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The ideal cow of the future: Healthy, efficient and a premium milk producer

David Wilson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 October 2017
Cows at feedbunk

When we think about successful Olympic athletes, one of the first names that comes to mind is Michael Phelps. He has won an incredible 28 Olympic medals and is one of the most finely tuned athletes of our generation.

However, this performance comes at a price. It was reported that before the 2008 Olympic Games, Phelps was eating 12,000 calories a day, which is five to six times the diet of the normal person. That represents a huge dietary intake to achieve his incredible performance.



Just like Olympic athletes, our cows perform at elite levels every single day. We strive for optimal milk production, high pounds of fat and protein, and excellent reproduction. And just like Olympic athletes, achieving and maintaining this performance comes at a cost.

As the margins in our industry become ever smaller, farming at high efficiency – balancing input and output – has become more important than ever.

For many years, it was thought an extremely sharp cow with a large amount of frame capacity was the most desirable body type to increase milk production. High milk production was a number one goal – until getting a cow back in calf became a serious problem.

The trend toward more healthy cows started nearly a decade ago when the negative trend in reproduction forced the industry to pay attention to how energy usage within our cows was being divided between milk and maintenance.

As an industry, we have come to realize only breeding for cows with high production traits meant sacrificing a considerable level of fertility and longevity, not unlike Olympic athletes putting enormous burdens on their bodies and retiring at half the age of normal working people.


The impact of genetics on the performance of our cows has, however, been proven again by turning genetic trends for Daughter Pregnancy Rate, Productive Life and Somatic Cell Score around and stopping reproduction and health from eroding even further.

Genetics has been an indispensable factor in bringing our cows to the level they are now. With genetics, we consistently calibrate each new generation to suit the environment of the future. To a large extent, the “ideal cow” of the future doesn’t exist. The requirements for this cow will be changing constantly with the environment we live in.

But what we can predict is: The cow of the future needs to be efficient. Predictions of the growing world population show a demand on our industry to produce 200 percent of today’s protein output using 50 percent of current feed and water by 2050.

And the efficient cow of the future is clearly moving away from the extreme tall and sharp dairy cow, designed to make the most milk. An athlete that may not be the fastest sprinter yet can run half a marathon without an expensive, precise diet or any injuries may well be our Olympic athlete of the future.

As more health and efficiency traits are now added to our national indices, we are slowly moving toward a cow that excels in lifetime production while still healthy and fertile.

Holstein breeders are showing steps in a similar direction. With the August 2017 index run, Holstein USA introduced several changes to reduce the growth of stature. A small negative weighting for stature was added into Udder and Foot and Leg Composites to reduce the contribution these traits had on stature.


Besides these changes, there was an adjustment to the TPI formula, where additional weight was added to feed efficiency. And Holstein USA is not the only breed organization to make moves toward the more moderate-sized and efficient cow. The American Jersey Cattle Association added weight to the JPI formula for bodyweight, for the first time ever, in April 2017.

So while we marvel at Michael Phelps’ incredible athletic accomplishments, it’s important to note his performance comes at a cost. In the dairy industry, we are forced to search for how we can keep increasing that type of elite performance while minimizing expenditure in both health of our animals and costs of our input.

And it’s important to realize we are not all as gifted as Michael Phelps. Genetics play a role in achieving Olympic standards, both in humans and in livestock.

Understanding what makes up your milk check and gets you the added premiums, while achieving this high-quality milk produced by cows that are healthy and efficient, will lead to the ultimate lifetime profitability per cow. Those are the genetics we are striving for. That is our athlete of the future.  end mark

PHOTO: Achieving the ultimate lifetime profitability per cow involves capturing premiums for high-quality milk from healthy, efficient cows. Photo provided by CRV.

David Wilson
  • David Wilson

  • Breeding Program Manager
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