement. The new traits from CDCB may be a part of that for some and not for others.”

Vander Woude utilizes DairyComp, constantly reviewing information. Long-term, they’ve recorded production and breeding as well as reasons for exiting the herd. Mastitis and lameness incidence were added in the past three years, and milk fevers and retained placentas were added about four to five months ago.

They’ve developed an extensive herd database to track year-over-year events to account for weather-related issues.

“We’re starting to dabble into in vitro breeding so, as we’re picking out donor recipients, we may dig deeper into individual animals’ backgrounds,” Vander Woude said. “I want to see strong health traits to advance the genetic progress of my herd.”

Alan Chittenden
Dutch Hollow Jerseys
Schodack Landing, New York

Chittenden is a fourth-generation dairy farmer currently milking about 700 Jersey cows in a double-15 herringbone, producing milk for specialty markets seeking all-Jersey milk. They’re building an additional barn and plan to grow to about 1,000 cows.

Genetics has always been important at Dutch Hollow Jerseys, which earned the National Dairy Shrine Distinguished Cattle Breeder Award in 2014. They’ve been breeding polled cattle since the 1950s.

In a position to sell surplus heifers and some milk cows, Chittenden currently conducts genomic tests on the top 25 percent of the herd for marketing purposes. Frequently, however, customers for replacement females don’t ask for genomic information, instead focusing on good-uddered milk cows.

As the Dutch Hollow herd size grows, recording data is becoming more important – and more challenging. When recording health events, Chittenden places emphasis on those with the highest incidence rates: lameness, mastitis and retained placentas. Those with minimal incidence, such as milk fevers and ketosis, are seldom recorded.

“With more cows, and as it becomes more about protocols and other people doing things, the importance of recording data is increasing. It’s a focus of improvement in our herd,” he said.

As a Jersey breeder, Chittenden wonders aloud whether there is enough health data collected within the Jersey population to make it accurate and if the pool of available Jersey sires is large enough to allow producers to select for these traits if they wanted to.

“I believe the value with these new health traits is in identifying the real outliers in the population, allowing you primarily to avoid those that are highly negative but also potentially to propagate those that are extremely positive,” he said.

However, incorporating the new health traits in existing indexes could result in further dilution of their value, Chittenden warned. “An index cannot be ideal to all people. Each breeder or herd needs to assess their own goals and use the information available to achieve their own success.”

“I believe if you wanted to incorporate these traits into an index, it would have to be some kind of health index where they could carry enough value to actually make an impact,” he said. “As a breeder, I will continue to look at type and production as the main drivers in my mating decisions, with traits such as DPR [Daughter Pregnancy Rate], SCS [somatic cell score] and PL [Productive Life] having some influence as well.”

Don Bennink
North Florida Holsteins
Bell, Florida

Bennink’s attention to dairy cow health and reproduction has been well documented, with accessible records available on every animal’s entire life. Any breeding or health decision made about a cow is immediately entered on computers at the double-40 parallel. In the hospital facility, records are hand-recorded in the maternity area and entered by a secretary in the office.

Genetics and management work hand-in-hand at North Florida Holsteins – they both have high priority.

“We want tough, rugged, long-living cows, but we also want to provide them with an environment to give them the opportunity to express their genetics,” Bennink said. “The measurement we’re most directly looking at is how much milk they’ve made by their fifth birthday.”

“We like cows that make 100,000 pounds of milk by the time they’re 60 months old. To make that much milk, a cow has to have the health traits and production; she has to calve three times and complete three lactations and have done it without trouble.”

“I like the availability of the health traits, but I don’t think every one needs to be in the index,” Bennink said. “Indexes strive to improve the quality of the population, so the indexes used tend to have a lot of factors. Those of us who milk cows every day, we have to go back to the basics of genetics 101: The fewer traits you select for, the more progress you make. If you start throwing too much stuff into an index, you’re suppressing the progress. Our index is purely production, with the ‘old’ health traits of Productive Life (PL), somatic cell (SCS), the three fertility factors, calving ease and stillbirths. We’ll use these new traits alongside our regular index.”

Mitch Breunig
Mystic Valley Dairy LCC
Sauk City, Wisconsin

Breunig said Mystic Valley’s 450-cow herd has made great genetic strides in the past three years, in part due to reducing breeding mistakes though identification and elimination of some bulls. All heifers are genomically tested.

That emphasis on genetics earned Mystic Valley the Holstein Association Herd of Excellence Award in 2016, an honor that recognizes production and type among homebred cattle. With a herd average of 105 to 110 pounds of energy-corrected milk per day, a somatic cell count under 100,000 cells per milliliter and a pregnancy rate of 25 percent, Mystic Valley genetics are in high demand. About 1,100 cows have been sold to other dairy farmers over the past 11 to 12 years.

Breunig said selection for health traits will add value if it leads to a more productive, healthier cow.

“The number one thing I get paid for is milk; the number two thing I get paid for is the cow that didn’t leave the dairy on a ‘dead’ truck or a ‘cull’ truck because I got to sell her to somebody else for a profit,” he said. “If I got to milk her for one lactation and then sold her, I won twice.”

“That’s what we’re focusing on. We have to figure out how to get that cow to produce more milk with less feed and have it be the right kind of milk we’re trying to sell to our dairy to make cheese. But we also want that cow not to be treated for mastitis, get bred six times or trim her feet more than scheduled maintenance. That’s how we have to balance it.”

Selecting for health traits will require accurate records, said Breunig, who was recently certified through the Food Armour program, designed to develop protocols and standard operating procedures for each health event.

“We’re trying to do a better job, especially related to treatments,” he said.

By using mastitis records, one management change Breunig has started is selective dry cow treatment for mastitis, limiting antibiotic use.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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