meta Does Your Sire Selection Need an Overhaul? :: The Bullvine - The Dairy Information You Want To Know When You Need It

Does Your Sire Selection Need an Overhaul?


When was the last time you changed the traits on which you base your sire selection?  Was it this year or a decade ago?  Today’s dairy cattle are much different than what they were even three generations ago. Today there are many new genetic indexes that could be well worth your investigation.

Be Progressive – Identify Your Herd’s Limitations

Recently when speaking with two production focused herds, I heard the following on their genetic improvement needs.  Here is what they told me.

Herd #1

This Holstein and crossbred herd and is housed in two groups (mature and 1st/early 2nd lactation cows) and are milked by two robot stall milkers. The owner focuses his time on TMR preparation and feeding and caring for the 100-110 milking cows, dry cows, heifers and calves. Cows average 86 lbs. (39 kgs) of 4.2%F and 3.3%P with SCC 105,000 and pregnancy rate is 40%. The annual replacement rate is 28%. Heifers calve at 22-23 months, and cows are not rebred until they are 100 days in milk or are past their peak and are gaining back weight. All field and cropping work is hired out. The owner is considering purchasing an automated calf feeder. He gives credit to the data from his robot milker system for helping him to be a much better dairy farmer. His sire selection has been primarily based on the LPI sire index and calving ease (CA) for heifers. He uses 20% (sexed) proven, 40% genomic, 10% Brown Swiss and 30% beef sires. He still uses DHI but is contemplating not classifying as, as he says, “I do not sell breeding stock, classifiers do not do a good job of evaluating my feet and locomotion issues in my herd and, with robotic milking, udders are not a stressed”.

The owner manages the herd by himself with some relief help for times he needs to be away especially for family events, but he says he is continually tired from having to deal with herd health issues, equipment maintenance and heat checking. He stated that he does not have enough time to manage and plan. He feels that the sires that he has been using are not leaving what he calls trouble-free long-lived tough cows and his calves require too much attention, due to illness. He reached out to me to discuss sire indexes for functional traits including Immunity+.  “I feel that I need to improve the genetics in my herd for fitness and health traits.” He wants to be ready for when his son comes home from college, at which time they will add a third robot.

Herd #2

This 1000 milking cow (2x) Holstein herd is going through an ownership transition from parents to agricultural college-educated children – daughter (the next farm business manager) and son-in-law (manager for the herd and the cropping). The daughter contacted me via The Milk House to discuss sires they should be using and on-farm data systems that will provide them with the information they need to manage. They are planning to install a new milking parlor in about three years. An automated calf feeding system was installed six months ago, and they are very pleased with the reduction in calf diseases and excellent calf growth to weaning. This new calf program pleases the daughter a great deal as calves are her speciality and she wants to start her own family soon. Her parents are supportive and happy to have the farm continue in the family.

The daughter reported that “Dad always said he bred for high PTAT (show type) and fed for production”. In her words “that philosophy just won’t work for us in the future”. First calvers too often have at least some calving difficulty, resulting in both dam and calf getting off to a poor start. The herd is 70% first and second lactation cows, average production is 73 lbs. (33 kgs) 3.6%F and 2.9%P, SCC 200,000 and pregnancy rate 18%. Sires used have been 80% proven (PTAT >2.75) from popular cow families and 20% genomic from show cow families. The annual replacement rate is over 40% – it takes all the heifers born to replace the culls.

Her thoughts on the herd’s past genetic selection program included: 1) no selection for female fertility; 2) cows are large requiring more maintenance and are not mobile enough; 3) little attention has been paid to fat and protein yield, SCC and persistency of production; 4) too many animals are being culled at a young age; and 5) heifers first calving at 25-26 months is adding $300 per heifer in rearing costs.

“Yep, Dad liked a ‘good-looking cow’ so he could sell purebred breeding stock – but – that’s not happening any longer. Dad is not opposed to change and says it’s in my hands now”. Her husband calculates that it takes one extra staff member just to trim feet, care for metabolic / production limiting diseases problems, assisting with problem calvings and to medicate sick animals. In summary, this wife-husband team are planning for changes including a significant change in the breeding program.

Opportunity Exists to Select Sires Differently

It was great being able to address sire selection for these two progressive thinking dairy farms knowing over 90% of the genetic progress that can be made in a herd comes from the sires used.

With about 85-88% of the on-farm cost being associated with feeding (50-58%), replacements (14-17%), labor (14-17%) and veterinary/medications (2-6%) it comes down to selecting sires that can assist in reducing the costs for these four areas. There are function-fertility-fitness-health trait genetic indexes that can be selected for, and that will assist with helping to reduce on-farm costs and thereby to increase profit.

Herd #2 needs to give attention to revenue generation by selecting for fat and protein yields and component percentage.

 Traits Milk Producers Should Consider Beyond Production and Type

The following six groupings are ranked by this author’s order of importance for tomorrow’s North American dairy cattle populations. The function-fertility-fitness-health genetic indexes that apply to each category are listed. There are both public indexes and company proprietary indexes.

  1. Longevity – Cows that remain in the herd for five or more lactations are the most profitable. Sires PL Productive Life indexes should be >5.0 and HL – Herd Life should be >105 to genetically add to a herd’s longevity. In 2019 CDCB produced a new sire indexes Early First Calving (EFC) which breeders will be able to use to shorten the time to first calving.
  2. Animal Health – Many health genetic indexes currently exist, and more will be added in the future for breeders to use to change away from no genetic attention on health. It started with SCS, which is now being called Mastitis Resistance, others include Immunity+, (Cow) Wellness Traits$, Calf Wellness$, Wellness Pro, Hoof Health, Metabolic Disease Resistance, …etc. All helpful genetic tools to help breeders identify sires that should not be used.
  3. Fertility – Much attention has been and continues to be focused on genetically improving fertility. If possible, breeders should not use sires that are below average for fertility traits. Indexes include: DPR (select >2.0), DF (select >103), FI (select >0.0), CCR, HCR, BCS, Fertility Pro, Superior Settlers, …etc. Progress has been made in the population average genetic merit for fertility, but the selection of superior sires must be continued.
  4. Efficiencies – Presently, the attention is on feed conversion efficiency. Currently available are a direct measure index EcoFeed and indirectly calculated indexes FE and Feed Pro. CDCB and CDN/Lactanet are concluding their research so they can publish feed efficiency indexes in 2020. Although not being used at the genetic level producers and their feed advisors are making much use of Income Over Feed C … Expect to see genetic efficiency indexes in other areas – labor (animals not requiring human attention).
  5. Calving – Genetic indexes relating to calving time were started over forty years ago, and the genetic progress has been significant. Ratings include CA$ (CE + MCE), CA, DCA, Stillbirths, Gestation Length, identification of lethal recessives (Haploids), …etc. It is important to note that any matters negatively impacting calving can result in poor subsequent performance for both dam and calf and calf morbidity.
  6. Milking – Milking occurs 2 to 4 times per day, so anything affecting milking is important. Genetic indexes exist for Milking Speed, Milking Temperament (aka inter-action with the parlor environment), Robot Ready, Robot Pro, …etc.

Genomic evaluations have greatly assisted with increasing the accuracy of the indexes for these traits. The Canadian indexes are published on the 100 scale and a standard deviation of 5. US indexes are published on numerous scales and average is not always 0.00. Breeders using US indexes can look up details on the CDCB site for index averages and ranges.

It is essential for breeders to be aware that the heritability’s for these traits are low and accuracies for the indexes are lower than for production and some type traits. To make genetic improvement in a function-fertility-fitness-health trait, it must be selected for on a continual basis.

How to Select Sires

Just as there are no perfect sires, there is no perfect index that will place the correct emphasis on functions, fertility, fitness and health for an individual farm’s breeding program.

Table 1 shows the trait emphasis for North American Holsteins in the major total merit indexes. The variation is considerable, which provides the answer as to why sires rank differently from index to index. The trait emphasis is not published for Pro$ as it is based on an outcome-based cow profit approach.

Table 1 Trait Emphasis for North American Total Merit Indexes

           TPI          NM$       DWP$           LPI
Production 46% 45% 34% Production 40%
Conformation 26% 15% 10% Durability* 40%
Function/Fertility/ 28% 40% 56% Health / Fertility 20%

* The Durability portion of the LPI index contains both function and conformation traits

Relying solely on any one of the total merit indexes to rank the sires according to an individual breeder’s needs for function-fertility-fitness-health trait improvement is not a wise decision.

The Bullvine recommends that a breeder select the total merit index that suits their needs. Then eliminate the sires from the list that are not above average for the 3 or 4 function-fertility-fitness-health traits most in need of improvement in the herd. This will result in a list of sires best suited for the herd.

Note: 1) This list will vary from herd to herd depending herd genetic needs and plans; 2) Likely 70% of the top 100 sires on the total merit index will be eliminated; and 3) In developing the herd needs remember to account for weaknesses of sires used in the past – i.e. DPR (<0.00), PL (>2.0), CW$(<-10).

Star Function, Fitness, Fertility and Health Sires

A list of top sires (based on Aug 2019 indexes) follows:

  • Frazzled (7HO12788)            #1 DWP$, #4 TPI, #5 NM$ and high for F+P, PL, SCS/MS, LIV, MET, GL & EFC
  • Rubicon (151HO00681)          #3 TPI, #7 NM$ and high for F+P, PL, LIV, SCS, FLC, DCE, DSB
  • Rowdy (29HO17947)             #1 NM$, #5 TPI and high for F+P (200 lbs.), PL, LIV, DCE, DSB
  • Enzo (29HO18016)                 #12 TPI, top 50 NM$ and high for PL, SCS, DPR, LIV, UDC
  • Rio (7HO13866)                      A2A2, 2673 TPI, 799 NM$ and high for PL, SCS, DPR, LIV, UDC, DCE, DSB (Genomic)
  • Porter (200HO10532)            #2 LPI, #12Pro$ and high for F+P (yield & %), HL, HH, DF, DCA, Mammary, F&L
  • Detour (513HO03091)           #2 Pro$, #3 LPI and high for F+P, HL, HH, Milking Speed, DCA
  • Brewmaster (250HO01009)  A2A2, #11 LPI, #13 Pro$, #1 F% and high for F, HL, Persistency, DCA, R, F&L
  • AltaGlow (11HO15023)        A2A2, 3123 Pro$, 3639 LPI and high for F+P, HL, HH, Persistency, DF, CA, DCA (Genomic)
  • Almamater (200HO11665)   A2A2, 3629 LPI, 2744 Pro$ and F+P, HL, MasRes, MET, HH, DF, M Speed, DCA (Genomic)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Total Merit Indexes do a very good job of ranking sires for overall genetic merit. However, breeders need to search deeper when it comes to finding sires that stand out from the pack for function-fertility- fitness-health traits.

Progressive breeders need to determine where their herd needs improvement for traits beyond production and type. Then they should use the best sires for improving function-fertility-fitness-health traits in order to have the genetics in their herds that will assist in reducing their farm’s cost of production.


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