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Improving milk quality through genetics

Sophie Eaglen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 September 2017
Cow at the feedbunk

The old adage that more milk equals more money is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The flood of fluid milk in the market has wreaked havoc on milk prices over the last couple of years and has caused manufacturers to take new measures to protect their viability.

And the Grassland Dairy scenario quickly unfolded into a nightmare reality for several Wisconsin and Minnesota dairy producers. Thankfully, due to several organizations stepping in to help, impacted producers are still milking cows today.



But let’s not fool ourselves – this type of situation could reoccur. What happened in Wisconsin and Minnesota should heed the warning to producers and have you all asking, “What kind of milk will my buyer want in five years?”

Driving force

The driving force behind that question comes down to figuring out how we will feed our growing global population. In fact, by 2050, we need to produce twice as much protein as we currently do – with half of the resources. The answer is not about making or breeding a cow to make more milk, but shifting our focus on making a healthy cow that efficiently makes milk and maximizes the end-product goals.

Every farm and milk sales environment varies. If a producer’s buyer is using the milk to mostly produce one product, dairy producers can breed their cows to maximize the production of that specific product and leverage for better purchase prices for their milk.

Vertical integration already is visible in the swine and poultry industry and is becoming a reality in the dairy industry. Some manufacturers are starting to work with producers to create specific products, and breeding will be the major driver behind those changes.

The breeding change

Producers have a tremendous opportunity if they delve into premiums their processors are offering and breed their cows to maximize those premiums. And the biggest opportunity to cash in on this is to improve milk quality through genetic selection.


Milk quality includes the obvious – protein and fat percentages and somatic cell counts (SCC). But some organizations and producers are beginning to truly understand the value of all the components within milk and how breeding can positively affect those traits.

In addition to selecting for components and SCC, producers should also look at traits such as udder health and clinical and subclinical mastitis – both which have good heritabilities and can help lower SCC. But milk quality doesn’t stop there.

Producers can take their herd to the next level of success by choosing genetics that also give beta casein, kappa casein and even lactose and milk urea nitrogen (MUN).

Let’s be honest: There is no point in breeding for animals that produce high-quality milk when the animal never gets the chance to produce that milk due to illness, or when feed costs are so high it would offset any extra income made.

Producers are always keeping an eye toward profitability, and the formula for that is income minus costs. Therefore, it is vital to have healthy and efficient animals that produce high-quality milk.

The importance of genetic selection

As with any other trait, milk quality is affected by the environment (management) and by genetics. Be reminded, it is never just one; it’s both. Genetics should be seen as the base level, and management is the added layer. Producers can see progress in milk quality through changing nutrition or parlor hygiene. However, there are only so many adjustments a producer can make.


Genetic selection ensures the base level of predisposition to higher components and lower SCC improves with each generation. Adding any necessary environmental changes on top of that will improve milk quality even more.

For a long time, genetic selection has boiled down to matching the right cow to the right sire. And while that is pretty much still the process, the industry has made huge strides in terms of genomic selection. Genomics has brought us fantastic tools to accelerate genetic progress towards quality milk.

By evaluating not only the bulls, but also your own herd, genetic selection becomes much more controlled and accurate.

With biology, we know there is no guarantee of a perfect calf by picking a great bull. As with every conception, genes are shuffled and each offspring is presented with its own unique package of genes. If she incidentally inherits those great genes from her sire, as well as from her dam, that calf becomes all that we hope for.

However, there is an equally high chance that she inherits all the bad genes, or some good and some bad. This is why genetic progress is always slower than we like, and daughters of bulls are not always what we hoped them to be. We will not change biology, but with the advancement of genomic selection, we can get a glimpse of what gene package was drawn for each calf.

When testing young animals, we get information on the genetic merit of those animals that is as reliable as the data on a nontested animal on her third lactation. Hence, we do not have to wait four to five years anymore to find out that she ends up not producing the quality milk we are hoping for. We can now strategically select and mate based on information as early as a few weeks old – and advance genetic progress toward that high milk quality with healthy and efficient animals.

By working with a reputable company and utilizing genetic tools, producers can get detailed insight to where their herd is today, what it will look like in the future – and ultimately help them find the fastest way to meet their herd goals.

At the end of the day, producing high-quality, premium milk goes a long way to making your dairy profitable.  end mark

PHOTO: Dairy farmers can position themselves for future milk market opportunities by selecting genetics for healthier cows and higher-quality milk. Staff photo.

Sophie Eaglen is a genetic programs manager with CRV USA. Email Sophie Eaglen.