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Using genetic data to make decisions for the future

Robert Fourdraine Published on 16 October 2015

Precision agriculture has become a common term in agriculture. It was originally associated with crop farming and found its roots with the use of harvest equipment that had the ability to measure crop yields by location.

Another application was the use of planters equipped to track locations in the field and combine this with information about the soil, thus directing the amount of seed to be applied.



The principle of precision agriculture is driven by the practice of optimizing your inputs and outputs to maximize your returns.

Now precision agriculture has made its way to the dairy industry as well. From robotic milking systems to animal monitoring systems, we can collect vast amounts of data and use that information to make more informed decisions than ever before.

Precision agriculture exists in the field of animal genetics as well. Producers can receive an array of genetic information on newborn calves by simply collecting a blood or hair sample and performing a genomic test. The information returned can be used to make replacement and breeding decisions.

Genetic deficiencies can be determined early and taken into account when making mating decisions. In a prior Progressive Dairyman article, we reviewed trends of several genetic traits: the use of sexed semen and returns from genomic testing.

The rate of adoption of precision agriculture technologies has been quite astounding. We will take a look at the latest trends and changes in genetics and review some tools producers can utilize to assess genetic progress within their own herds.


Genetic trends

Figure 1 shows the Lifetime Net Merit Index (NM$) trend for Holsteins and Jerseys. Until 2012, the trend was very similar for Holstein and Jersey service sires. In recent years, the rate of NM$ improvement in Holstein service sires has increased compared to Jerseys.

lifetime net merit indexWhen comparing A.I. sires born in 2010 to those born 10 years earlier, the amount of genetic progress in a decade using NM$ is $292 for Holsteins and $272 for Jerseys.

When comparing A.I. sires born in 2015 with those born in 2005, the 10-year difference has grown to $482 for Holstein sires and $367 for Jerseys. Based on these numbers, the rate of genetic improvement for these breeds grew by 65 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

On the cow side, data shows there has been a change in genetic improvement in individual traits. The Holstein breed has seen a greater improvement in production traits, especially PTA Fat. For Jerseys the improvement, in recent years, has leveled off.

One of the more interesting observations is the difference in PTA Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) (Figure 2). Initially, the Holstein breed had lower PTA DPR compared to the Jersey breed.

daughter pregnancy rateHowever, in 2003, the trend was reversed and Holstein PTA DPR started improving. For Jerseys, the PTA DPR values have continued to decline to a negative PTA DPR for animals born in 2015.


Producers have expressed concern over the increasing amount of inbreeding. Figure 3 shows that Holstein calves born this year are averaging 6.72 percent.

percent of inbreedingBased on the trend for the recent three years, the breed is on track to average more than 7 percent in 2016. The Jersey inbreeding percent leveled off and is currently just slightly below the Holstein level.

Use of sexed semen

Sexed semen added another management tool for producers. Producers can use parent averages or genomic test results to select the top animals in the herd and use sexed semen to improve the genetics of the next generation while providing enough replacement animals to increase the voluntary culling rates.

The percent use of sexed semen in Holsteins and Jerseys has rapidly increased. After an initial increase, Holstein usage leveled off with around 10 to 15 percent of the offspring resulting from sexed semen.

Jersey usage, however, has continued to increase. Currently, a little more than 45 percent of Jersey offspring are the result of sexed semen.

Using breeding records reported in 2014, the amount of sexed semen used in Holstein heifers in the past two years represents 39 percent of breedings, while for Jerseys it is 58 percent.

For first-lactation animals, the numbers are 3 percent and 33 percent, respectively. For second-and- older-lactation cows, sexed semen usage is 2 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

The number of reported breedings to A.I. beef cattle was 1.5 percent; however, the actual number may be higher because breedings to beef A.I. semen are not always reported.

Evaluating your genetic progress

To make the most informed decisions, producers have turned to genomic testing of newborn animals and are making more use of genetic information on cows and sires today to assist in the selection of animals for sale and breeding purposes.

Decision-support tools provided by A.I. companies and providers of genomic testing are geared toward helping producers make the most profitable decisions.

However, to ensure the best decisions are being made, one should closely monitor the results and determine if the desired outcome is actually accomplished. Below are three examples showing how dairy producers are analyzing their herd’s genetic progress.

Summary of genetic traits for the current herd
When reviewing the genetics in the herd, the first step is to review if the genetic levels of the cows and heifers currently in the herd are in line with other cows and heifers in the breed.

To accomplish this, our company can provide an overall snapshot of the cows and heifers in the herd and benchmarks the genetics and inbreeding values against animals of the same breed.

Table 1 shows an example of a Holstein herd with good genetics and shows that, for most traits, the herd ranks between the 50th and 80th percentile compared to all other Holstein cows.

herd genetic summaryTrend of genetics by year of birth
In addition to the current snapshot of the cows and heifers, our company can provide a graphical breakdown of animals currently in the herd by year of birth. Annual averages are compared against averages by year of birth.

These graphs allow the producer to look at trends for certain traits within the herd and compare these with other herds of the same breed. Figure 4 shows an example of the inbreeding trend (based on pedigree and genomic testing) within the herd compared to the inbreeding trend in U.S. Holsteins.

dairy cow inbreeding trendImprove future genetics by evaluating genetic traits for service sires and youngstock
While the genetics of the cows and heifers in the herd cannot be changed, new genetics being brought into the herd should be selected based on their ability to improve the herd.

Figure 5 shows an example representing PTA DPR and PTA Productive Life for service sires used and the comparison against 80th percentile Holstein herds for the same trait.

future herd genetics


Evaluating sire selection criteria and breeding decisions should be an annual task. Use information to obtain a full picture of past and current levels and an estimation of future genetics in the herd.

A successful genetic management program is based on having good analysis information available, and it all starts with accurate identification of the animal itself as well as the sire and dam of the animal.

Evaluating the overall genetic program allows producers to make informed decisions about the criteria by which A.I. sires are selected, mating decision are made, sexed or beef semen is used and, finally, how purchase and culling decisions are made.

Using this kind of precision agriculture technology will help you optimize inputs and outputs and maximize your returns.  PD

Robert Fourdraine holds a doctorate in animal science from Texas A&M.

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