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Robots, Digital or Real People?

Monday, October 17th, 2016

It’s the modern era. Can we handle dairy details digitally or do we have to wade through good and bad field representatives of several organizations and service providers in order to get things done efficiently.  A dairy farmer’s time is valuable.  There isn’t time to do a lot of spreadsheet comparisons even though it might be needed.

As a result, the 21st century dairy industry is beginning to look more like an episode from STAR TREK than I ever imagined it would.  Robotic milking, banks of computer screens in our offices, hand-held devices and cell phones giving us “always there” “24-7 access” for problem solving and production delivery. It’s a wonderful world. Well…almost.

We Need Human Engagement

Like the dairy operations we depend on, we are complex in our needs.  Keeping everything precisely computerized (cloud based) is great but there are times when we need old-fashioned human support networks.  It’s a tricky balancing act to be sure.  Here’s one example.

PROs and CONs

It used to be that there were people parading in and out the barn lane with the latest genetics, farm equipment or nutrition plan to promote to the farmer.  With the growth of larger and larger dairy herds, there is less and less time to sort through these potential problem solving consultants.  Online research and sorting has replaced those live sales pitches and even led to discouragement of cold-calling by dairy supply businesses.  Having said that, nothing is perfect.  The new focus returning to human input comes from the problem solving and profit side of the equation.  This is driven by the question “How can you solve the problem I am facing RIGHT NOW?”

Service companies that are excelling at working with progressive modern dairy businesses are the ones that keep improving their online, digital products while still maintaining their focus on what matters most to their dairy customers. It’s great to know that your genetics supplier, or robotic milking system or computerized farm management system is an industry leader (aka financially successful) but at the end of the day you want them to be there when you need a problem solved or are seeking an answer to your business challenge. It’s great to own an industry leading product, system or genetics but real success very much depends on the effective combination of product and customized customer service.

“Who Ya Gonna Call” or “On the Fly”

Even at the Bullvine – or should I say especially at the Bullvine – we are aware of the challenges of long distance commutes, air travel and the difficulties of scheduling face to face time.  There are digital ways (iPhones, Skype etc.) that at least bring human voices to the scene but sometimes nothing works but actually being there. Suppliers, health providers and consultants face the very real challenge of trying to have the right person in the right place at the right time, while remaining financially viable. The challenge we face, is providing both convenience and the human touch.

“Wait until I tell you what I want”

There was a time, when we enjoyed the research phase of buying a new operating system, buying replacement cattle or upgrading farm equipment.  Time today is more precious.  Today a large part of the research and decision-making process can be carried out online via and through social outreach.  This basically means that face-to-face touch points are not necessary until the dairy manager is ready to make the final purchase or request specific assistance.

Good People Behind the Scenes

When I’m ready to choose between competing brands, it often comes down to a determination of what grade of support will they give once I have made the purchase.  Intelligent, accessible assistance is what we are all looking for. Don’t make me wade through the FAQs on your website.  When I’m stuck I want being able to access through real conversation, offers a huge uptick in terms of customer satisfaction. In an ideal world having on site support would be just that…ideal.  But having an established relationship with a person that is prepared to personalize answers to my needs is also pretty close to perfect. Don’t wait until the situation has escalated and it becomes complex and emotional. Companies that achieve the ‘human touch’ will always be the ones that get repeat business.

Know Yourself Best!  Know Your Consultants Better!  

We all recognize that the dairy industry is changing all the time.  We may not be prepared to adopt all the changes as soon as they happen.  We need to know our own comfort level with new ideas and be able to express to our vets, nutritionists and genetics suppliers, where that comfort level is. Whether you are progressive or conservative, you want to work with a team that can meet you where you’re at.  A key area to resolve is how much of your data you want others to have access to. Full disclosure.  Better solutions.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The day is closer than we think, when total interactive access between all dairy shareholders will be done by voice, video and text.  Then, if we could just master teleporting, our dairy world.



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Categories : Technology

For years, dairy farmers around the world have worked hard at developing and breeding a more desirable higher producing dairy cow.  Now with the rapid developments in understanding the genomic structure and, even more recently gene editing, this process may become obsolete.  Gene editing technology can accomplish immediately what would take the dairy breeding world 50 years.

First let’s get a couple points about gene editing clear.  We are not talking about Frankenstein’s monster or transgenics, such as sheep that have mouse genes to grow wool faster, or goats that have spider genes making it possible for them to produce silk.  Transgenetic experiments have been around for years and have never actually made it off the research farms.  Consumer backlash and regulatory constraints to transgenetics have been tremendous deterrents. quoBounty Technologies, the company that made a fast growing transgenetic salmon, has spent 16 years and $70 million trying to get the fish cleared with regulators.  Three years ago, after giving up hope of convincing regulators, the University of Guelph euthanized its herd of “enviropigs”, engineered with an E. coli gene, which meant they pooped less phosphorus.

Gene editing is different in that, instead of introducing traits from other species, gene editing is about using genes that already exist.  An animal could be edited to possess the best traits their species has to offer. It may sound like just a slight change but from a consumer and a regulatory perception it could be significantly different.

We are not talking about fish that glow in the dark. We are talking about cows that are born polled, or  Traits such as A2 Milk. Gene editing allows us to take the traits that already exist within a species and introduce them into the bloodlines that possess the most other desirable traits.  This currently falls under a regulatory loophole.  The FDA in the US current regulations on genetically engineered animals, issued in 2009, didn’t anticipate gene editing and does not cover it.

As we as an industry are gaining greater understanding of dairy cattle breeding at a genomic level, the question of being able to edit that data and paste the data we like from one genome to another is becoming a  reality.  With the knowledge of exactly what snippets produce the highest milk production or the most desired mammary systems, gene editing would allow us to marry those genetics into on animal faster than ever before.

Current genomic testing has shown us that a “Supercow” constructed from the best haplotypes in the Holstein population would have an EBV (NM$) of $6745.  This is more than 5794 points higher than the current #1 NM$ sire Seagull-Bay Charismatic (951 NM$).  At the present rate of genetic progress ($74 NM$ per year), it will take us 80 years to achieve the super genomic cow.  With gene editing, that process could be cut down to 4 or 5 years!

Gene editing is a significantly faster and more precise method of genetic advancement than any other approach in the world today.  While you may think this process is many years down the road, some major companies are already investing in it.  One such case is Genus, the parent company to ABS Global.  They have been funding some research by a business called Recombinetics and the research of Scott Fahrenkug.  Recombinetics has been using a gene editing process called TALENs to snip segments of DNA representing undesirable traits such as horns and add other traits such as heat tolerance or higher production.

With these companies investing heavily into new technology, it raises the question of who owns the rights to the resulting information and products.   Genomic testing showed us the advantage of an early access to information. Some had significant advantages in that scenario. Just think about what exclusive access to edited gene animals will have if it means a  seven times greater genetic improvement over current options.  If you think a 10% advantage is a game changer (aka the approximate advantage to early genomic information) think about what a 700% advantage would mean.  Technologies like IVF and sexed semen have shown us the advantage that companies that own the patents on these technologies have.

With such significant advantage in the potential of the resulting animals, there really is no question that these genetics will be embraced by the dairy industry.  One need only look at the corn and seed industries for examples.  Approximately 80% of the world’s soy and cotton production is GMO.  Corn currently stands at 35% and significantly higher (approx. 80%) in developed production countries that allow the us of GMO products.  This mass adoption of GMO technology, despite consumer backlash, demonstrates that with significant improvements, GMO products are here to stay.

Bullvine Bottom Line

In 50 years the world population will require 100% more food and 70% of this food must come from efficiency-improving technology.  Unless someone discovers how to dairy on the moon, we are going to have to become significantly more efficient in our milk production methods.  Gene editing offers the potential to meet this demands.  Current genetic advancement rates will be hard pressed to meet in 50 years what gene editing can offer in under ten years’ time.  Sure a small number of very vocal consumers will be opposed to gene editing, but the masses want cheap, safe milk.  Gene editing, since it is not transgenics, offers this possibility.  This raises the question, “Are the dairy breeders of the future actually scientists sitting in labs?”



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Categories : Technology

Pick up any dairy magazine or go to any online dairy information site, and you will see numerous ads for milking using robots. In fact, even the ads for sires contain reference to the fact that a sire is Robot Ready as it relates to his daughters being friendly to being milked by a robot. But is it wise to only breed cows to accommodate machinery? Let’s dig deeper when it comes to breeding cows for systems and machines of the future.

Robotic Milking

The first robots were installed in herds of sixty or fewer cows and were an adaption of claw type milking machines. Difficulties were encountered when the machine could not find or attach to the teats or when the milk stimulation was not adequate, and the machine detached before there was milk letdown. Owners routinely complained about cows where the rear teats were too close, and the machine could not determine which rear teat to attach to. Often valuable cows with close or touching rear teats had to be culled from herd breeding programs.

Robot Friendly Sires

A.I. mating and marketing programs adapted and coined the term robot ready for sires whose daughters were more suited to robotic milking. As well after some experience with their robotic milking systems, breeders also removed from their breeding programs sires that produced daughters that had short teats or whose udders were too deep or too shallow to be milked by the robot. Sires, like Planet, who leave close rear teats, short teats and sometimes deeper udders were not used as much as their high TPI or NM$ indexes would warrant. Sires like O Man and Ramos were more desired as they left wider rear teat placement than normal even though the teats cold be somewhat short. Other bloodlines, like Shottle and Goldwyn, did not have problems with robotic milking, as their females had more middle to the quarter teat placement, and teat length was at least average.

Milking Machine Technology Advances

Over the past decade, there have been significant advances in robotic milking technology. The systems remember a cow’s physical configuration and know how to attach successfully. As well machines now exist that do not use the claw cluster principal and therefore are not limited by height or distance. Today’s robotic milking systems not only milk the cows and discard non-saleable milk, but they also collect almost endless amount of data that can be used for cow and herd management and also for breeding and feeding.

If a new milking system is in your future, whether in a single box unit or in a parlor, and you do not make breeding decisions based on show ring type, it may be time for you to reconsider trait emphasised in your breeding program. With milking machine technology advancing quickly and with less than 0.5% of North American dairy cows culled for poor udder conformation, then why continue to insist that your cows need to have show ring udders? Deeper in front, unbalanced side to side, only milking on three quarters or teats not hanging plumb, machines will milk them all.

Breed for Your Own Situation

No two breeders have the same dairy farming scenario or plan. Often genetics is asked to make up for management deficiencies and appropriate priorities are not attached to the traits included in the herd’s breeding program. It is your farm, and you need to decide on the traits and the emphasis allocated to them. If there is more than one trait given the lead emphasis then genetic progress will be significantly reduced. TPI, NM$ or LPI are not a trait and are best used to short list the sires that could be used.

Breed for Profit

For the vast majority of dairy farms, the length of time a cow is productive in the herd has a very significant affect on profit. If there was data captured on the heifer herds and genetic evaluations done using that data then, profit per lifetime could be used in breeding decisions. In most herds increasing the length of productive life by one lactation would reduce herd turnover anywhere from 25% to 50%. Thereby the number of herd replacements and size of the heifer herd could be reduced by 25% to 50%. The resulting cost savings for the dairy enterprise could be from 8% to 16%. That’s huge.

Have a Sire Selection Plan

Consider the following plan when you next purchase semen. Short list the bulls in the gTPI, gLPI or NM$ sire listings to those that are in the top 20 to 30 sires.

Lead Emphasis: Use the index for productive life (PL in USA or HL in Canada) as the lead selection criteria. Those indexes are a combination of factors that determine profit as they are the summation of all things reproductive, health, production, mobility, and conformation.

Secondary Emphasis: The three areas, in order of the importance for breeding, are: production (fat plus protein yield); fertility (FI in USA or DF in Canada); and health (SCS in USA or Mastitis Resistance in Canada)

Useful Information: Traits that can be used to fine tune mating decisions include: Udder Depth (deep udders are detrimental for udder health and cow mobility); Rear Teat Placement (rear teats too close together can create problems for milking); Teat Length (teats too short and too long can both create problem for milking); Milking Speed (slow milking cows lengthen the time to milk a herd); Foot Angle (deep hoofs are associated with less foot infection, less hoof trimming and superior cow mobility); Rear Legs Rear View (cows that walk straighter are more mobile and push the udder out of position to a lesser degree); and Maternal Calving Ease (MCE in USA or DCA in Canada. Bulls’ daughters that give birth easier lead to fewer health problems for both dam and calf, fewer deaths at calving and save on labor costs)

Any other traits are simply chrome for the majority of dairy farmers.

Sire Rankings Using Productive Life

The following tables rank North America sires for productive life (PL in USA and HL in Canada). In developing these lists, only the top ranked sires for gTPI and gLPI were considered.

Table 1 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Daughter Proven gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
6.72337571693.42.8260.71 S0.44 C-0.10 S1.050.88
Wright9.62355631485.32.655.2-0.21 D0.13 C0.48 L0.62-0.33
Petrone7.52361549453.82.685.91.26 S0.93 C0.14 L1.411.5
Denim7.323566158252.715.60.33 S-2.58 W1.95 L1.140.16
Erdman6.92260631913.62.777-0.36 D-0.09 W-0.81 S-2.1-0.55
Shamrock6.72304565663. S2.08 C-3.24 S-0.260.04
Robust6.325047671301. S1.14 C-0.76 S11.72
Sapporo5.92248438434.52.867.70.88 S1.19 C-1.15 S1.060.61
Freddie5.62349533614.62.915.30.71 S-0.20 W0.72 L2.341.83
Dorcy5.5233952771-0.12.798.61.75 S1.43 C1.05 L2.452.27
Epic5.322964495322.886.31.50 S0.37 C0.65 L2.861.57

Wright stands out as the clear leader for PL. The sire stack Freddie x Wizard also rings the bell in #3 position. The other sire stack with two on the list (#2 and #10) is Super x AltaBaxter. These ten proven sires produce daughters that remain in herds 202 days longer than the breed average and are sires that on average also produce daughters that are high for fertility, health, production, conformation and maternal calving ease. Robust leads in production but need to be watched for SCS. Shamrock with both close and short rear needs to be correctively mated for those areas.

Table 2 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Genomic gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
8.426878201083.62.7151.66 S1.33 C-1.12 S1.881.48
Motega9.82665790774.42.685.22.83 S1.03 C-1.62 S2.142.44
Charismatic9.128099851521. S0.19C-1.80 S2.672.37
Halbert92702770825.72.624.22.02 S2.39 C-1.01 S0.780.54
Director8.3275988213242.844.71.31 S2.22 C-1.66 S1.090.46
Troy8.32650788963.62.6661.42 S0.62 C02.842.19
Dozer8.226508051072.92.565.81.22 S1.02 C-1.25 S1.571.34
Multiply8.2263577310032.855.82.45 S0.80C-1.01 S3.442.72
Tailor7.92634740933.32.614.71.62 S2.59 C-0.46 S1.40.81
Delta7.827098731322.42.775.51.00 S1.34 C-1.55 S2.261.46
Santano7.826527921114.42.823.70.79 S1.12 C-0.81 S0.610.51

Two points stand out when looking at Table 2. Firstly it is expected that the daughters of these sires will stay in herds 257 days longer than average. Even if we regress that number down, as we know genomic indexes are perhaps 10% overestimated, it is still a wow number. The other point of note is the fact all these bulls were sired by genomic sires and in some cases it is a genomic sire on genomic sire. On average, all the indexes are very high but it should be noted that rear teats are indexed to be both close and short. An outstanding group of sires than can be used to increase herd life.

Table 3 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL) Sires from the Top 20 Daughter Proven gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV 
Lego11229581171041071073 S9 C10 S97014
AltaRazor1112962139961021092 S5 C3 L10255
Gillsepy1092981134981021022 S5 C097136
Boulder10929121291071011013 S5 C10 L10412
Freddie10928851161121021075 S5 W010748
Dempsey1092856621001071057 C5 C5 S101912
Phoenix10828711381001031034 S7 C9 S9525
AltaCaliber10829019610510410810 S6 W2 L10783
Average10929161161031041055 S3 C1 S10157

These eight sires are all within the top 6% of the Canadian population for Herd Life. Freddie has done an excellent job of improving productive life and appears in both Tables 1 and 3. In Table 3 his daughter fertility stands out at 112. All the sires are rated above average for yield, fertility, and mastitis resistance. Among the eight there are sires that can be used to improve traits where females in a herd may be lacking.

Table 4 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL( Sires from the Top 20 Genomic gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV
Average11635031811091031096 C3 C010187
Penmanship12135001631131041077 S2 W1 L10797
Rubicon11635961981101011114 S5 C2 S102813
Supershot11635421991081041103 S3 C3 L9876
Brodie11635251901071021073 S3 C3 L9854
Boastful11635001821101021118 S1 C010171
Flattop11634301671071071057 S1 C2 L10278
Kobra11635001581101031098 C5 C3 S1011211
Modesto11534301911071001114 S2 C3 S9767

The list of sires in Table 4 are, simply put, outstanding for improving Herd Life. As in Table 2 all these eight bulls are sired by genomic sires. On average, they excel for all traits included in the table. The trait where these sires shine, as compared to the sires in the other tables, is in Feet and Legs. Kobra, Rubicon, and Penmanship are particularly high for feet and legs. The fact that all these sires are rated at 105 or greater for daughter calving ability and at 107 or higher for daughter fertility is very impressive.

Table 5 – Top 5 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 20 Genomic Polled gTPI Sires (Dec’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
Layton6.52429611862.32.8261.29 S0.44 C0.26 L0.591.14
Harpoon62281574801.42.776.11.68 S0.79 C-0.86 S0.430.86
Champ5.922824222532.617.13.05 S1.14 C1.71 L0.570.6
Homerun5.323455801000.62.827.40.83 S-0.20 W0.52 L-0.910.53
Gremlin5.32286581961. S0.91 C0.33 L0.070.14
Average5.82325554771.82.786.41.39 S0.62 C0.39 L0.510.65

First off it needs to be said how quickly Holstein polled genetics is improving. All are polled by horned crosses and show how breeders are moving to incorporating polled into their herds. Unfortunately, none of these bulls are PP but still using these sires will leave half their daughters polled and each one of the five has strengths that can match breeders’ needs. Layton stands out a clear leader. He is just now a year old and hopefully will soon have semen available. If production is a breeder’s choice for their first secondary trait, then Homerun is the leader.

Clearly there are many many sires on these lists that will increase the rate of genetic advancement for length of productive life.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Both dairy farming and breeding are changing at an ever increasing pace. Considerable pressure is being placed on on-farm margins with decreased milk prices and increased costs. Ways must be found by breeders to eliminate costs and losses. Breeding cows differently for the future will be required in order for dairy enterprises to be viable and sustainable. Using increased length of productive life as a primary selection tool needs to be part of every breeders plan in breeding for profit.


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GMO’s – It’s a political issue!

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

On November 4th the issue of GMOs made it to the USA ballot box. For the first time Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii and California placed the question of GMOs before the electorate. Although the results didn’t rise to the same headline level given to the Republicans winning control of the Senate, many hurried to put their spin on the outcome.

The Actual Results of Four Votes

Initiatives requiring labels for genetically altered food were defeated in Colorado and Oregon. Voters in Hawaii and California adopted two county level bans on the production of genetically modified organisms. Does that make it a tie?

Here is a Closer Look

  1. Voters strongly rejected Proposition 105, which would have mandated labeling for genetically modified foods.
  2. The vote was much closer in Oregon, but Measure 92 still failed.
  3. Maui County, Hawaii. A ballot measure slapping a temporary ban on genetically engineered crops passed by a slim margin. The new law will prohibit the growth, testing, or cultivation of GMOs until environmental and health studies declare them safe.
  4. Humboldt County, California. Voters handily approved Measure P, which will prohibit growing genetically modified crops in the northern California County.

Looking at GMOs from Both Sides Now

Hawaiian opponents to the proposed law, which included agribusinesses and family farmers, called the law flawed and said it would hurt the local economy. Indeed, the GMO seed corn industry on Molokai Island, which is part of Maui County, may be threatened as a result of the election. But supporters, who were reportedly outspent by more than 87 to 1, hailed the result. “Residents of Hawaii are acutely aware of their islands’ ecological uniqueness, and they are willing to stand up to chemical companies to ensure that biodiversity is protected,” said Ashley Lukens of the Hawaii chapter of the Center for Food Safety.

Everybody is Claiming Victory

Regardless of the outcome, both sides are claiming victory.  This alone should signal that something irregular is at work here! Those in support of GMOs claim science won.  Those anti-GMOs say that million dollar campaigns made the difference.

Can’t Get Respect

You have often read here in The Bullvine that it is hard for farmers to be accorded respect for the 24/7 labor they put into food production.  However relative to GMOs, the real lack of respect is being given to the food consumer.  GMO activists see them not only as being easily manipulated by the big money interests, they are apparently unable, without threats and manipulation, to make healthy choices when feeding themselves and their families.  Of course, farmers don’t eat the food they produce or so anti-GMO activists would have the public believe.  Anti-GMO activists find that farmers are somehow immune to the deadly effects of something that would kill not only the animals that provide their living but themselves too!  These poor farmers simply don’t know any better!!

Finger Pointing at the Villains

Of course when any discussion descends to shouting and name calling, it is less and less likely that something beneficial to anybody will be the end result.  No one has a perfect answer. Extremists are lined up on both sides of the issues.  Agricultural is frustrated with misinformation.  From their viewpoint, ballot initiatives at the state level seem misguided at best and fear mongering at worst. With barn boots dug in, they are as unbending as the anti-activists who can only rally the cries driven by fear and mistrust.

“It is time to step back and choose elected leaders — from both viewpoints—who are willing to work together to find solutions.”

History Repeats Itself

The results in Colorado and Oregon follow similar ballot initiative defeats in California in 2012 and in Washington State in 2013. The food industry spent nearly $70 million to thwart those efforts.  The expenditure is not seen as information or education but, negatively, as brain-washing.

Put a Label On It

Now, legislative action around GMOs may shift to Congress, which will see Republicans take control of the Senate and expand their control of the House in the new year. A GOP-led Congress could add momentum to the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. The bill was authored by the food industry and proposes voluntary GMO labeling nationwide.  It would preclude states from adopting their own mandatory labeling laws. The nominally bipartisan bill has had few co-sponsors, but a more business-friendly Washington could give it new life.

What in The World???

Genetically engineered foods must be labeled as such in 64 countries, but in the United States only Vermont has approved labels. Even there, the law doesn’t take effect until July 2016—if it can withstand legal challenges. Maine and Connecticut also have passed GMO labeling bills, but both remain dormant unless and until other states also pass similar legislation. Legislation to label genetically altered food has been introduced in 20 states.

From the Feed Box to the Ballot Box Which Way are the Tides Turning?

Despite the setbacks for GMO opponents, public distrust of genetically modified foods seems to be growing. And companies that make and sell food are paying attention. One example which is held up is that General Mills changed the recipe for Cheerios.  This was so that the product would no longer include genetically modified ingredients.  Another national retailer (Whole Foods) plans to label genetically altered products by 2018.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

So what does this mean for the dairy industry? The world of labeling products is changing. Consumers have the right to know what they put in their bodies.

Our industry needs to be proactive in the face of changing perspectives. Instead of fighting are we prepared to show that using GMOs is one way – one safe way – that we may be able to feed nine billion in 2050 and our milk products are not negatively impacted by GMOs.

Sitting on the fence is not an effective way to think outside the GMO ballot box.  



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Last week, while, at World Dairy Expo, I took the opportunity to attend a seminar presented by Jeffrey Bewley from the University of Kentucky. His topic was New Monitoring Technologies May Help Manage Cow Reproduction and Health. Before Dr. Bewley started I wondered what his take home message would be and if it would have been better for me to attend another seminar on breeding for feed efficiency.  With more than one topic of interest going on simultaneously and not being able to clone myself, it meant that a choice had to be made. I will need to catch up on the materials shared on feed efficiency via electronic means however the ideas shared by Dr. Bewley struck a desirable note for me.

New Technologies Leading Change

Dr. Bewley started his presentation by stating “Technologies are quickly changing the shape of the dairy industry across the globe. In fact, many of the new technologies being applied to the dairy industry are variations of base technologies used in larger industries such as an automobile or personal electronic industries. These new technologies will continue to change the way dairy cattle are managed, bred and fed.”

Dr. Bewley’s presentation focused on numerous devices that are being connected simultaneously to cows in the University of Kentucky herd to measure performance, reproduction and animal health. Individual cows have more than one device attached to them so that the data captured can be inter-related. He strongly stressed that knowing single observations without knowing other measurements on a cow does not make the dairyman’s job easier. In fact, it makes it harder. Lots of data but no way of linking a piece of information from one device to another does not help make better decisions. In Dr. Bewley’s words “data is only useful if it translates into meaningful actions that herd managers can apply”.

Which Device(s) to Invest In?

The number of devices mentioned, by Dr. Bewley that the team at the University of Kentucky are testing was overwhelming. However, Dr. Bewley did provide thoughts on criteria for dairymen to use when deciding on equipment.

Ideal Technology       

  • Must be cost effective not just something that is nice to have.
  • Needs to be flexible, robust and reliable (barns are harsh environments).
  • Best if device is simple to use and the data captured is solutions focused.
  • Information needs to be quickly available and user-friendly.
  • Equipment supplier needs to be available 24/7 to troubleshoot.


  • New technology is not a fit for every dairy. Trial it before you buy it.
  • Some devices are brought to market before they are fully field tested.
  • Software is not always user-friendly. Test if it works for you.
  • Some devices are developed and sold without consideration for work patterns on farm.
  • Avoid stand-alone devices that cannot be linked to other on-farm technology.

How to Judge Benefits

  • Will the information produced be more accurate than was previously available?
  • Will the information provided save on labor costs?
  • Will the information provided lead to increased profit per cow per day?
  • Will the information result in improved product quality?
  • When using the device will there be minimal environmental impact?
  • Will your cows be healthier, have improved reproduction and be more profitable?
  • Will managing the herd be easier and less time-consuming?
  • If a device cannot provide at least two of the above benefits then don’t buy it!

Lessons Learned

Dr. Bewley and his team of researchers have focus on Precision Dairy Farming. Some of the lessons they have learned include:

  • Be cautious about buying early stage technologies.
  • Take the time to thoroughly learn how to use the technology and interpret the results.
  • Integrating the data from the various on-farm technologies takes an expert.
  • Having qualified customer service available is crucial.
  • Give priority to buying devices that will have the largest impact on profit.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The application of precision dairy farming technologies is important as herd size increases and margins narrow. A good place to get an objective view on technologies that apply to health and reproduction is the University of Kentucky website. Of course, another good source of information are breeders that have already installed the technology. Ask them both what’s good and what’s not so good about the device. By all means identify where your operation can be improved and then pencil out the cost – benefit of each technology. Applying technology will be a leading contributor to profitability and sustainability on dairy farms in the future.



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The breaking news out of Australia was all about milk. “Unlocking milk’s formula could save lives say scientists” from Monash University.

The opportunities that could (grow) from this study include:

  • New formulas for premature babies
  • Weight loss drinks
  • New drug delivery systems

This ground breaking research was published in the journal ACS Nano, the Monash University For the first time the research goes well beyond the known nutritional values of milk and provides detailed insights into the structure of milk during digestion. This study delves into the detailed structure of milk and how its fats interact with the digestive system.

Research Reveals Interaction of Milk and Digestion

This unique approach to the study of the makeup of milk was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). Dr Stefan Salentinig and Professor Ben Boyd from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) led the team that looked at the nanostructure of milk to find out how its components interact with the human digestive system. Their findings are detailed in the article published in 2013:  Formation of Highly Organized Nanostructures during the Digestion of Milk. The Australian team discovered milk has a highly geometrically ordered structure when being digested. Dr Salentinig said the research provides a blueprint for the development of new milk products. It could also lead to a new system for drug delivery. “By unlocking the detailed structure of milk we have the potential to create milk loaded with fat soluble vitamins and brain building molecules for premature babies, or a drink that slows digestion so people feel fuller for longer. We could even harness milk’s ability as a ‘carrier’ to develop new forms of drug delivery.”

Breakthrough Research is Needed for Dairy Development

The dairy industry urgently requires this kind of breakthrough science that has the potential to improve global health and cure disease. It is easy from the day to day side of milk production to keep scientific research at arm’s length forgetting that it moves the dairy industry forward.The Monash research team recreated the characteristics of the digestive system in a glass beaker. They then added cows’ milk.  They found that “an emulsion of fats, nutrients and water forms a structure which enhances digestion. The breakthrough made by Monash University team was the discovery that milk has a “unique structure” during digestion, which they have described as “similar to a sponge.” In simple terms Salentinig summarizes”We found that when the body starts the digestion process, an enzyme called lipase breaks down the fat molecules to form a highly geometrically ordered structure. These small and highly organized components enable fats, vitamins and lipid-soluble drugs to cross cell membranes and get into the circulatory system.” 

Specialist Instruments Simulate Digestion

The progress in science gains further impetus from the astonishing progress in recent years in medical technology. Collaborations among physical scientists, engineers, and doctors have given us CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and a wide variety of therapeutic devices.  This was also part of the work in Australia. As well as laboratory work at MIPS, the researchers accessed specialist instruments at the Australian Synchrotron to simulate digestion and accelerate the research. Using enzymes present in the body, water was added to milk fat to break it down, and the Synchrotron’s small angle X-ray scattering beam showed that when digested, the by-products of milk become highly organised. Dr Salentinig said the structure is similar to a sponge, potentially enhancing the absorption of milk’s healthy fats. He further elaborates “We knew about the building blocks of milk and that milk fat has significant influence on the flavor, texture and nutritional value of all dairy food. But what we didn’t know was the structural arrangement of this fat during digestion,” The possibilities promise exciting results. “We could even harness milk’s ability as a ‘carrier’ to develop new forms of drug delivery.”

A Post Genomics Revolution

The dairy world has been changed by the genomics revolution and the practical benefits are more evident all the time. It is important to recognize how strong science provides practical benefits to the dairy industry. However, that strong science cannot exist without support.  It is especially important not to neglect fundamental research. It is from this curiosity-driven, disciplinary research that projects such as the one from Monash can contribute to understanding and real progress for the dairy industry. We need research to lead the way to advances in detection, diagnosis and treatment of dairy diseases and even ways to advance human health prevention, diagnosis and treatment.  Although it is unlikely that science and technology will solve all the problems, it is equally unlikely that they will be solved without research.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

With regards to milk, the next phase of the research studies at Monash University includes working with nutritionists to make stronger links between these new findings and dietary outcomes. Ultimately the plan is to utilize these findings to design and test improved medicines.  The Australian researchers have the vision, commitment, and most importantly, the funding. It only proves that Mother was right, “Don’t cry over spilled milk!”  Instead, we should applaud, encourage and support dairy research, wherever we are.



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Categories : Technology


Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Remember when you thought microwaves were something you would never use and that Captain Kirk and Star Trek were beyond reality? Are you one of the Baby Boomers who claims to do without all the handheld gadgets and modern technology?  Then you are probably one of the Baby Boomers who isn’t also a farmer. Today modern dairy farmers of ALL ages are quite happy to hold the future in the palm of their hands.  They email, calculate, talk, text, video, chat and surf the web and look after calves, cows and crops with real time information and alerts that they access using their smartphones.

There are already thousands of apps which have been developed to assist in easier data recording, more accurate records, saving time and remote decision making. Dairy farmers are using smartphones or other mobile devices to increase efficiency and generate higher profits — a challenge in an industry beset by high input costs, low margins and continual uncertainty from Mother Nature.

Here’s a few Iphone, IPad and Android Mobil Phone APPS that meet farmer needs.

  • DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This robust app puts weather data, market data, grain prices, ag news and videos in the hands of the users.
  • Group dynamics: The data collected can indicate whether there is enough food available for the cows
  • PocketDairy is an Android-based app from Dairy Records Management Systems used to access herd records stored in the farm’s PCDART record-keeping system. The mobile app syncs wirelessly with the office computer that stores the records data can be retrieved anytime, anywhere.
  • PSU Dairy Cents is a mobile app offering two features – a quick calculation of income over feed costs and price comparison of various forages, grains and commodities to the Penn State Feed Price List and other users of the database.
  • Target Date calculates the amount of time between two dates.  Users can also choose to ignore weekends and holidays. This app is also useful for estimating livestock births or how many days until harvest.
  • Weather Bug gives users access to live radar, extended forecasts and weather alerts. They can also spy on the weather through more than 2,000 weather cameras located throughout the U.S. Another useful feature is Weather Bug’s GPS capabilities. It allows the app to share weather news relevant to the user’s current location.

Phone apps are appealing for farmers because of the instant access they provide to information and communication, whether from the barn, the field or on the road. The use of RFID technology is nothing new in farming, but it has traditionally been used to track animals as they move from farm to farm and into the food chain, and to prevent theft.  These recent applications however are active rather than passive – they transmit signals rather than waiting to be read. For instance, an app can let farm managers track the movement of every animal in the herd. Having such easily accessible and complete information is the perfect impetus to make management changes … save time … and save money. No wonder dairy farmers are developing app-titude!

APPs contribute to Cheaper, Safer Products

While farmers can gain immediate benefit from their smartphones and the burgeoning app market, the impact such technology holds could extend beyond the field or barnyard. It not only is helping to grow a better product and do so more efficiently, it is also helping to keep costs down and thereby benefiting the consumer too. Even more important, is that technology is contributing to providing a safer product as well. For example, consider how a robotic milker can sense through a cow’s temperature that the animal is sick. Without antibiotics, a program of separation and treatment can be initiated (without antibiotics) that keeps all of that stuff out of the food chain.  Mobile technology allows the farmer to break free of cables and cords and notebooks. Furthermore, the detail and efficiency of this small but effective technology not only helps on the production end of the spectrum but social media tools such as Twitter help in reaching out to consumers by giving them the opportunity to ask farmers questions about production. It is a win-win for both sides.  Information is available wherever and whenever -24/7.

What is the Impact?

Float Mobile Learning, a consulting firm that develops mobile strategies and apps for major agricultural organizations and Fortune 500 companies, has used previous market research to determine that 94% of farmers own a smartphone or a mobile phone. Four years ago, nearly half of American farmers were using a smartphone such as an Android or iPhone, up from 10% in 2010. Many others had tablets like the popular iPad.

What is the Difference?

Personally, I love the fact that recently a local farmer was able to watch his son compete in figure skating even though he himself was home working on the farm. Even better are the times when he can monitor the dairy herd while actually attending events where his children develop skills that he would have missed before the development of this technology.  The benefits of increased efficiency and saving money are well-documented and appreciated.  With a few touches on their iPad, a farmer can now turn on the fans remotely or observe a calving pen or have a quick check-in with the milking team.  However, even more gratifying is the way app technology contributes to solving various issues.  Perhaps it’s an animal health problem – “Hey! What does this look like to you?”  By snapping a quick photo with a smart phone and sending it to someone who can provide the answer, a speedy solution is sought and found.

The benefits of technology extend beyond the farm as well.

Farmers realize information is power in making decisions and they are quick to adapt when they see the value. Farmers are not afraid to use social media to communicate with the public and correct misperceptions or answer questions that consumers may have about agriculture. Farmers and ranchers across the country regularly turn to Twitter, YouTube and other media to compare stories, keep updated on new techniques and equipment being used and trade advice.

From Imagined Possibility to Real Time Speed

So much of the logistics of raising dairy animals happens in slow time.  The opportunity to excel comes when information can be collected and acted upon very quickly. Via real time alerts delivered to his smarpthone a dairy manager can know whether the cow is ill, or is in heat and ready to be inseminated.  Well before having to deal with full blown illness, a tracking app can let managers know two whole days before it can be seen by observation that the cow is sick.  If you can help the cows two days before, it’s money, because the cow, not being so sick, is easier to treat.  In one application, each cow wears a special collar, fitted with a wireless RTLS (real time locating system) tag.  The tags are read several times a second by sensors fitted in a grid in the roof of the barn. The data is sent from the sensors to a hub, where the cow’s every movement is collated and analysed using complex behavioral algorithms.

Coming Soon to Fingertips Near You

Software is being developed that will allow farmers to compare their operations with those of other app users. More information.  More informed decisions. Also, when Thermal Aid is released this fall, developers at the University of Missouri think they can help dairies avoid losses due to heat stress. They’ve produced a new mobile app that can detect the threat of heat stress in cows using nothing more than a smart phone. Much can be learned from Apps that track aspects such as temperature or habitual activity (laying down, sleeping, and eating). When coming into heat cattle typically walk more, socialize more … eat less due to increased activity … and therefore an app that signals these changes in behavior assists heat detection.  Likewise a lack of activity can indicate illness of lameness.

Around the World Apps are Awesome for Working with Cows

A quick surf review of the interview turns up many apps that are being used by dairies around the world.

  • Denmark:  CowView uses a type of RFID (radio frequency identification) called UWB (ultra-wideband) technology.
  • Ireland:  SmartFarm Apps – “Keep your farm in your pocket”
  • New Zealand:  Here I found numerous lists of apps. One is a Dairy Farm Grazing calculator.
  • The Netherlands: LelyT4C In Herd “Farm Management in the Palm of Your Hand”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It doesn’t come down to whether you should use Apps or not but, more importantly, the question is “Which ones?” Of course it all depends on your individual dairy needs and personal preferences. When you have that figured out, you will definitely find the right app-titude for dairying in the 21st Century.



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The barn is quiet and dark.  There are the soft sounds of animals moving.  In the shadows you home in on the blue glow of a laptop, your ears pickup the “Old McDonald” ring of a caller ID and then the lights come on automatically from the app on your smart phone. Digital has arrived in the dairy barn and you and your team are taking every advantage it has to offer.

Personally, I look at digital and social media as a year round World Dairy Expo for the dairy industry: something new to learn; something to fill a need; something to share; something for buying; something for selling.  It isn’t necessary to rush out and get everything all at once.  Simply identify the application that speaks to your current dairy goals.  Then buy one or more as it works for your needs. There is something for everyone, and app for everything.

The Digital Dairy Bucket List

It is reported that as high as 95% of dairy farmers already have Smart Phones. Growing numbers of IPhones, iPads and Android mobile phones are conveniently waiting in coveralls, tractor cabs and milking parlors. They are the next generation of technology.  They are much simpler to invest in and learn to use but, like robotic milkers, they have filled the bucket list wish of an industry where labor savings and more data are needed to keep dairying viable and sustainable. Where once using GPS for crop management was groundbreaking, today’s leading edge dairy managers are ready to apply technology to the whole operation.  If you can name a problem you would like solved, there’s is probably a techie close by (or half the world away) who is ready to create an APP so that you can solve it. Furthermore, you don’t have to wait to get back to your computer or farm office.

Remember the days when even simple logistics of handling farm schedules meant waiting.  Being “out of touch” with drivers, deliveries or information.  Never being quite sure when, who or what was going to arrive, you had to stay in sight of the lane or the barn for fear of missing a loosely scheduled event. Today, delaying your schedule because of lack of information isn’t normal and, in most cases, puts a negative mark beside the name of the service provider who hasn’t respected your time enough to keep you in the loop. Social media and the internet means both of you know when and why you’re getting together and what is needed to make the meeting productive.  No wasted time getting up to speed.  Social media and other digital platforms is all about speed and effectiveness.

Whether it’s the weather, low milk prices or yet another outbreak of mastitis, social media and the internet provides an outlet, if not for solutions, at least for support. Shared problems seem easier when you realise that you’re not the only one.

Before, During and After Face-to-Face

Regardless of where you are at with the uptake of social media, it is quite probable that your suppliers, vets and consultants are continuously upgrading their abilities in using this new tool.  Not only does it connect customer and supplier but it connects the knowledge base worldwide.  If you’ve got a question, a “connected” consultant becomes your personal expert in solving problems, creating formula, or determining anything from budgets, to rations, to customized designs for pens, feeders or housing facilities. Entire supply chains move to a new level of speed, accuracy and productivity in the digital mode.

Remember when you were happy to have two or three people to seek out for advice?   How about 200?  Or 2000 to work on a problem? The actual potential goes way beyond that.  A continuously connected dairy community is like having a personal genie in a lamp…. ooops…. genie in a handheld device!!

Calling All Cows

I’ve got a neighbour who has had video cameras installed.  He uses his phone to check calving pens and the barnyard.  Sometimes Facebook, more often on Twitter people ask for and share solutions to problems they are dealing with.  The great thing is that it all happens in real time.  Describe the problem and it is quite likely you will have several suggestions of how to deal with it. This speed goes beyond the simple, “Time is money” that we have always had to deal with.  It provides a real source of confidence that someone has always got the answer.  Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Pinterest, Tumblir or Instagram — we now have a tool that makes it possible to access buyers, nutritionists and vets or any other number of experts – and provide them with picture, text, figures and background—instantly! At the very least, the dialogue is started.   (Read more: The Shocking Speed of Social Media and the Dairy Industry, How Social Media Is Changing the Holstein World and The Anti-Social Farmer: On the Verge of Extinction?)

Show and Sell

Of course, the closer we get to dollars and cents of dairying, the more the benefits of digital provide payback!  Good business has always depended on word of mouth and now that feature too is vastly speeded up and the reach multiplied. No longer are smaller operations at a disadvantage when competing beside large ones. The playing field is much more level. Marketing from your own interconnected website, Facebook page and Twitter account can drive interest in your embryos, calves or cows far faster than previous hard copy, or traditional advertising methods alone were able to. (Read more:7 Reasons Why Your Dairy Farm Needs To Be On Facebook, Nothing Sells Like Video and Times have changed. Why hasn’t the way you market your dairy cattle?)  Cost effective and fast. Digital is a dairy marketer’s dream.  The ability for buyers and sellers to interact, showcase their news, products and daily stories builds a marketplace of trust, which is the foundation for dairy business … and best of all …repeat dairy business.

Day to Day Decisions.

Digital is the 24-7 partner at your side.  It starts with monitoring and data collection and enhances everything from early disease detection, to better care coordination and other services that keep our herds healthy and productive.  When everyone whose daily job in any way touches the cattle has real time continuous connections, new situations are updated and problems tackled by every person and resource that is available.  For example, spring has finally arrived. The fields are exceptionally wet and there haven’t yet been two days in a row where the weather didn’t provide a challenge of some kind, from chill winds, heavy rains and even a moment or two of nearly-snow-again.  Equipment repairs and annual bookkeeping want attention too.  Multi-tasking is the name of the game but, once again, identify the dairy problem and someone will provide input.  “I saw one of those for sale.” or “We have had good luck with these to keep the calves warm!” and even. “Don’t have an answer for you but, ‘Good Luck’.

The Sunny Side of Dairy Life

It’s wonderful – even fantastic – that the digital future is expanding problem solving capabilities.  It is also tremendous at bringing communities together. A little surfing around the Internet and it doesn’t take long to find wonderful blogs and socially active producers such as DairyCarrie, AgChat and Michele Payn-Knoper and Tom Hoogendoorn– to name but a few (Read more: Dairy Carrie – Diary of a City Kid Gone Country, Michele Payn-Knoper – Standing Up and Speaking Out for Agriculture!! and TOM HOOGENDOORN- Family man, Farmer & Our Face to the Consumer!). Here are opportunities to connect with like mind dairy folks but they also have the added benefit of connecting non-farm communities in a positive way.  One of the most unique connections that I “stumbled upon” was Teats and Tweets which is described as “a unique social media project that looks at the way humans interact with animals and has the cows posting their daily activities on Twitter.” How far out is that?  There is always something to tweak your interest and help you to push the envelope in this industry we are all passionate about.

From Penside to Worldwide

As we gain new ways to use digital for continuous connections and interactions, we will take great leaps forward in solving the issues of modern day dairy farming.  The best results will be continuously adapted and improved … others will be modified or fall by the wayside.  Digital means you can have a voice.  From politicians, to researchers, to someone on the other side of the globe, it is possible to communicate and campaign on key issues – while standing at the side of a calf pen or in the milkhouse.   Perspectives can be shared.  Misinformation corrected.  It is the level playing field that has never been accessed so easily until now.  (Read more: DAIRY PRIDE: Presumed MISSing! “Farmed and Dangerous” – The Dairy Farmer’s Never Ending Battle with Public Perception and What PETA Does NOT KNOW about Raising Dairy Cattle!

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Trends in technology have found their way into every aspect of dairy farming.  Not only are they bridging gaps in communication but also they connect generations of farmers, consumers and dairy industry shareholders.  The future is in our hands.




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Categories : Technology

In 2013 North American Holstein breeders sampled and received genomic evaluations for less than 7% of all heifers. Given the large number of articles being written about dairy cattle genomics these days, this small percentage left The Bullvine asking why there has not been more uptake on genomic testing?

Uneven Uptake.

Holstein Canada’s 2013 Annual Report shows Newfoundland with 100%, British Columbia with 21.4% and Quebec with 8.6% of the purebred female registrations that were genomically tested. Other provinces are as low as 3%. I expect that the same 3-9% range in uptake of this service exists in the United States but that statistic is not available on the Holstein USA Inc website.  But based on North American averages published by Canadian Dairy Network, the national percentages would be about the same.

Some breeders label genomics as just another inaccurate index. They even call it a production index. Believe those things if you wish, but genomic indexes are 55-70% accurate and genomic ratings exist for all traits – yields, component percents, each conformation area and all management traits. The breeders genomically testing their females are definitely ahead of the curve.

On the male side of the equation, 100% of the young Holstein bulls entering into A.I. in North America are being genomically evaluated. A.I. companies are making extensive use of the genomic results in their young sire proving and marketing programs. In the past five years young sire usage by Holstein breeders has risen from less than 20% to over 50%. This rising amount of semen sold is due primarily to the higher genetic merit for the genomic bulls compared to the proven sires. For the most recent two weeks, 66% of the top 25 bulls on the “Holstein USA’s High Registry Activity by Bull Report” were genomically evaluated unproven bulls.

So what is responsible for this disconnect between what is happening on the young male and young female sides of the pedigree?

Heifers Don’t Matter

Breeders always have reasons for why they do or do not use a service. So let’s talk about what is happening in the breeder’s world.

On the upside, milk prices are high, the USA is exporting 15% of the milk produced, high feed costs have eased somewhat and semen prices are reasonable. However on the downside are areas such as prices for newly calved first lactation females do not cover their rearing costs, sexed semen is not routinely available for young sires and the average herd size in the USA has reached 187 milking cows and many small herd breeders are about to retire or exit the industry.

The real kickers in this scenario are that the market price for high pedigreed animals has fallen off (Read more: An Insider’s Guide to What Sells at the Big Dairy Cattle Auctions 2013 and Is There Still Going To Be A Market For Purebred Dairy Cattle In 10 Years?) and with sexed semen and IVF (Read more: Sexed Semen from Cool Technology to Smart Business Decision, SEXED SEMEN – At Your Service!, SEXING TECHNOLOGIES: Gender Vendors in a Changing Marketplace and IVF: Boom or Bust for the Dairy Industry) there is, what seems to be, an over abundance of heifers. That includes numerous full sisters from the very top dams. This spring we have seen 2300-2400 gTPI or 3.00 PTAT deep pedigreed heifers sell for less than the IVF costs it took to produce them. Is that overabundance or shrewd buying?

The industry has changed and is not likely to return to the times when a small family farm could make a good living from milking 50-75 cows and selling breeding stock as the gravy on the meat and potatoes. Full heifer pens, losing money on raising heifers and no extra reward on sale day for high, but not the very top, heifers does not have breeders feeling positive about the heifer side of the herd. It has resulted in breeders deciding not to incur the cost of genomic testing, if the results are not going to provide information that will help and have a positive impact on the bottom line. Perhaps breeders are not assigning dollar values to genomic benefits or are not breeding for what the market is now demanding.

Current Benefits of Genomic Information

A synopsis of what genomic information has brought to the dairy cattle breeding industry include:

  1. With every young sire being genomically tested, the ones that in the past would have received low proofs no longer need to be sampled. That saves A.I. companies money and saves breeders the holes in pedigrees and animals that must be culled.
  2. Bull dam indexes are now much more accurate and only the top cows have sons being A.I. sampled. This has increased selection intensity but it has resulted in less income for breeders and the significant IVF fees for the, often many, full brothers that did not make the grade.
  3. The parentage of every genomically tested animal can be verified. Increased accuracy.
  4. Where a heifer’s parent average index was formerly 35% reliable, the genomic index is now 65% reliable. Almost double the accuracy.
  5. Brood cows now have indexes that are over 90% reliable where they were formerly in the 60% range. Significantly increased accuracy.
  6. More accurate breeding decisions can now be made for both cows and heifers. More rapid herd and breed improvement.
  7. Herds genomically testing all their heifers can sell off their low end heifers. Decreased rearing costs.
  8. The rates of breed improvement have doubled (Read more: The Genetic “SUPER COW” – Myth vs Reality) due to increased accuracy and much shorter generation intervals. Increased profit for herds and the industry.

For $45 breeders can get a 9K panel run. An interesting comparison is that this is equal to the costs to classify and milk record a cow for a year. In fact from an accuracy perspective genomic testing is a bargain as it costs the same but gives 65% accuracy whereas having a classification and a milk record gives 52% accuracy. In addition the genomic test can be run shortly after birth, saving on raising costs and presenting marketing opportunities.

But what’s the future?

The science of genomic evaluations in dairy cattle is advancing quickly. Breeders can expect in five years to see the following:

  1. The accuracy of Holstein genomic indexes will be over 80% for traits of moderate heritability.
  2. Current research for feed efficiency will produce a genetic rating for that important trait.
  3. Genomic indexes will be available for more traits and with more accuracy for health and fertility traits.
  4. More use will be made of genomic indexes for breeds beyond Holsteins.
  5. Breeders will implant low end cows with high merit embryos and will not need to raise low end heifers.
  6. Cows will stay in the herd longer resulting in higher daily herd average milk yields.
  7. Breeders will be able to focus genetic selection on herd life, feed efficiency, fertility and health traits.
  8. Genomic information will be used to breed for feeding (Read more: Forget Genomics – Epigenomics & Nutrigenomics are the Future) and management (Read more: Herd Health, Management, Genetics and Pilot Projects: A Closer Look at ZOETIS) purposes.
  9. Breeding companies will focus on providing semen and embryos that meet their customers’ needs.
  10. A.I. sires will only need to be housed in stud until there are 25,000 to 100,000 doses collected. (Read more: The End of the Daughter Proven Sire Era)

In five years time, discerning breeders will use genomic information like any other tool to breed better cattle and generate on-farm profit. If the cost of testing could be lowered from $45 to about $30 for a 9K panel evaluation, then the uptake would definitely increase significantly.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

We must always look to the future. For some breeders that may be one year until they sell out. However for many, including many young people just entering the industry, that future could be 10 to 30 years from now. Their decision should not be how they can do the heifer side as cheaply as possible. It needs to be how they can have the most profitable cows. The time is now to start genomically testing all heifers. Eliminating the lower end. Correctively mate to make the top end even better. Knowing all the facts and having all the information about the heifer herd is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Do not let opportunity pass you by. 

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


Not sure what all this hype about genomics is all about?

Want to learn what it is and what it means to your breeding program?

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Over the past few years the management and genetic sides of the dairy cattle industry have been handed a huge data opportunity.  One example comes from Lely who report that their robotic system can capture more than 120 different values per cow per day. Sounds excessive doesn’t it? For some breeders that number is beyond comprehension. However, before offering a final assessment on volume of data, let’s dig deeper. Lely Current Data Collection

Dairy farm operators know very well the challenges resulting from high feed cost and narrow margins. But they do not have the numbers to get down to the exact profit at each individual cow level. Do they breed Bessie back? If so what should she be breed to improve her? Or is she the next cow to be culled based on revenue generated less expenses? The challenge has been that managing Bessie has always been in hindsight and what is needed is real time management of her situation. Add to that the fact that wages and labor laws in many developed countries are causing breeders to rethink the degree of automation to apply to their operations. Many sensors already exist for measuring and monitoring cows and many are in the process of coming to market. It all comes down to having the numbers to manage, breed, feed and farm. There are many management   considerations that discerning breeders should reflect on as they plan for future success in the dairy cattle industry.

Eight Numbers for Better Cow Management Decisions

  • Animal Weight – Ways of capturing a cow’s weight available many more factors can be added to what is known on an individual cow basis. Factors like feed intake, loosing or gaining weight and individual cow profit per day for the past week come quickly to mind.  These sensors also allow for monitoring of negative energy balance determined by body weight changes and milk solid ratios.
  • Rumination – Having a healthy rumen is paramount to having a productive profitable dairy cow. Since it is not possible to determine DMI (Dry Matter Intake) on an individual cow basis, rumen activity sensors are used to endure that a cow’s digestive system is functioning well. The sensors also allow for consistent monitoring of feed delivery to ensure feed truck operators are doing their job.
  • Components / Milk QualityMany on-farm systems can now capture fat %, protein %, lactose %, milking time, SCC, Conductivity and color of the milk at every milking (SCC is not equal to conductivity and color of the milk indicates mastitis alerts as well). These numbers and some of the relationships one to another give important information on both a daily and lactation basis. Knowing about problems immediately is by far the best way to address them. Wouldn’t all breeders like to be able to know about a pending SCC spike and address it immediately?
  • Temperature – is captured as either milk temperature or can be electronically read from a device such as a bolus in the rumen. The milk temperature is taken 2 – 4 times per day and is a start. However having an internal device provides for real time cow management. The obvious use of temperature changes is general cow health throughout lactation in order to detect differences from normal. Knowing a cow’s temperature after calving has been found to be very useful    in getting her off to the right start. New to management tools could be monitoring a cow’s temperature, hour by hour, during her heat period. Breeding at exactly the right time is being studied and preliminary results are showing greatly increased pregnancy rates when body temperature is considered. Think how beneficial it would be to have a 65% conception rate instead of a 35-40% rate.
  • Heat Detection – In addition to the idea, just mentioned, of breeding by temperature during heat, there are many systems working successfully that record cow movement and thus signal to breeders that a cow is more active and should be closely observed for being in heat. Yet another device is one that measures hormone levels signalling an on-coming heat (Read more: Better Decision Making by Using Technology). Just think of the savings in labor, drugs, vet costs, semen, extra days spent in dry pens and days of lower milk production at the end of lactation if conception rates could be 70% or higher in cows and 85% or higher in heifers.
  • Milk Yield Every Milking – On a milking to milking basis nothing is more important than to know if a cow has produced to the expected level. All automated milking systems can do that and so breeders with those systems have a very important tool at their disposal. Cows falling below expectation are highlighted for attention by the herdsman either immediately or on a list that can be reviewed at any time.
  • Listings – Every automated system is capable of generating lists and graphs from the data captured. When a breeder first gets an automated system, they use the lists to find the problems or underperforming cows. However after a time breeders also find the reports to be very beneficial for setting goals for their cows and herd. A list can be as simple as knowing which cows, in a robotic herd, have not been milked. Or are they sick or lame? No matter what, the herdsman has a reason to find the cow and investigate. Breeders not only benefit from knowing what goes on in their own herd but the equipment providers are able to use the data from across herds in establishing benchmarks. And it is not only the breeder that benefits, his veterinarian and feed advisor now have information that they can use to make better recommendations.
  • Heifers The heifer herd is the forgotten part of the dairy herd (Read more: Should you be raising your own heifers?). Automated calf feeding systems are now being used successfully. Many of the devices mentioned above, for cows, can be used for heifers as well. Just think of what the saving would be if age at first calving could be reduced by 3-4 months, $400 saved per heifer raised amounts to $20,000 savings per year in a 100 cow herd.

Numbers to Breed Better Cows

Having better management tools is only 50% of the success equation. The other half is breeding better cows. The data that would separate the best from the rest is a long and growing list.

  •  Milk Yield Every Milking – The most accurate lactation production is when a weight from every milking is known. By having a weight captured at every milking, a genetic index could be calculated for a bull’s daughters peak production and persistency of production. Knowing such details may in fact help breeders determine the performance pattern that they want from their cows.
  • Components / Milk Quality – Here as well, having more observations will increase the accuracy of genetic indexes in order to breed cows that produce the milk that processors and consumers demand.
  • Milking Speed – The current genetic indexes are calculated using breeder assigned subjective rating. Fast, average or slow. Automated milking systems are now capable of capturing milking times. As more herds move to automated systems it will be possible to know if a bull’s daughters take 30 seconds less or 30 second more to milk. Time to milk determines the number of cows per robot or the size of the parlor. Milking speed is not consistent throughout the life of a cow and has variations even in the lactation. More over the robot gives an honest measurement which is not affected by the fear of the cow for the milking appraiser.
  • Adaptability / Temperament – Breeder know that not all cows are equal when it comes to be handled, milked and cared for. Using data from automated systems it will, in the future, be possible to produce genetic ratings for how bull’s daughters work within automated systems, their temperament, and other factors that breeders see as being necessary.
  • Reproduction / Fertility – Currently the data we have on cows, bulls and embryos are stored on many different databases. Bringing that information to a linked data system, studying it and then developing genetic bull rankings could well be a significant development when it comes to increasing the reproductive performance of dairy cattle.
  • Feed Efficiency – One of the most read articles that The Bullvine routinely produces is the one listing sires that will produce the most feed efficient cows (Read more: Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver and 50 Sires that will Produce Feed Efficient Cows ).  Bullvine readers want to have genetic evaluations for feed efficiency. For some Bullvine readers sire rankings cannot come too quickly. Research is currently underway to determine the relationship between feed efficiency and other genetic indexes. However if feed intake data could come from automated on-farm systems it would be a big step forward.
  • Lameness / Mobility – On a herd and industry basis, mobility issues are a big financial drain due to animal cull, lost production and added costs. Breeders know that cows that avoid lameness, that are able to easily get to the feed bunk or pasture and that spend the majority of their time resting, are the kind of cows that make the most profit. With more complete data from automated systems and with perhaps additional sensors it will someday be possible to have genetic indexes for mobility.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The definitive statement, when it comes to information and data on dairy farms, is that we have currently only scratched the surface. Definitely much more data from automated on-farm systems will soon be available for breeders to use to operate their dairy enterprises and to select their sires. Decisions made by dealing with the exceptions or past performance are old concepts. What is needed is more condensed and focused information and data to manage with on a real time basis. More data from automated data capture systems can and will make this a better industry. Let’s welcome in the future.


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Zoetis is a global animal health company with 60 years of experience.  Zoetis, formerly Pfizer Animal Health, was a business unit within Pfizer Inc.  On February 1, 2013, Zoetis became a stand-alone animal health company.  Zoetis is a publicly traded company on the NYSE.

When DNA profiling in herds, the program at Zoetis is to get dairy producers to focus on genotyping the entire heifer group.  This allows breeders to make selection and management decisions, before investing the full cost of raising each heifer.  Depending on where breeders are located, the cost of raising a heifer ranges from $2000 to $3500 (Read more: Should you be raising your own heifers?) By testing animals at a young age, breeders can decide if they want to sell the heifer, breed her to a beef sire, use her as an embryo recipient or consider flushing her.  It’s about making accurate choices and, ultimately, profit.

Which Benefit Category Works for YOU?

  • Do you have an excess of heifers?
    DNA profiling means you can manage your heifer inventory more precisely and invest your rearing budget in the heifers that you need to keep.  Keeping control of the heifer inventory also has an indirect health benefit. Reduced numbers prevents heifer facilities from being overcrowded. A less stressful environment reduces calfhood and heifer diseases. Remember that heifer rearing is the third largest on-farm cost after labor and feed.
  • Do you use sexed semen?
    This higher priced tool can be best applied to the top 50% of heifers based on their genetic merit. Doing so is a significant step toward elevating the genetic potential of the next generation of heifers in your herd.
  • Is your herd unregistered? 
    You have the most to benefit from genomic testing because you will be going from zero genetic information to more genetic information than you could ever get from simply registering your animals. Now you can make better selection and mating decisions.
  • Is profitability your first priority?
    The top priority profitability traits for most herds are selection for milk components, with the remaining emphasis on traits that contribute to longer herd life (SCS, DF, HL, F/L and mammary).  LPI is a great index to use as a first sort in selecting the most profitable animals.

Analysis.  Assessment.  Action.

Zoetis has developed the “CLARIFIDE” program. Veterinarians are trained in understanding the basics of genomics and how this information can be integrated as part of the herd’s management program.  There are over 100 veterinarians across Canada that have been given the designation of “CLARIFIDE Accredited Veterinarian”.  Many of them underwent a multi-day training program taught by representatives from Zoetis, CDN, Holstein Canada and Semex. Today, if a local vet has not been trained through the CLARIFIDE program, but they have a client that is interested in submitting through CLARIFIDE, Zoetis will conduct training with these vets either in person or on-line.” Dr. Melodie Chan, Zoetis Business Lead and Manager Veterinary Services, concludes. “With access to this information, breeders are able to allocate their resources more effectively.  As genomic research progresses, we may even be able to consider health protocols to match each animals’ potential to respond – such as response to vaccination.”

Clarifying Genetic Potential

The goal of every dairy breeder is to identify and act upon the genetic potential of their dairy animals. “Through the CLARIFIDE program, Zoetis has worked closely with its Alliance partners.” says Dr. Chan, who outlines the benefits and potential. “By working closely with CDN, Holstein Canada and Semex, the CLARIFIDE genomic consulting program offered through Zoetis provides a truly Canadian perspective. Furthermore, this Alliance has also fostered research initiatives and collaborative funding towards projects that ultimately benefit the Canadian dairy industry. In 2012-2013 Zoetis funded genotyping of approximately 2,000 Canadian proven sires so that their offspring could be included in the genome pool.  The addition of this genetic information will aid in the predictive value of genomic testing, in particular for Canadian only traits, such as temperament and milking speed.”

ZOETIS + SEMEX + HOLSTEIN CANADA + CDN – Combined Strengths. Collaborative Approach.

Effective May 1, 2012, Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health) joined the existing alliance between the Canadian Dairy Network (CDN), the Holstein Association of Canada (Holstein Canada), and the Semex Alliance (Semex).  Dr. Chan describes the strategy. “The intent of this alliance is to foster a collaborative approach to delivering predictive genetic information to the Canadian dairy industry, to promote female genotyping and to assist Canada’s dairy producers in using genetic information to make sound management decisions and propagate desired traits. “The members of the alliance feel that by engaging in this partnership, breeders ultimately benefit from the combined strengths of each organization.”

Update on Pilot Study Results

Dr. Josh Lindenbach, Warman Saskatchewan, a Clarifide Approved Veterinarian, shared some of the economic analyses that he did with two of the Zoetis pilot-project herds.  In both herds, Dr. Lindenbach sorted the animals based on LPI and compared it to kg of BF shipped.  “In Herd #1, there was a $960 average gross profit advantage between the top 1/3 and bottom 1/3 of the herd based on LPI (48 animals genotyped).  In Herd #2, there was a $1345 average gross profit advantage between animals that had an above average LPI number vs. a below average LPI number.”


Zoetis has received the following comments from breeders and vets involved in the CLARIFIDE program:

  •  “This gives us a better way to manage the heifer inventory by knowing which ones to keep, sell or use as recips, and which ones to use sexed semen on.”
  • “Herd weaknesses were known before but now we find them younger and more accurately“
  • “We are now buying semen from bulls that address herd weaknesses as identified by genomics”
  • “More targeted use of sexed semen”
  • “We have more open discussions of breeding discussions involving both vets and AI reps, sometimes even together!”
  • “By culling my bottom end heifers, the heifers coming into the milking herd are more solid producing animals. We have higher milk production and have been able to raise the overall health level of our herd.”
  • “It’s not the top half of my herd that I ever have to worry about – it’s the bottom half.  I want to be able to know ahead of time who could potentially cause me problems and be able to manage my heifer inventory appropriately, based on this knowledge.”


There have been interesting results from three different groups from the Zoetis field trial as Dr. Chan reports. “Breeders that are in the top 10% ,from a farm management standpoint, who are excellent at raising calves and keeping them alive, have reached a plateau with their production and are looking for the “next thing” that they can improve on to help them become more profitable were the first ones to trust in genomic technology and see its value.  Dr. Chan states, “The key is to make sure you have invested fully in your calf raising program to ensure that disease issues are kept to a minimum and calves have doubled their birth weight at 56 days – then you can be assured that these heifers will reach their full genetic potential.” She continues with the benefits for two other groups.”Breeders that are sitting on excess heifers and looking at their expenses were also quick to jump on board.  For a group of Hutterite breeders that are limited to the use of natural service bulls only, genomics provided them with an opportunity to push their genetic progress by culling some of the bottom end animals and replacing them with purchased animals that ranked higher on LPI.”  Using data that CDN supplied, Dr. Chan in 2012 looked at phenotype vs. genotype.  “We took the CDN database as being “one herd” and took the raw data without adjusting for any environmental effects.  Despite that, we were still able to show a significant difference in performance, if we used genomics as a predictor for performance.”

zoetis chart

The Bullvine Bottom Line

This sounds like every breeder’s dream.  It checks off several breeder, service provider and advisor goals. “Now breeders not only know a heifer’s genetic potential early in her life but have the information to find more accurate ways to allocate resources.”  Whenever the tools advance dairy breeders` goals and profitability, that’s a win-win for everybody.


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483489_373221862768803_451092309_n[1]We know there are people and companies with money to invest.  We know there are people with passion for agricultural business that are seeking funding. Bringing the two groups together is the challenge.


AgFunder:  Where the Money Grows

AgFunder CEO Rob Leclerc

AgFunder CEO Rob Leclerc

By bringing investment opportunities to the investment community we’re really helping to create a new asset class for many investors who did not have access to these types of opportunities before.” Explains AgFunder CEO Rob Leclerc.

From Challenges to Opportunity

“AgFunder was born out of challenges I had raising capital for my first startup, Babbleflix, and then for SeedRock Africa Agriculture. At the time we discussed how an online investment platform could more efficiently bring together ag investors with ag opportunities, but we soon discovered that the regulations outlined by the Securities and Exchange Committee prohibited the formation of such marketplaces.” In the spring of 2012 everything changed when congress passed the JOBS Act to make it easier for small and emerging growth companies to access capital.

The Evolution of AgFunder

AgFunder was born out of the new JOBS Act legislation which started to go into effect on September 23rd, 2013. Prior to the JOBS Act issuers (the company) were required to have a substantial pre-existing relationship with the purchaser (the investor); or another way of saying this is that the Securities and Exchange Commission banned the use of general advertising or solicitation to attract investors. The consequence of this was that it limited the creation of marketplaces that could efficiently bring together buyers and seller to once place.

Beyond the Conventional

There are conventional ways to get money and for some undertakings this works. “However, it is not enough for AgFunder to serve as a marketplace.” explains AgFunder CEO Rob Leclerc who looks at finding multiple investors.  “Unlike situations such as where a single customer might buy a single item, in the investment world you typically have a number of investors coming together to invest in a single company and so AgFunder also needs to efficiently syndicate investors.”

Welcome to the Digital Roadshow

Having found potential investors, the next step is preparing the company sourcing money for the process ahead. “For a company listed on AgFunder we will have them go through a digital roadshow.”  He explains the progression. “First the company must begin by soliciting initial interest, then moving to a series of online webinars where investors can have a Q&A with the management team. This is followed by a closing period where investors must decide if they’re in or they’re out. For the closing period, all proceeds are held in escrow. If the company reaches its pre-established capital target, then the investment is executed and the investors become shareholders in the company. However, in the event that the company fails to reach its capital target, all capital is returned to the investor.”

The AgFunder Dream Team: Expertise, Credibility and Commitment

Michael Dean

Michael Dean (COO)

In preparing for the 2014 Olympic Games, many sports enthusiasts debate for hours on how to put together a dream team to stand on the podium for their favorite team sport.  For many businesses it is a goal to cover all the major skills when talents are pooled.  The team that has pulled together for AgFunder is a dream team that is ready to go for the gold at every level led by Rob Leclerc (CEO), Michael Dean (COO) and Justin Bruch (Technical Director).  But even more remarkable for this team is that individually they also have exceptional experience, training and expertise.  Their wide-ranging talent is the supporting wall that investors and companies can rely on. Michael Dean COO and co-founder of AgFunder has led the development of the company from its inception and is responsible for executing the business model and the development of all assets in West Africa. CEO Rob Leclerc is recognized internationally and often speaks at global conferences on agriculture, technology and capital raising. Justin Bruch is Technical Director for AgFunder. Justin is an Iowa native and 5th generation farmer with over 16 years of experience in large-scale farming in excess of 10,000 hectares. Justin has set up and managed farms on four continents, including a $30m farm for Morgan Stanley in the Ukraine. Iowa, Brazil, Africa, and the Ukraine. There are two senior advisors on the team.  Adam Oliver is an equity partner at Brown & Co. and was a former Director at Black Earth Farming.  He helped lead them to the largest farming IPO in history.  John Simon is a former Executive VP at the Private Overseas Investment Corporation and the Former US Ambassador to the African Union. And this is merely the tip of the giant skills list this “dream team” possesses.

AgFunder Finds the Money

When the rubber hits the road, you want to be working with a company that achieves success.  From small startups to mega-business AgFunder targets that success. “AgFunder was in its beta mode until early 2013 and so we’ve been showcasing some smaller opportunities in the agtech space. One of the companies we’re featuring is called TerViva, and they’re building a great platform around an alternative biofuels crop called pongamia which could be a great drop in replacement for citrus orchards which have been devastated by citrus greening disease. TerViva’s been featured in CNN Money and they have a very bright and talented team driving this forward.” The future looks bright for the company and is moving rapidly ahead. “AgFunder is currently processing nearly $1 billion in deal flow opportunities on the platform, with the largest being $100m.”

Dairy AgFunder

Rob highlights some dairy projects that AgFunder is working on. “We’re in advanced discussions with one group that is in the early stages of developing the largest dairy operation on Hawaii. As you may know, most dairy products in Hawaii are imported and the local food movement is really driving demand for local sourcing. We think this could be a perfect project for AgFunder because we think that local investors will really embrace this opportunity to invest something that they consume every day, but which is currently imported.”

agfunder-screen shotAgFunder Builds Positive Connections between Entrepreneurs and Investors

AgFunder is making positive strides in the marketplace report the founders. “We’ve been really overwhelmed by the reception and we’re seeing a real need for this on both sides of the table. On the one side, the inherently local and rural nature of agriculture means that it is typically far removed from the centers of finance, which makes it extra difficult for Ag entrepreneurs to raise capital. On the flip side, we’ve been talking to a lot of institutional and individual investors who are interested in investing in agriculture-related opportunities but don’t know where to start and may need to be educated about the opportunities.”

Building a community of Entrepreneurs and Investors

AgFunder provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to reach thousands of investors. However, if you think you can just list your company and come back 2 months later you are sorely mistaken. Raising capital is hard work and entrepreneurs need to leverage the marketing component of the platform to drive the message to investors.

Growing Business not Growing Frustrated

Our goal is to bring ag investors and every investable agriculture opportunity to the AgFunder platform and so that we can quickly match investors with opportunities. In doing so, we want to cut the sales process down from 12-18 months to 2 months, thereby letting companies work on their business rather than focusing their energy on resources on raising capital. We think we can become the John Deere for Agrifinance.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

When defining success, we must consistently think of agriculture in all of its aspects and especially in terms of sustainability and profitability.  Bringing the right people together at the right time is what AgFunder is committed to says Rob Leclerc. “We think AgFunder can be a real game changer for wealthy farmers who want to invest in an area that they trust and understand, rather than putting their money into some hot internet stock recommended to them by their broker. In fact, we think farmers could generate great returns and embarrass some of those high paid Wall Street portfolio managers!”


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Sometimes we are guilty of overthinking things.  We talk about corrective mating, line breeding, and developing a distinct bloodline, when in reality nothing makes more dollars and cents than getting more female calves from your best cows.  No matter what your breeding or profit goals are, there is no question that you need to get  your cows back in calf for another lactation and have them  produce enough replacement heifers.  These are two top metrics every dairy must aim for.

There used to be a time when you could burn through young cows, but today’s modern dairy operation is dependent on getting the milking cows back in calf and preferably they will produce 3-4 heifers throughout the course of their lifetime.  I say heifers because recent analysis of 2,390,000 lactation records covering 1,490,000 cows found a clear pattern: Cows produce more milk for their daughters than their sons.  The sex of the first calf is particularly important and can influence how much milk production is generated in future lactations as well.  (Read more: Study Of 1.5 Million Cows Shows Daughters Get More Milk Than Sons) In fact the study found that cows that gestated back-to-back daughters produced as much as 1,000 pounds more milk than those that give birth to sons over the first two lactations.

The effect of sons and daughters on mum's milk production, across two lactations.

The effect of sons and daughters on mum’s milk production, across two lactations. S = son, D = daughter, numbers along x-axis indicate order of pregnancy. Credit: Hinde et al, 2014, PLOS ONE.

Think about this.  For example, this would make a bull thought of as a type sire, such as Regancrest Braxton, who has a PTAT of 3.70 and a  milk proof  of 1516 lbs. into a +2016 lbs. for Milk, when used on a cow that might have produced 2 daughters as compared to 2 sons.  That would rank Braxton among the top 200 proven sires for production (or the top 1% of the breed) and yet he has more than twice the type improvement values of those production sires.

So you say, “Sure that all sounds good, but how do you make it happen?”  Well the answer is pretty simple. “You use Sexed Semen.”  Now for those of you who have a negative opinion of sexed semen.  It probably comes is because you used sexed semen or recall the rumors in the early days when the conception was low, the reliability was poor and the price of semen was high.  In 2014 the reality is that all of the negative factors have changed significantly.  Over the past 10 years the technology behind sexed semen has changed drastically.  Juan Moreno, CEO of Sexing Technologies, (Read more: SEXING TECHNOLOGIES: Gender Vendors in a Changing Marketplace) shared the following stats at the recent Canadian Dairy Xpo (Watch the video here):

  • 1984 to 2000
    Purity Under 80%
    Low Fertility (below 50%)
    1000 doses of conventional semen would produce 200 doses of sexed semen.
  • 2002 to 2012
    85% Purity
    about 80% fertility rate of that of conventional.
    1000 doses of conventional semen would produce 400 doses of sexed semen.
  • Current
    93% Purity
    98% fertility rate of that of conventional.
    1000 doses of conventional semen can now produce 1100 doses of sexed semen.

From a breeder prospective, sexed semen has gone from a costly alternative to a probable alternative for selective situations, to a smart business decision.

One of the things driving the cost down as well is that the equipment that sorts the semen has gone from processing 200 sperm cells per hour to over 100X times that rate per hour.

The math is pretty simple.  In order to justify the extra cost of the semen, the added production alone would more than cover the cost.  And that does not even factor in the increased revenues from having more female calves.  For many breeders who are using sexed semen, they have also started breeding the bottom 10% to beef sires (Read more: Why you should get rid of the bottom 10%).  With beef cull calves in such demand, due to the shortage of beef cattle, the price for these calves has never been higher.  In fact for many herds these bottom 10% of seed stock calves have become a significant income source.  Especially when bred to be sexed male beef semen.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

There is no question that sexed semen has come a long way over the past 20 years and particularly in the last five.  Like most new technologies, it takes a period of time to perfect the science behind the cool new product, and help bring the cost of production down.  Today the cost of production of sexed semen is not nearly as high as it once.  As well, there is new data showing that cows that calve with two successive females produce up to 1,000 more lbs of milk in those 1st two lactations.  It’s clear that sexed semen is worth the investment.


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Comments (2)

Predetermined sex in offspring is the brass ring that dairy breeders seek in managing in the ever more competitive marketplace. Most definitely this control is becoming more achievable.  Sexed semen end user price has dropped to one third of the price it was when it was first introduced.

Sexing Technologies (ST) is a well known, worldwide provider of sexed semen and embryos. Juan Moreno, who is co-owner of ST with Maurice Rosenstein, outlines the business that has been built by this company.


Sexing Technologies owes its origin to a company called Genetic Resources International (GRI) which got started 22 years ago as a Custom Semen and Embryo collection facility and Genetics Exporter servicing the Southern US.  While considering expansion into the IVF world 12 years ago.  They discovered that sexed semen, although technologically possible, was not commercially available because it was consider too expensive and of lower fertility and therefore did not have commercial viability. He outlines the steps taken in forming Sexing Technologies. “The partners in the business 11 years ago went heavily into debt to obtain a license from XY Inc., additional partners came into the business and Sexing Technologies started its commercial sexed semen production 10 years ago having Select Sires as its first large commercial customer.”

AT YOUR SERVICE: The Rising Tide of Technology

“Our philosophy is to generate value for the end user.” Explains COCEO Moreno, who is excited about the growing possibilities. “High genetic level bulls are available now. For example the #1 Proven Jersey bull in the world is available in sexed semen. There is every reason for the same to be available in Holsteins. Producers are using sexed semen in both heifers and cows.  Sexed semen has become part of modern management strategies on the farm.”  Today ST sexed semen is in every day use on thousands of farms (both beef and dairy) in 15 countries around the world confirms Sexing Technologies COCEO. “ It is being produced by more than 25 bull studs. Our production is estimated at 10 million straws annually and over 30 million calves have been born.”  The ST co-owner lists five of the many services it provides to breeder customers:

  • As a commercial service we are one of the largest exporters of dairy heifers having shipped over 40,000 animals in two years.
  • We offer custom semen collection services for both conventional and sexed semen and reproductive services in Embryo Transfer and IVF.
  • We process sexed semen in Deer, Elk, Sheep, Goats and soon in Horses and Pigs.
  • We service the industry by progeny testing Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss bulls.


Juan speaks with both pride and humility when sharing the growth of Sexing Technologies. “ Today more than 28 families have ownership in Sexing Technologies and the ST family team of over 500 men and women proudly services an industry that feeds the world. We are very thankful to our customers and to the ST team that has provided us with the support to improve the fertility of the product and reduce the cost to the end user.”  What he feels in unique about this undertaking is that the entire team has a common goal. “We believe in team effort and being part of an industry that includes, breeders, farmers, bull studs, breed associations, testing services, researchers and others, all working for a common effort of producing in milk, a nutritious quality product, at a fair price that the end consumer can enjoy.”


Potential users of sexing technology are always hungry for advice from those who have experience. Moreno shares his viewpoint. “ The technology has changed dramatically, especially in the last 5 years. A considerable amount of resources and time has gone into developing new generations of equipment, changing procedures, media improvements and user awareness. For example in the last 5 years we have gone through 5 different new models of sperm sorters, each one an improvement on the previous one. Thus production efficiency has improved considerably and the end user has benefitted by seeing a significant price reduction in the cost for their sexed semen since ST introduced it in the market place 10 years ago.”


It’s important to use sexed semen as part of an overall management strategy on the dairy farm.  It facilitates the allocation of resources by allowing for the selection of higher quality replacement females. It allows you to significantly reduce calving difficulties. It allows for greater income  by marketing extra heifers or even introducing cross breeding with beef bulls to produce a product of a higher value in the market and, most importantly,  fertility is improving.  We are expecting the publication of several articles on large trials ran by independent researchers in different countries corroborating the improved fertility. It’s time to use it for first service in cows.”

“What`s In It For Me?”

With any leading edge tool that requires adapting to change, breeders are concerned about how it can work for them. “That is a tough question.” Asserts Juan Moreno. “Markets are always changing and unpredictable. My crystal ball has failed me many times in the past. However, I do believe that many technologies are coming together at this point” As Moreno looks to the best impact of sexing technologies, he points out 3 specifically.

  1. Sexed semen can be used to generate female only embryos 99% of buyers don’t really care about having bulls. Only bull studs care about the bulls, most breeders would like to improve their female base. Making embryos with conventional semen makes 50% of the resulting product (bulls) non marketable. Produce for the 99% not the 1%.
  2. Genomic testing allows targeting embryo production for different niche makers like higher protein, A2 milk, Show, Polled, Color, Milk, Fertility or Net Merit or TPI.
  3. New Technologies will drive the market to the selection for traits such as fertility, health, feed efficiency, robot adaptability, etc.


A full consideration of sexing technologies must not overlook InVitro Feriliaztion. Moreno provides particularly interesting statistics and suggestions for their use.

  1. 30% of the donors make 80% of the embryos. Don’t keep on trying with low embryo producers.
  2. make an assessment of the marketability or value within your own herd of the resulting offspring 24 months down the road. Don’t measure today expecting to forecast tomorrow.
  3. Producing 90%-95% females gives you a much better chance of maximizing your investment . Almost all females from top donors will have a place in your herd. Only 1% or less  of the bulls born will ever find a home. Therefore the investment does not compensate the return if you continue producing 50% bulls.


According to Juan Moreno, it’s not the technology that floods the market, it’s the users that choose to produce embryos from a higher number of donors. “I believe the success of IVF provides the opportunity to be more selective as to the genetic quality of donors being used. Technologies such as IVF provide the greatest benefit when used only on elite cattle. Maybe the excitement of Genomics has lead to a definition of “Elite” that is too relaxed.”


Moreno suggests definite steps in using IVF. “First and foremost the genetic value of the animal today and a year down the road needs to be evaluated.  The statistical possibility of that donor generating an offspring that will have market viability 18 to 24 months down the road must also be forecasted. Secondly animals must go through a very thorough schedule of vaccinations and heath testing. Donors are then placed on optimized nutritional regimens based on age and reproductive status. Thirdly reproductive examinations and evaluations on the animal are performed prior to her start in the donor program and they are continued through her life as a donor. The most important fourth step is that the animal must be evaluated after the first three aspirations to determine her ability to produce sufficient number of oocytes and embryos to compensate the investment.” Moreno concludes with a key statistic. “Breeders must always keep in mind that 30% of the donors produce 80% of the embryos.”


ST confirms that IVF results are influenced by breed, age of the donor, reproductive status of the donor, aspiration frequency, nutritional status and hormonal treatments. “We favor a more natural and conservative approach with no hormonal treatments. This approach benefits the long term well being of the animal. In Bos Indiscus breeds like Brahman we average over 7 embryos per aspiration and on Holstein cows  3.3 embryos per aspiration, dropping to 2.2 embryos in heifers. Embryo pregnancies depending on the time of the year range from 43% to 55%.”


ST has been doing IVF for more than 10 years and embryo transfer since the original company was created 20 years ago. ST operates 2 IVF labs in Brazil and 4 in the United States. Two of the US labs are operated as Research and Development laboratories which have been fundamental in testing procedures for sexed semen, leading to a series of improvements in the process that have lead to increased fertility in sexed semen.


“We dedicate a considerable amount of funds and resources to Research and Development in Animal Reproduction from heat detection devices, estrus synchronization technology, sexed semen, in vitro fertilization and genetic development programs.” reports Moreno adding that, “  A great deal of emphasis is being dedicated to genetic advancement programs researching new economically significant traits for which prior genetic pressure has not been applied.”


Once again as breeders, we are being urged to recognized that putting different technology tools together can provide advantages that they couldn’t deliver alone. Moreno says the list is long on the technologies  and we should look at in combination. “Some of the technologies have been around for a long time but they will become more relevant in the future because, when paired with new technologies, they lead to greater value.  For example: Genomics, Embryo Transfer, IVF, Sexed Semen, Robot Milkers, compliance data systems, Universal Animal Identification, Gene identification , they all have to lead to milk being produced in a more efficient manner so that dairying can be a profitable business for generations to come.”


Technology is not a tool that you can choose to do without. As is always the case with technology driven evolution those who choose to ignore it may be ignoring their own sustainable business. Sexing Technologies is on the leading edge. At the end of the dairy day, those who readily and effectively adapt to the “new world” will succeed and those who don’t won’t!


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At an ever increasing rate new equipment and information becomes available that dairy farmers can use to advance the way in which they manage their herds. The early adopters often go out on a limb and install systems on their farms that they hope will make their operations more profitable. Making better decisions or having information that gives advance notice of potential cow problems is critical to increased herd profit.
ML - Herd_navigator_analyse_unit_and_cows_-_9675

New on the Scene

Recently the Bullvine took the opportunity to get close-in on a new piece of equipment by visiting two reference farms. This equipment is called Herd Navigator™ (HN), a product of DeLaval/FOSS, and it has just completed verification in Canada using four Ontario dairy farms. It had been developed, field tested and implemented in Europe and at the present time it is being installed commercially in additional farms in Canada.

In brief what it does is take milk samples from selected cows on selected days and, based on the analysis of the milk, provides reports for herd managers to use. As one would expect, this requires equipment for sampling (a sampler and a sorter) and testing (on-farm mini lab), computer software and linkage to the herd management software used on the farm by the herd manager, the nutritionist or the veterinarian.

VMSFullCow[1]Designed as the next tool for top herds

The focus of HN is cows in robotic and parlour herds from calving to being pregnant again. (Read more: Robotic Milking: More than just automation it’s a new style of herd managment) Nancy Charlton DVM (Nutrition & Herd Management Specialist, DeLaval Canada) started her explanation and demonstration of HN by saying that “…. lets start with the basics. A herd must have an effective cow and heifer transition program. That is a well proven fact. HN is then a tool to make very good managers even better at their job.”  That made me want to listen even harder to Dr Charlton as she very adeptly went through the various procedures and reports for HN.

CHARLTON Pictures 027Multi-Purpose Tool

HN takes a milk sample at prescribed times and provides information on four areas important to herd management and profitability. Users of the HN™ system set up Standard Operating Procedures for all four areas, reproduction, mastitis, ketosis and urea level in the milk. When results for metabolic conditions exceed owner determined levels an alarm sounds (more correctly a report is generated) notifying the herdsman. Acting before a cow becomes a problem means less cost, more production and more profit.

It is a well known fact that managing REPRODUCTION takes detailed recording, considerable staff time, is a significant expense and reduces the average revenue per cow per year. For the time period starting 30 days before the voluntary waiting period until 55 days pregnant progesterone levels are monitored on critical days. Herd managers have access to detailed reports including: changes in progesterone levels; heats and the best time to breed; prolonged post partum anestrous; follicular cysts; luteal cysts; potential pregnancy; and early embryonic loss or abortion.

Life for herd managers would be much simpler if MASTITIS did not occur. But that would be a perfect world. HN uses the milk sample to measure the enzyme Lactate Dehydrogenase (LDH) which is released into the milk in an affected quarter during inflammation. Increasing LDH levels are highly correlated with the increased presence of somatic cells and the early stage of subclinical mastitis.  The herd manager can choose to monitor the situation or to treat the cow immediately. At the very least the manager can look the cow up and make a visual or hands-on assessment. The creators of HN see using LDH as a more accurate way of determining the presence of mastitis. The frequency of testing cows for LDH is recommended as once per day for the first thirty days of lactation and after that it depends on the cow’s history and the herd’s standard operating practice.

The metabolic disease KETOSIS can be a thief of profit for cows by causing the loss of milk, lowering peak milk yield and cost of treatment. HN monitors the concentration of ketone bodies in a cow’ milks early in lactation. Measurements start on day four of lactation and continue until readings indicate there is a small chance of ketosis occurring. It is significant that HN reports on subclinical ketosis. Thus alerting the herd manager to take action before full blown ketosis occurs, either by altering the fresh cows diet or by treating the cow. Recent research indicates that subclinical ketosis is much more prevalent than dairymen are aware of. Potentially all herds are losing production due to subclinical ketosis and do not know it.

The final area that HN monitors is the UREA level in the milk a cow produces. This is similar to the MUN (milk urea nitrogen) service offered by CANWEST DHI but does not require that the owner wait until a milk recording test day.  As yet this part of HN may not get as much use as the three previously mentioned areas. It is important to know if protein level in the diet are too high, just right or too low. Over feeding protein, the expensive part of the ration, costs money while under feeding means a cow’s potential is not being achieved and other feed ingredients are not being fully utilized. From what I heard when speaking with the two herd owners, that I visited, this area has yet to be ‘discovered’ for use by HN owners.

In summary these four areas give herd managers the opportunity to increase the profitability of their herds from just a milk sample.

Information Provided

At any time the herd manager can go to his computer and call up any reports. HN is definitely designed for larger herds that manage cows by groups. It provides information so that individual cows within the groups can have their current problem addressed. Only problem cows need to receive the attention of the herdsman.

Sytse Heeg of Heegstee Farms commented “I only need to give my attention to cows with problems. It would not be possible for my wife and me to manage without HN. We have 110 cows milking on two robots, all the young stock and our family to attend to every day and also the field work during the summer time. We do have assistance from my father part time and a summer student.  I am so much more in control of my herd than I was before HN. And I am getting the results (profit) I wanted to get. Already 4 kgs more milk per cow per day with cows back in-calf as well as very low levels of mastitis and ketosis. In non-busy times it is even possible for us to take a vacation. But don’t forget I can remotely watch what is happening back home.”

At Elmwold Farms (Buchner Families), Jennifer is responsible for searching out the details from their 170 cow 3x herd that on the day I visited were producing, on average,  2.8 kgs (6.2 pounds) of fat & protein per day. When I visited Jennifer was on vacation so father (Chris) and brothers ( Greg and Derek) and cousin (Kevin), over a cold ice tea in the shade on a very hot summer day, described the many ways that their farm uses HN to better manage their herd. Chris Buchner provided the details.  “Our herd is focused on efficient high fat plus protein yield. That is what we are paid for kgs of fat and protein sold off-farm. But it is more than that. We were having too many cows on holidays, aka in the dry pens, too much of the time. We calve the vast majority of our heifers before two years of age so we give a bit of a break in having them calve back but the herd average calving interval is 12.6 – 12.8 months. We are running a 24% pregnancy rate, we average 2.2 inseminations per pregnancy, our reproductive cull rate has gone from 28% down to 22%, the vast majority of our cows are pregnant by 120 days into lactation and using the urea numbers we have been able to lower our TMR from 18 to 17% protein. We purchased HN to improve our daily management of cows by focusing on cows outside the norm and to use our facilities to their maximum. We will soon build additional cow housing and will give more attention to our fresh cows with one pen for fresh heifers only as we already know that they get pushed out of the feed bunk by older cows in the fresh group. We looked at using pedometers but after seeing how much more HN could do we made the decision to purchase it. We are very happy we decided to go this route. Our family operation is growing and I am proud to say that the next generation is keen to be profitable dairy farmers.”

Cost Benefit

Top notch herd managers always want to know the cost benefit of any input, service or tool. The DeLaval website suggest that using HN a herd can increase revenue by $330 US$ (250 euros) per cow per year with annual material costs of 130 US$ per cow and an equipment cost of 500 US$ per cow for a two hundred cow herd. All of these numbers do not include the savings in feed for fewer cows (milking and dry) as well as the need for less housing facilities. Definitely it does require that a herd be of sufficient size to justify the initial cost of the equipment.

Another thing about the HN system is that it  does all the work and testing thus allowing the herd manager to avoid the time to search out cows and do cow side testing. And, best of all, it does it before there is a problem not after the fact.

Muhieddine Labban (Automated Milking Systems Manager at DeLaval) sees the benefits in these ways “I like to call it return on investment with the results being: 1) accurate feeding – lower cost and waste; 2) lower cull rate; 3) lower use of antibiotics; 4) higher production per cow; 5) more effective use of the herd veterinarian; 6) higher pregnancy rate; 7) fewer inseminations lowering costs and semen used; 8) less herd manager frustration; 9) more family time for the dairy producer; and last but not least 10) the use of technology which will encourage the next generation to be dairy farmers”. An impressive list for every herd managers to consider.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

For breeders looking to manage better and increase their per cow profit, more attention to cows needing individual attention is an avenue to pursue. It definitely does pay to have cows reach peak production, avoid mastitis and get back in calf as quickly as possible. Knowing the facts to base decisions on is the way to go.


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Many dairy farmers wear the name “Jack-of-All-Trades” with pride knowing that the extra skills they have mastered from welding, to machinery repair, to construction are positive contributors to the day to day work of dairy farming.  However, three new job skills are finding their way onto the farmer resume: teacher, lawyer and media expert. Although they have nothing to do with crops, cows or milk they are becoming necessary to keeping farming sustainable in the long term. It’s ironic that some of the biggest challenges facing the modern day food provider revolve around politics, legal challenges and negative publicity.  How they are handled, particularly, in developed countries could have a huge impact on choices on both sides of the agricultural fence.

It is hard to imagine that any passionate cow breeder would have foreseen the day that they would reach out to regulators, lawyers and reporters in an attempt to find common ground.  Of course, there are still many who don’t see any of these as a logical part of their farm team …. and are facing the fallout as a result.

In an earlier Bullvine articles, “GMOs Beyond Right and Wrong” and we urged farmers to speak up in order to clear up misconceptions regarding dairy farming from motivation to production.  Many excellent spokespeople continue to do exactly that but, for those who are keeping score, there have been both hits and misses on the target of using communication to avoid litigation and regulation.  At the same time that any one area leads us forward (for example genomic selection), there are fifteen “anti” positions that demand answers and throw up roadblocks.  The same is true, if we expand our viewpoint to include environmental issues. And that doesn’t begin to cover what happens when you stir media and emotion into the mix.

Of course, it is part human nature and part media hype that means that the most negative stories are the first to come to mind.  Five years ago DeRuyter Brothers Dairy in Outlook Washington became the defendant in a suit brought by the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment.  Although the suit was eventually dropped it was two years of legal hell for the DeRuyters.  Sadly, at the end of the day, the activists weren’t really as concerned about air quality as they were at making headlines.  The issues that were addressed barely blipped on their radar.

Also in Washington State, twelve dairies in Yakima County worked with air-quality scientists and regulators to reduce air emissions (for more information see reports of the Western Dairy Air Quality Symposium).  Their efforts and responsible approach to the issues didn’t inspire the dramatic headlines that accusations of guilt earn on the front pages.

It is unfortunate that the assumption of farmer guilt is the starting point.  With this negative mind set it actually works against agriculture to present scientifically backed arguments.  Remember when Mother used to be suspicious of overly long protestations of innocence?  Today any positions proclaiming a scientific defence are seen as “extravagant claims” that can’t possibly be lived up to. And, of course, if it’s a benefit to the farmer, it must obviously follow that there will be environmental and health issues for the non-farming public.

Somewhere in the evolution from a time when everyone was connected to a farm or farmer, we consumers appear to have lost trust in our food providers.  Is it possible to return to that “rosier” time?  Not likely.  However if full trust is unattainable we can still use common sense.  I have to ask why it is assumed that dairy farmers – who also must eat to survive — would invest a million dollars (at the least) to provide food that does harm to themselves and their children? The profit motive doesn`t stretch that far. So where does that leave us?

There is no quick and easy answer.  Education is slow.  Regulation is slow.  Conflict, on the other hand is fast and furious.  What we need are credible current studies. We also need to pay for them! Another rub as how this solution hits producers’ wallets. Proven facts need to be placed alongside the emotional fallacies.  And this adds even more time investment problems in an industry that already faces the time constraints of raising animals from birth to production and also  deals with the seasonal calendar of crop production. Which brings us to even more slowdowns as the anti movement puts the brakes on crop production development.  There are many examples. France and Austria are anti-biotech with the result that some GM crops have waited 10 years and there is still no progress.  The current regulatory delay sits at 5.5 years – a substantial increase from 3.7 years in 2002. (“Worried Sick about GMOs”)

These are very real concerns.  Then you add in the financial implications.  CropLife International is a global federation representing the plant science industry (Read more A CropLife report suggests that it costs nearly $140 million to discover and commercialize a new crop.  To these two issues we can add the continuous growth of the bureaucracy that builds around them, including regulation, education and litigation. This is growing heavier all the time.  In ironic contrast, the growth in crop yields in major food crops is stagnating.  This is completely upside down to what is needed. The crop growth statistics are the ones we need to see growing if we intend to provide food for future populations.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist on less productive methods – such as organic– and then turn around and say that land must not be turned from nature to agriculture.  Agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. But logic doesn`t always win the day. You can literally play “true or false” until the cows come home but what is really needed is continuous support of myth-busting (particularly in the media) and comprehensive rules and regulations that support the proven science.  Now this should be welcomed by those sides.  However, there currently are not such comprehensive systems in place and past history leads us to fear that when rules are enforced and regulations met, the fallback position frustratingly becomes that “either the rules or the enforcers are insufficient, ineffective or in some way defective”.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

At some point, we have to admit that we cannot allow the conflict to become more important than the issues that need to be solved. What we really need are more cool heads and fewer hot buttons.  Now that`s something I would like to see on resumés from both sides of the debate!


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Worried Sick About GMOs!

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Arguing about the methods used to grow our food is a luxury of people living in affluent nations.  There are one billion chronically undernourished people of low income in underdeveloped countries. They would find it appalling to reject a plate of food based on whether it was natural or genetically modified. Daily they face a life and death situation. So called “consensus based best practices” mean nothing to their struggle.

We need to put food production into its proper perspective.  Biotech or organically produced food inspires wildly opposing positions. But are they really so far apart?  The answer is “Yes!” if you hold the all or nothing position that natural is all good and artificial is all bad.

I have been part of conversations (usually after eating too much of a delicious meal) where the proposal from full stomachs is that the world would be a “better place”  if we in the west ate less meat and fewer calories so that people in developing countries would have more.  Pardon me.  But that is baloney! Appreciate what we have? Definitely. Believe that our restrictions can be fairly doled out by some imaginary balanced delivery system?  No way.

Do I dislike natural?  No.  But there are good reasons why most of us live longer than our natural farming forefathers. That reason is that some of the natural killers like e-coli and mould are not now taking their toll on our crops, our food and our years. I am also a realist and decided when my children were young to make it a mother-task to take classes in Materia Medica and Pharmacology. Like everyone, I am surrounded by naturals such as foxgloves, castor beans and lily of the valley that are all natural and all poisons that I keep away from my loved ones. Natural sugar, a not so obvious poison, is a particular sick-maker in our family. You won’t find me saying, “It’s natural so how much harm can it do?”  “Natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown” and “all natural” are the holy grail of anti-GMO law makers who seek to keep those terms off of genetically modified or genetically engineered crops. The label alone won’t make any difference if sustainable agriculture becomes impossible.

Natural does not mean harmless. Everything has a chemical makeup which can be studied and copied and or modified – hence Genetically Modified Organisms.  We are chemical beings.  The good and the bad are derived from the combinations not the source of the combinations!  So if you’re forewarned and realistic about natural, what is your position on modern technology?  If it’s new, shiny, computerised and different…. does it necessarily follow that there will be health risks?  We need to be responsible for the choices we make to nourish ourselves.

There has to be reasoned decision making.  For example in 2011 natural organic bean sprouts were the cause of fifty-three deaths and thousands suffered kidney failure in Germany. The bean sprouts from Egypt were infected by animal manure.  Closer to home, I have often marvelled at neighbouring organic farmers, who without bias use manure from their less enlightened neighbours to raise “all organic” food products that are then sold at a premium price.  Talk about a loaded pitchfork. Any natural organism can be infected by pollution from ALL sources around it. Like the people in Germany, consumers chose this food because they thought it was safer, healthier and natural.  The unfortunate conclusion.  There are many natural ways to get sick and die.

In the 60’s we were bombarded with warnings that, because of overpopulation, millions of people would soon starve and that there was absolutely nothing that could be done to prevent it.  Thankfully Paul Ehrlich’s “It’s already too late” warning in his book “Population Bomb” was proven to be wrong.  His advice to allow people in India to starve sooner rather than later also never became the solution to population growth.  Instead, Norman Borlaug, who did not succumb to this “truth”, was inspired to create the Green Revolution.  Malnutrition was cut dramatically and India became self sufficient.  Poverty and malnutrition continue to need addressing.  Today there are close to 800 million people who go to bed hungry each night.  They are the ones who need food that is safe to eat.

We are told that GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat.  If you accept that statement, there is nothing to be said to help you.  If twenty years of people consuming genetically modified corn, soy and other crops isn’t proof enough, nothing will be. In actual fact corn has been genetically modified since the first Europeans arrived in North America.  Imagine the trillions of meals consumed without a single substantiated case that GMOs have caused harm. Where do the naysayers place the documented cases of death from organic causes?  Organizations including the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Science believe GM foods pose no likely health risk.

Let’s turn to the potato for another example.  A blight-resistant potato was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly-funded institute in Ireland.  However the Irish Green Party was so adamantly opposed that they took court action against it. The attack was undertaken despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would require 15 less fungicide sprays per season. Further pollen transfer was not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated.  The offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato.  The case was won and for the second time in their history, the Irish suffered potato loss.  The first time a million or more died during the 19th century famine. In the 21st century they lost the opportunity to defeat blight.

There are emotional stories on both sides of the GMO issue.  It affects me personally and several members of my family. We would suffer if there was a total GMO ban. As a diabetic and two-time cancer survivor, I am really quite happy to keep chugging along with GMO insulin. Facing the issues with a balanced approach and trusting in the science makes an informed decision the healthiest one for me.

The issue is never about who is right and who is wrong.  It is about who is fed.  Who is healthy?  As discussed in today’s challenge is how we will manage to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050 (Read more: GMO’s Beyond Right and Wrong).  How can we do it on about the same land as we use today because we do suffer if natural areas are taken over by agriculture. How do we achieve this production using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides in the context of a rapidly changing climate?

Angry voices are raised by people who would not have their own children grow up to be farmers or grow food themselves.  They are angry about how the food is produced – despite the abundance. Yet in countries where growing your own food is the only option, these same voices insist that food production must be done in the slowest method possible. Sitting at a computer where you can “share” anti-GMO sentiments with the tap of a finger does nothing to provide for those with empty stomachs.  The image of natural works best when you have three meals a day!

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Today we face risks as food producers and consumers.  But the risk is definitely not who will be harmed by GM food but who will be denied enough food.  Yes the image of “natural” has appeal!  But only for the rich.  And that’s exactly what has me worried sick.


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GMOs: Beyond Right and Wrong

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

There are some issues that polarize everybody and the debate over GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) does that.  People emphatically declare that the facts are black or white, wrong or right one way or the other.  If you’re on the wrong side, you are not only politically incorrect but you offend science, religion and the environment. This does not sound like the win-win situation that we are encouraged to seek in most areas of life.  Indeed when it comes to GMOs we are determined to prove only one thing… and that is that… the OTHER side is absolutely wrong.

GMOs Throw Dirt… Lose Ground

It’s a no win situation with both sides throwing dirt at each other in the press, on TV, in rallies, parades and even, resorting to boycotts and stand offs.  There’s an old saying that my grandmother (a mother of 10 and grandmother of 43) quoted effectively when rivalry escalated to harmful levels, “Whenever you throw dirt, you lose ground.” Today`s dirt throwing GMO war of the words has shifted the focus from the production of sustainable, healthy food to a challenge of the very character of the producers. Like anything, even when incorrect, if it is repeated often enough, it gains the perception of truth.  As a result consumers are beginning to bite the very hand that feeds them.

The Win-Sin Battle between Good and Evil

Emotions run high when you’re talking about the life-giving food required by every living thing. Add into the mix, the conspiracy theory that money will make food producers sell their souls and it becomes a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. At the other extreme, the equally evil fanaticist viewpoint is that farmers, unlike their apparently perfect forebears, are working fiendishly with big science or big companies to give you cancer, make you fatter and, generally, ruin your good health.

It`s Your Choice

The underlying fear of sickness, misinformation about food-raising processes and a desire for an absolute answer propels the attack on food producers.  If only it were that simple. A target allows us to lay the blame for sickness and obesity onto someone else.  But at the end of the day it isn’t some agricultural trickster but our own choices that are making us sick and fat. It’s the choices that are made that produce the results that raise alarms for the health of future generations. And choice is a fundamental part of the GMO or anti-GMO debate. People who are anti-GMO have the absolute right to choose what they eat.  People who produce food have the absolute right to choose what to grow. It’s hypocritical to limit the choice of either side.

Take off the Rose Colored Glasses

We often look to the past and assume it must have been better and healthier then.  We must not overlook the facts. There are reasons that the life expectancy for our farming forefathers was considerably less than today’s norms. Every early farmer practiced genetic selection to improve food production.  It’s even harder and more necessary to select for improvement today.  Try growing an organic garden in the city with all of the challenges – air pollution, lack of water and too much or not enough sunshine.  Imagine if your life depended on the results.  That’s farming!

Where Praise is Due

That’s were kudos go to the scientists who are creating seeds and foods that can withstand so many adversities.  Kudos to scientists and farmers who are taking responsibility for reducing chemical applications. With the advent of GMO crops there is significantly less usage of insecticides and herbicides.  With so few farmers providing for so many, subsistence farming is now obsolete.

Survival of the Fittest or “Who Controls Who?”

Whether you`re talking animal genetics or plant genetics, survival of the fittest has been nature`s way of modification. Weeds, like any other life form, adapt to survive. Weeds adapt to cultural practices as well as chemical. Growing food or crops in a “steel city”, as we do, is a challenge before a single chemical has been applied to the fields. One “strong” unrestrained monoculture that provides no edible benefits for man or animals is an ever present challenge.  Drive along any roadway and ask yourself what has happened to biodiversity? It’s not blame but “better” that we need to aim for.

Here at The Bullvine we raise the question of animal genetics and GMOs (Read more: Are You Ready For Genetically Modified Cattle? ).  Again ours is an industry with numerous regulations and scientific studies driving profitability and sustainability.  Again there are big guys, bad guys and concerns for safety and health issues of the food products we are producing.  And again, it isn’t blame but “better” that should be the driving mantra for the future. It will be too bad if we resort to, “Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up”.

Two Different Paths … the Same Destination

Total agreement is not the goal.  Total vindication of one side or the other doesn`t serve any constructive purpose.  Regardless of absolute right or wrong there is one absolute truth,

The world must be fed.

During the next 40 years the world`s population is projected to reach more than nine billion people. Demand for food is expected to increase by 60 percent. The competition for land, water and food will escalate and is having a very real impact on food production and therefore on health, poverty and hunger. We must find a way to safely and sustainably support the world`s poorest and most vulnerable.

Without returning to everyone becoming a food producer, there is no way to feed the huge and growing demand. Yes! Small scale farmers feed 70% of the world…but they are subsistence farming to sustain their own family.  North American farmers are producing to provide for a growing population. Not every country can do this.  But imagine a scenario where everyone ate only locally grown, organic food.  Where does that leave metropolitan areas? We cannot turn back the clock on large cities.  In that scenario, what would become of Tokyo, New York, London or Rio de Janeiro?

The Bullvine Bottom Line

In every responsible home there is the desire to make better choices for the health of our families.  On the farm, we make those choices too with the added responsibility of providing for others.  There is a time and a place to hear the concerns of all sides of the debate. We farmers must defend and guarantee the food products we produce.  Don’t throw dirt but hold our ground. We must not be silent.


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Before the recent Kueffner Kows at Cowtown Sale Horace Backus, commented that he had never seen anything like it in all his years!  “The quality of every animal and the homebred breeding was just so good.  Just before the sale started, I took a moment to walk through one of the lines of cows while it was quiet and everyone was already gathered in the tent.  I stood looking at a line of maybe 40 animals, and thought I was standing at Madison seeing that many great cows all together.”  These comments reminded me of the ones he made before the 1998 Hanover Hill Dispersal where Horace said, “In the history of the Holstein Breed, there have only been four or five herds that have created a distinct blood herd.  Today we are selling a distinct bloodline herd.”  This got me think will there ever be another distinct bloodline herd?

Over the years, the marketplace has changed greatly.  The improvements in technology have been incredible.  It is now easier than ever to market, compare and transport your genetics to anywhere in the world.  To get a better understanding how each of these will play into the potential of having another distinct bloodline, we decided to take a closer look at each one.

Marketing to the World

In the era of Hanover Hill era buyers did come in person from around the world.  The world has changed greatly with the Internet.  I often wonder what a great marketer like Peter Heffering would have done in today’s time.  The ability to market to a much larger audience through the internet and Facebook is expanding the marketplace.  You are no longer just selling to the person next door or in the same country or the few who are able to travel to buy.  You are often selling to people half way around the world.  And more importantly than where they are, is how quickly and easily you can reach them.  You no longer have to run magazine ads in each country’s major breed magazine.  Today you simply post a quick smartphone picture, or better yet video, on your Facebook page and share it with the world.

Cross Country Comparisons

One of the things that contributed greatly to each country or region having its own distinct bloodlines was that the ability to compare performance data on in each country presented challenges.  In previous generations, it was hard enough getting everyone to talk in the same units (ex. Lbs. vs. kgs.) let alone the fact that they had different methods of evaluating things.  Then came Interbull and MACE proofs. That started to open up the marketplace, but for some the confidence in the MACE system was not there and for the most part most countries still had regionalized breeding and evaluating systems.  Then came genomics that has given breeders around the world the confidence no matter where the bull was proven to use him on their cattle.  We now see that there is no longer a negative stigma in North America on foreign proven bulls.  Moreover, many of the great international cow families are gaining significant respect in the North American marketplace, especially as sons of these cattle have proven themselves well on the North American genetic base.

Transportation of Genetics

All the great marketing and evaluation systems in the world mean nothing if you cannot get the genetics to the consumers.  Artificial insemination had a drastic impact on the ability of breeders to develop distinct bloodlines.  Instead of just running your own breeding program where you sell the odd breeding bull, artificial insemination meant that when you sold that bull to an AI center, he would now be able to reach the world market.  With AI companies also becoming less regional or country focused and more world focused, that meant you could sell a bull in Chicoutimi Quebec and his semen could be used in Kamifurano Japan.  Breeders no longer had to develop their own bloodlines and could draw on the best bloodlines from around the world.  Furthermore, as embryo transfer technology advanced you could also import and export embryos and further accelerate your breeding programs.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Today breeding herds like De-Su limit the amount of genetics they sell and AI organizations like Select Sires are entering the female animal ownership side in order to develop a distinct product in the marketplace.  Nevertheless, I truly feel that with the overall changes in the global marketplace we have a much more level playing field through evaluation systems and technology and, therefore, it is highly unlikely that we will see the achievement of a distinct bloodline at the level reached by Hanover Hill.


The history of elite livestock breeding is littered with cattle men and women who gave up after becoming frustrated with the long wait for success! Some never achieved an Extra Sire from their breeding and many gave up on cow families, before they produced results.   The turn of the century has seen tremendous reductions in these genetic turn intervals. Embryo transfer, genomics and IVF are fast tracking modern dairy cattle genetics.

Trans Ova Genetics is a reproductive technology company that aims to meet the needs of progressive cattle breeders who want to take advantage of the potential for speeding up the genetic timeline.  “We work with breeders who want to utilize the advanced reproductive technology services from Trans Ova Genetics to take their herd to the next level of genetic gain.”  says Mark Allan PhD, Director of Marketing and Genomics for Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa.




He outlines the process. “The breeders identify the top genetics they possess in their herd and then they come to Trans Ova Genetics to multiply that success.” Dr. Allan points out the opportunities. “By utilizing the services of in vitro fertilization (IVF), in vivo produced embryo transfer (ET), and sexed semen technologies, these producers can maximize the reproductive production from their most elite genetics in greater numbers.” It is a good business decision and an expeditious one, “The technologies allow for increased selection intensity and shortened generation interval which result in an accelerated rate of genetic change.”



We all recognize that speedy turnover of generations is great but, in the end, genetics is about the numbers.  One of the first numbers affecting eventual success, is the number of embryos harvested. Dr. Allan keeps an eye on these very important results and gives a more detailed picture. “Presently, across all of the participating centers and satellites of Trans Ova Genetics in the U.S., and across multiple breeds and ages of donors, we are averaging about 5.0 viable embryos per donor aspirated.  As with ET technology, a producer will see variation from donor to donor with a distribution from zero to numbers in excess of 15 embryos per donor per aspiration.” This is good news from a knowledgeable source.



It is human nature, when presented with the latest greatest technology to look for the downside. You ask yourself, “What is the worst case scenario?” Some breeders may be concerned that the market is being flooded, leaving no room for the middle market cattle. To that comment, Dr. Allan gives this well-considered response, “Many technology improvements have led to dramatic increases in genetic improvement.  One of the early changes that led to a giant leap in genetic gain was implementation of artificial insemination (AI) in the dairy industry.  This technology is widely accepted today and used by producers large and small. Historically, each time a new technology has been introduced to the reproductive technology continuum, there has been some resistance and trepidation about how it will affect breeders.  Changes in the marketplace may require that producers have to make a change in how they utilize their animals coupled with available technology.  This may mean changing the current paradigm that exists for some segments of the industry.”



In the clearest terms possible, Dr. Allan summarizes “IVF is a technology that allows breeders to collect offspring from open cows, pregnant cows, virgin heifers, as well as problematic females that have had difficulty in conventional breeding attempts.  It is also possible to retrieve oocytes (unfertilized eggs) from donors shortly after a death event to produce one final genetic collection.”



This technology can be used without altering other vital aspects of your breeding program. “Historically, breeders were forced to decide whether to risk future productivity of young donors by flushing them as virgin heifers or just postponing embryo production until after their first calf.” Says Dr. Allan. “Using IVF technology to create pregnancies from a donor gestating her natural calf allows breeders to generate offspring from the elite heifers and keeps them on an annual production cycle to calve on schedule with the rest of the herd.”



Breeders are seeing the potential and looking forward to entering international markets as a result of utilizing IVF technology.  Dr. Allan feels the promise will be realized. “In time, IVF embryos will be available for export to most all locations where in vivo embryos are presently being exported.” His optimism is slightly tempered as he considers certain variables.  “Getting off to a good start by setting and meeting pregnancy rate expectations and results will be important to the rate of acceptance in export markets.”



It isn’t surprising that Dr. Allan is positive when looking toward the future. “With IVF, one is able to capture genetics that were previously unavailable from pregnant donors, young virgin heifers, down and injured animals, and donors unsuccessful in conventional ET.”  He elaborates further. “We are already seeing the impact of Genomics and this will continue to become stronger with a future that will include the potential to make faster genetic gain for low heritable traits related to reproduction and health.”



With changes coming fast, it becomes even more important to make well-considered decisions. Dr. Allan urges “Like all breeding programs, a breeder must have an end goal in mind when he begins a project.” He says that a successful breeding program must be based on good business strategies. Trans Ova Genetics encourages their clients to take three key steps:

  1. Be fully aware of what makes your operation profitable.
  2. Set goals both short and long term.
  3. Use technologies that will help you accomplish your goals.

Dr. Allan outlines key aspects to be aware of regarding this technology. “When compared to conventional embryo transfer, IVF may further maximize the potential of an elite female in a short time period, as the interval between IVF aspirations is shorter than the interval between traditional embryo transfer sessions.  It is possible to obtain IVF cycles every week or every other week, whereas most embryo transfer programs will collect donors every 40 to 60 days. While conventional embryo transfer generally requires the use of two or three units of semen per donor, IVF can be used to maximize the value of rare, sexed or expensive semen. One unit of semen can be applied to oocytes from up to five or more different donors, or semen from several different bulls may be used to fertilize a large group of oocytes collected from an elite female. Sexed-sorted semen or Reverse sorted semen (semen that has been sorted after thaw) coupled with IVF allows breeders to producer offspring with over 90% accuracy for the sex desired. ”



New technologies, including IVF, are proving to be cost effective.  They give dairy cattle breeders the opportunities to improve both their cattle and their bottom line. The extra effort is worth it.




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