I often see on Facebook or in the Milk House discussion group where a breeder shows a picture and perhaps some of the achievements of a cow or heifer and then asks Facebook friends or other Milk House members for suggestions on a sire to breed or flush her to. Personally, even though I love mating dairy animals, I do not answer these requests. This is not because I don’t have an opinion but because I seldom know what the animal’s performance or genetic facts are and, more importantly, I don’t know what the owner’s goals are.
For me, there are four important steps involved in improving an animal or a herd: 1. Measure first 2. Set goals 3. Narrowing the list of sires 4. Choosing the best mate for your cow.
Step #1: Measure First
Dairy cattle improvement long ago moved past the practice of only doing a quick visual of an animal before selecting a sire to improve one or two physical characteristics. The modern dairy animal is a complex milk producing machine that must tick many boxes to return maximum lifetime.
Until genomics arrived on the scene in 2008, the vast majority of breeders were satisfied to simply know the animal’s recorded performance in the milk pail and, if not official type classification, then at least any observed type weaknesses that the animal possessed. Over 95% of breeders used the actual performance results and not the genetic indexes for production and type traits when breeding cows.
With genomic indexes has come a rapid increase in the number of traits for which genetic indexes are available. No longer are production, SCS and type the only primary traits considered in improving the genetics of an animal or a herd. In fact, for the majority of owners, those traits are today taking a back seat to additional traits such as reproduction, length of life, milking speed, inbreeding and age at first calving. As yet owners are still, in 2016, using the phenotypic value when measuring and not the genetic value for these new, front and center, traits.
The saying goes “you cannot improve what you do not measure”. Measurement has vastly improved and today much can be learned in the two years from conception to first breeding and the four years from conception to end of the first lactation. Today the question is, “Which traits are most worthwhile?” You have the option of considering feed conversion efficiency, haploids that affect fertility, age at first heifer estrus, protein composition, fat composition, ratings on early embryonic death and perhaps fertility in the very high producing cow. These are a few in an ever growing list.
In 2020 knowing a few basic facts will no longer be enough to succeed. By that time, the scope of what traits are measured will expand considerably. Breeders planning to have their herds remain current in the population will need to be measuring more and more traits. Services for measuring will no longer be only breeds and DHI, many new service providers are now or soon will be on the scene (Read more: WILL GENETIC EVALUATIONS GO PRIVATE?)
Step #2: Set Goals
The Bullvine regularly urges dairy breeders to have a breeding plan for the herd. (Read more: What’s the plan?, Are you a hobby farmer or a dairy business?, and Dairy Cattle Breeding Is All About Numbers). Just as frequently we hear back from our readers regarding their plans. Recent reader shares have told us about wanting to decrease the average mature stature of their Holstein cows. Other have shared that they are breeding for a totally polled or A2A2 Kappa-Casein herd. Still others want purebred Holsteins that conceive when milking heavily like they did half a century ago. By the way, keep those letters on goals flowing to us.
The point we wish to make in this article is that you will never arrive at your breeding goal if you do not have a plan to get you there. Take the time right now, perhaps while you are relaxing after first cut hay, to do a complete and realistic breeding plan for the next five years. Having a plan will mean that the next two steps, #3 Narrowing the list of sires and #4 Choosing the best mate for your cow, will be much easier and will have a much greater chance of being successful. A plan can be either a whole herd plan or for a portion of the herd. For many breeders, the plan may vary from cow family to cow family. In all cases, the plan should include the three (maximum five) traits that are to receive primary emphasis. Most A.I. companies have trained individuals who can work with owners to define the genetic goals, and thereby the plan, for the herd.
Step #3: Narrowing the List of Sires
It is no longer effective to choose sires simply from the top five TPI, LPI, NM$, Pro$, CM$, PTAT or DWPS$ sires and hope to achieve the goals set in #2 (above). “Why isn’t it possible?” you ask. A quick check shows that if your goal is to significantly improve your Holstein herd’s genetic merit for fertility, thus requiring a bull be one standard deviation about average, there are only two of the top five Pro$ sires that can do that. Choosing three of the top five means defeating your plan. And if your goal is to improve your herd for SCS, there are three of the top five proven Holstein TPI have a SCS index of over 3.00. You must zero in specifically to be successful.
Total merit indexes are an excellent guide to narrow the list of sires to be considered for use in a herd. After narrowing your list of potential sires to the top 25 for the total merit index of your choice then eliminate all sires that are NOT significant improvers for your three primary traits.
Here are some example primary traits and minimum rating for a sire to be classified as a significant breed improver.
Table 1 Minimum Index Values for a Holstein Sire to be a Significant Improver
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It does not matter how popular, how marketed or how high a sire is for TPI or LPI if he has genetic indexes that are significantly above average for your primary traits, then he’s not for you.
Achieving your genetic plan should be Job #1, when it comes to which sires to buy semen from. Two rules of thumb included: 1) semen price should not deter you (five doses of $100 semen will be quickly paid back when the one daughter gets in the milking herd); and 2) do not over buy on number of doses (with three index runs a year, there are always new top sires for your primary traits coming available.) If you don’t have the semen from former leaders in your tank, then you will not be tempted to use it. Genetic advancement has never been as fast as it is today. We can expect it get even faster. Don’t hold your herd back in the past.
Step #4: Choosing the Best Mating for your Cows
The Bullvine recommends that breeders find a mating program that uses genetic indexes for both sires and cows or heifers and that allows breeders to place added emphasis on their primary traits. Most A.I. companies have a mating program that can be adapted to a breeder’s genetic plan, and that can use any sire no matter what their ownership.
The objective should be to mate individual cows to one of the sires that have the superiority in your primary traits (see #3 above). It makes little sense to mate your -1.0 DPR cows to a sire that is less than +3 .0 DPR even if there is a remote possibility that you may get one daughter that wins your county show. County show winners most often can not garner extra dollars in the sales ring. But cows that are above average for DPR can stay in the herd longer and thereby achieve higher lifetime profit.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
All four of these steps are integral in being successful in achieving genetic advancement in your herd. You will have financial rewards every year and, as well, you will be rewarded by passing on a genetically superior herd to your successors or when you decide to sell your herd.