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Let’s Talk Longevity

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Herd profitability is front and centre in the minds of breeders as they build their genetic base for the future. Current and future profit does not come by chance. It takes both breeder instinct and skilled management. Two important factors breeders and managers must consider is how long the workers stay on the job and how productive they are. And when it comes to workers on dairy farms it starts with the cows. Longevity along with productivity go hand in hand with making a profit.

What is Longevity?

According to our current indexes longevity is productive life (PL) or herd life (HL). But what does that mean? Is it one more month in the herd for an average daughter of a bull? What makes the difference?

Let’s take a moment and think about how great it is when your workers stay with your organization for at least five years. Instead of frequently giving new staff basic training, the organization can spend more time on advanced skills training. Productivity will increase and thereby profit can be pushed to new heights.

When it takes 1.0 to 1.5 lactations before a heifer you have raised or purchased to start to show a net lifetime profit, then culling heifers before the end of two lactations means just breaking even. A couple of months longer stay before the end of the 2nd lactation is really no big thing. Especially if the cow is below average for productivity.

When considering longevity how “long” is long enough?

What is Ideal Longevity?

Let’s start with what it is not. On a highly bred, fed and managed farm, averaging 25,000 lbs and 13.0 month calving interval, longevity is not a cow that stays around for five lactation yielding 20,000 lbs and calving every 14 months. She has two problems – her volume of output is below average and she takes a month longer off work than her contemporaries. In short she is a free-loader.

Each of us will have our own definition of longevity. Years back for many breeders longevity was the cow that won the county show, produced okay and from which daughters could be sold. For other breeders it is the cow that causes no problem, conceives on 1st or 2nd service and produces at least 10% above her contemporaries.  For today’s profit oriented breeders it is the cow that produces 200,000 lbs (90,909 kgs) in 8-9 lactations, that calves back within 13 months. It is the cow that, after calving quickly and smoothly, moves into lactation, does not require vet visits, maintains a low SCS as she ages and operates without problems within the herd’s housing and milk systems. Now that is longevity that is measurable and profitable!

Breeding for the Ideal

We can all see what we like when we look at the twelve year old cow but breeding is not a retrospective matter. Breeding is about creating the future. Idealizing the past is not breeding. Breeding is creating that heifer calf that arrives healthy without causing momma any problems, is able to resist illness and then calves before 24 months of age, is functionally correct and can cost effectively produce above her contemporaries and stays for many lactations.

Achieving ideal longevity takes more than genetics. Management plays a major role. When breeders get both genetics and management on longevity right they are able to have low herd turn-over (25%), save considerable dollars by raising fewer heifers (every heifer not raised saves $2200), and less expense for drugs, insemination, labor, feed, ..etc.

Current Tools Available

Two overall indexes currently published are PL (USA) and HL (Canada). Many other supporting indexes assist in interpreting PL and HL. Those include: SCS, DPR/DF, Udder Depth, Feet, Rear Legs Rear View and Maternal Calving Ease.  Of course yields of fat and protein (Link – Is Too Much Water Milking Your Profits) are important however a few more pounds of fat and protein in a lactation can in no way compare to getting that fifth, sixth and seventh lactation from a cow. Lactations where yield and profit are at their peak. Total merit indexes, like NM$, TPI™ and LPI, do factor in longevity but if breeders have genetically overlooked length of herd life, by placing their focus on show type or production, then these indexes will under estimate the emphasis that should be placed on longevity.

Future Tools Needed

What our current PL and HL indexes fail to do is to place emphasis of getting cows that make it to those fifth, sixth and seventh lactations. Adding a couple more months to cows that stay for 2 to 3 lactations is not what breeders need. They need some way of knowing which bulls leave daughters that profitably make it to those later lactations. Hopefully our genetic evaluation researchers will study some accurate way to identify bulls that produce long lived productive cows.

Let’s Talk Bulls

In breeding it always comes down to which bulls to use. Should I use Atwood or Bookem or should I use Windbrook or Fever?

Atwood, a current popular bull of show type, has  PL of –0.5 while Bookem, a newly daughter proven bull, has a PL of 5.7. Bookem’s stay in the herd over six months longer. How does Bookem do that? Well it is by having higher DPR, superior calving ease and maternal calving ease, lower stillbirths and higher production.  If show winnings are not important to you then Bookem should be your choice.

Both Windbrook (+15) and Fever (+16) sire superior conformation, yet Fever has a HL of 116 compared to Windbrook’s HL of 103.  Fever’s significant superiority in SCS, DF, milking speed and daughter calving ability give him the distinct advantage. DCA is often not used by breeders but Fever at 111 is in the top 2% of the breed for his daughters to calve without difficulty.

So in breeding for longevity breeders must dig deeper and find out all the facts. Bulls that have a PL over 5.5 or a HL over 110 are unlikely to produce daughters that have problems for somatic cell count, daughter fertility, milking speed, maternal calving ease, depth of udder or mobility.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Longevity is a lot easier to describe than it is to achieve. What are our choices? We could sit and anticipate a ‘genomic-like’ breakthrough in this area of dairy breeding and management. That would be easy. But that way we are losing dollars and productive animals every day. Or we can act to immediately incorporate strategies that keep our animals, trouble free, healthy and producing longer. When it comes to longevity proactive means profitable.

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Genomics at Work – August 2013

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Five years ago dairy cattle breeders were first hearing the word genomics. Over many generations of cows they had followed the recommended practice of using plus proven A.I. sampled sires on the majority of their herd with limited use (20-30%) of high indexing young unproven bulls. This practice had made it possible for them to improve their herd, help the breed improve and to generate revenue from the sale of breeding animals. And then along came a new way to look at accuracy for young animals and the merits of a cow without having to wait for her to have many milking daughters.

For most of us it was something that shook the foundation of what we knew about breeding cattle. How could an analysis of the genes change the method of breeding we knew and had been very comfortable with using? As expected breeders have had a variety of reactions.  Some instantly adopted genomics. Some cautiously considered and used it to a limited extent. Many took a wait and see approach.

Today much has changed to the point where half the semen used is that of genomically evaluated bulls. We are learning more every month and every index run about genomics. The Bullvine decided to address some of the current questions and thoughts about genomics that we are hearing expressed by our readers.

Learning from Observer



De-Su Observer, a former high ranking genomic bull, born in November 2008, received his first official proof, which included daughter performance, in April 2013 and he had a gTPI of 2332.  However with last week’s index release (Read more: August 2013 Holstein Sire Evaluations Highlights From Around the World) his gTPI dropped by 188 points to 2144. Many breeders are asking why? Can we trust genomics and the very first proofs with daughter performance included? Let’s think this one through.

High genomic bulls are now used by A.I. and breeders as mating sires for the next generation mostly using ET. The female mates of these bulls, with few exceptions, are also high indexing. Their progeny’s genetic evaluations will be adjusted for their parent’s high genetic merit by the genetic evaluation centres. However the extra care and treatment breeders give to these future star females, from birth to the end of their first lactations, cannot be totally adjusted for in the genetic evaluations. This means we can expect these young bulls to be over-evaluated in their first official proof based on the performance of their first 30-60 daughters. Until we can capture more details at the herd level for yields, health, reproduction, herd management, type assessment and heifer performance we can expect that high genomic bulls, after they get their very first official proof, will subsequently fall back slightly in some part of their proof.

This just happened to Observer.  Between April and August he added 582 milking daughters to reach 800 and 283 classified daughters to reach 349.  In April he was and in August he still is a 99%RK gTPI sire but he dropped from #1 to #21 on the TPI list (#8 among those with 99% reliability for MF). His breeding pattern for type did not change. His daughters have outstanding mammary systems but are only average feet and legs and below average dairy strength. His ratings for fertility and longevity were essentially unchanged. If anything they are up slightly. However Observer’s ratings for the yield traits dropped. The decreases were milk -14%, fat -26% and protein – 21%.  He is still a top proven bull and a good bull to have in the pedigree or to use to make productive profitable cows. With the high number of daughters now in his proof we can expect he will not changed to a similar extent in December.

Considering a bull’s rank on a total merit index list is the first step in selecting bulls. However knowing how his strengths and limitation match your herd’s genetic needs is the important second step.

What about Robust, Bookem, AltaMeteor and AltaRazor?

All these bulls had their first official proofs in August after being highly rated on their genomic information. Their August Reliabilities range from 89% to 91%. So we can expect some movement in their indexes, as they have information added on daughters, the same as happened with Observer. Remember they can go up as well as down. They are all top of the class graduates but like all new graduates we can expect to know their attributes more exactly come December or next April. For discerning breeders this means use them but not any one of them to an excessive amount. Between them these four bring to the industry high NM$, high protein yield, high udder composite and high fat yield. All things commercial breeders include in their breeding plans (Read more: What’s the plan?).

What about Inbreeding?

Some breeders are asking the Bullvine – “so where are the bulls that are below 5% for inbreeding”?  Readers have taken seriously the need to decrease the inbreeding level in dairy cattle (Read more: 6 Steps To Understanding & Managing Inbreeding In Your Herd and Twenty Things Every Dairy Breeder Should Know About Inbreeding).  It is not easy to find bulls to use that are low for their inbreeding coefficient.  To readers it seems that the high genomic bulls come from the same sire lines – Planet, Shottle, Oman, Goldwyn, Bolton,..etc. From time to time the Bullvine does produce lists of outcross sires (Read more: Going off the map: 14 outcross Holstein sires that don’t include GPS and 12 Sires to Use in Order to Reduce Inbreeding) so check those out. It would be a benefit to breeders if CDCB or CDN would produce listings for genomically evaluated bulls over 2000 PA gTPI of +2500 PA gLPI but under, at least, 5-6% for inbreeding coefficient. (Read more: Crossbreeding: Breed Help or Hindrance?).

Can more Genomic Related Information be Published?

To most breeders, it seems that genomic indexes are high, and constantly increasing. It is almost impossible to keep up. Go to an auction sale and hear the pedigree person say that ‘this bull is leaving many high genomic progeny” and what is the average breeder to take that to mean. It can be confusing even for people “in the know”. But what about people who do not follow the results closely? Furthermore for breeders that follow more than one breed, they see what is top numbers in one breed may seem ordinary in another breed. Has the time come to consider changes such as:

  • Publishing the %RK for indexes – that way an animal’s strengths and limitations was be easily seen
  • Widely publishing the levels for all indexes for 99%RK, 90%RK and 50%RK
  • Identifying animals that leave top genomic progeny for all traits not just for the total merit indexes.

Keep moving Forward

Genetic Evaluations Centres around the world are studying ways to use the records from bulls’ daughters where the bull may not have been randomly sampled. Excluding records from analysis is not as easy as not using the data from ET daughters or for the first 50 to 100 daughters born. These steps could be well and good if this matter only involved the genetic side of our business. But it impacts marketing and revenue generation from top animals and therefore it gets complicated. It could well be some time before we have a solution.

Breeders need a breeding and marketing plan for their herd. And then they need to use the most up-to-date genetic indexes for both bulls and cows. It does not change the process: first sort the bulls by your preferred total merit index; and then correctively mate your cows or group of cows with the best mate on your selected list. It is up to each breeder to decide whether to use the genomic information or not. The advantages from using genomic information are a faster rate of genetic improvement by having more accurate indexes on young animals and the use of the very top animals, especially bulls.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Breeding is about creating animals that are genetically superior to our current herd of animals. It does not simply happen by adding one and one to get two. It involves using all the skills including planning, cow awareness, genetic theory, accurate information, the turning of generations,..etc. Genomics is proving to be a good new tool. No doubt it and genetic evaluations will improve considerably over the next five years. More knowledge is always a good thing.

To see all the latest proofs be sure to check out our Genetic Evaluation Section.

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