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3 Open Minutes with John Connor

Published on 31 March 2014

Why classify?

The Holstein Association USA’s classification program may have its roots in the tiestall barns of breeder herds, but dairymen still find value in these third-party evaluations on commercial dairies today.

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In fact, more Holstein cows received official scores last year compared to the previous year. At the 2013 annual meeting, Holstein Association USA, Inc. reported evaluating 190,339 cows through the regular classification program, representing a 2 percent increase.

John Connor, Holstein Association USA director of classification

John Connor, Holstein Association USA director of classification, in collaboration with Lindsey Worden, executive director of Holstein Genetic Services, told Progressive Dairyman how the association keeps pace with the evolving needs of commercial dairymen and why classification is still a valuable management tool.

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Why is it worth the time and expense for larger commercial herds to classify their cows?

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CONNOR: Holstein Association USA has been very fortunate that our larger herds have maintained or even increased their participation in classification over the past several years. Many have found it to be more cost-effective participating in the Holstein Complete program, and they find value in classifying all of their 2-year-olds.

Some producers are more conscious of the genetic level of their herd than others; those who are concerned with making genetic progress and improving their herd with each generation can find value in the information provided through the Holstein type classification program.

Holstein Association USA offers several program options for producers to choose from and make classification in larger herds as convenient, cost-efficient and time-efficient as possible [more detail provided below].

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How can a producer utilize classification information to manage their herd?

CONNOR: The Holstein Association USA classification programs provide an unbiased evaluation of a cow’s phenotypic characteristics, identifying both the strengths and weaknesses within the population. It’s just as important to know that a cow has a negative characteristic as it is to know her positive characteristics, so the producer can correct it in the next generation through educated mating decisions.

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Holstein classification provides real, practical data – not only for marketing purposes but also for mating programs. For dairymen milking several hundred or thousands of cows who might not get a chance to walk through those cows and see an animal when she needs to be bred, the linear evaluations can give them a picture of what that particular animal needs from a structural correctness standpoint.

Further, classification information might be utilized in making culling decisions or choosing animals that might be of more value as embryo recipients rather than passing on their own genetics.

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Over the years, what changes has the association made to classification programs to better meet the evolving needs of dairy producers, particularly those with larger herds?

CONNOR: In the early 1980s, as herds were growing in size, some herd owners found it cumbersome to have to classify their entire herd at the same time. This spurred Holstein Association USA to increase the opportunities for members to classify their herds by moving to a seven-month classification rotation.

Additionally, different program options were developed so producers had more control over exactly which animals they scored each time.

Today, our program options range from allowing producers to classify every female on the farm who has calved normally within the last three years (known as the Classic option), to being able to only score select individuals the dairyman is interested in having evaluated (known as a Breeder’s Choice classification). The variety of options allows producers to find the one which best suits their specific needs.

The Holstein Complete program was implemented in the early 2000s, which allows producers to pay a flat fee for all included services, and many producers have found this to be a very cost-effective way to have their herds classified at least once per year.

Aside from changes to schedule and program options to accommodate herds of different sizes, some changes have all been made to the program to address concerns raised by dairymen. Penalties have been implemented for cows that fall outside of the acceptable stature range (with stature measured at hip) [more detail below].

Other traits receiving scrutiny are teat length and the closeness of teats, as statistics are showing an increase in shorter and more closely placed teats and both are known to increase somatic cell levels.

Teat length is being evaluated for both front and rear teats, and the penalty for teats too short or too close can be as much as a two-point deduction for each condition, which is applied to the udder breakdown. All of these changes are made with the producer in mind and the goal of breeding a more functionally correct and profitable Holstein cow.

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According to your association’s standards, what does the ideal cow look like (i.e., stature, width, specific measurements, etc.)?

CONNOR: Holstein Association USA released an updated version of our Ideal Holstein Cow and Bull images last summer. Today’s Ideal Holstein Cow is an extremely balanced individual of moderate stature. She exudes exceptional dairy strength and Holstein breed character, with the substance needed to thrive in modern management conditions.

Her udder is capacious, with a high, wide rear udder and long fore udder, with strong attachments and support, and teats of moderate length. Her leg has an intermediate set with strong pasterns and a deep heel. Her rump is slightly sloped, with pin bones being lower than her hips.

In recent years, the Holstein classification program has responded to breeders’ desire for a more moderate-sized cow by implementing deductions for cows falling above or below the standards.

Holstein cows ideally stand 56 to 59 inches tall, as measured at the hip; deductions are made for first-lactation cows taller than 59 inches at the hip or shorter than 53 inches tall. For animals in their second lactation or greater, the policy penalizes animals greater than 62 inches tall at the hip.

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The dairyman wants a cow that will thrive in her environment. This means she will efficiently convert feed into milk, breed back quickly and calve in again problem-free. Is the cow that scores high and wins a show becoming more or less like the cow that a dairyman wants in his freestall barn?

CONNOR: Many of the dairymen we work for today strive to breed a cow that will classify in the 80-point to 90-point range. They value a cow that will score Excellent 90 but may not have any intention to show her because their overall focus is on functionality. The show ring has no impact on the Holstein classification program.

Cows in that range have the market appeal to satisfy their customer base, with the ability to handle the stress of today’s modern dairy environments, and will breed back and be profitable for several lactations. We feel that Holstein Association USA’s recently updated Ideal Holstein Cow image reflects that kind of animal.

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If a commercial dairyman told you that he plans to discontinue classifying his commercial herd because he feels his cows will never score well, how would you respond?

CONNOR: We would first talk to the producer about what the genetic goals for his herd are and what his intentions are moving forward. If the producer has the conscientious desire to improve the quality of the herd and maximize efficiency, then the Holstein Association USA classification program can provide an unbiased method of identifying phenotypic strengths and weaknesses of each animal.

Classifying the herd can help large producers who want to grow from within and maximize the potential of their herd by expanding with the “right” kind of cows, helping them develop a corrective mating program to make steady improvement with each generation.

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Describe the relationship between classification and genomics. Complementary or contradictory?

CONNOR: Classification is an unbiased recording of phenotypic appearance. Genomics uses genotypic information (SNP), pedigree and phenotypic performance to evaluate the genetic potential of an animal. Therefore, classification and genomics are complementary in the role they play in breed improvement.

The strength of genomic evaluations is largely a result of the large amounts of classification data contributing to the predictions of genetic value. More classification data included in the evaluations improves the accuracy of the genetic evaluations.

Genomics uses the SNP information and compares it to what outstanding phenotypes have been associated with those SNPs historically. To repeat, genomics uses phenotypic data to improve predictions of genetic value.

Some may suggest that selection could be practiced directly on phenotypic data. This is true, but because the heritabilities of traits of economic importance are much less than one, repeated successes from this practice will be limited.

To further the genetic advancement of your herd (or breed), take advantage of the complementary relationship between classification and genomics, using the tools available to make the best decisions for your individual herd. PD

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