Recently I took the opportunity to review the Canadian Breed Strategy presented by Holstein Canada. (Read more: Holstein Canada Breed Strategy, The Bullvine Feedback) I started to ask myself, “What, exactly, is the role of a modern dairy cattle breed association?”
First of all let’s get one thing clear. I have the Holstein Canada logo tattooed on my chest. That was a decision that I made as a young adult in order to display my passion for two of the greatest things in the world, Holstein cattle and Canada. So for me to take a critical look at this is something I do with passion. The perspectives that motivate me result from personally observing both the producer side as well as the association side. My father was head of type classification and genetic improvement at Holstein Canada for 18 years. That background motivates my review which essentially boils down to one question. “Are breed associations still relevant?”
Now let’s be realistic, the role of the Holstein breed associations is much different than that of the colored breed associations. Holsteins represent 92% of the dairy cattle in North America. So for the colored breeds focus is driven by the need for awareness and preservation. What is the focus of the Holstein breed associations?
Politics vs. Corporation
For me this question really begins with the fact of how you look at breed associations? Are they similar to a government entity and therefore they are to represent the best interests of their members and function mainly in a political role? Or are they to function similar to a corporation and work at growing the profitability of the association and its members? For me, I would answer that it’s a little bit a both.
The Elephant in the Room
It`s time now to consider the elephant that is hiding in the corner of the room. In North America approximately 22% of all Holstein cattle are registered with either Holstein USA or Holstein Canada. That means that the large majority (78%) of the Holstein cattle in North America are not registered with either breed association. When such a large majority is not seeing the value in registration and the association programs, I have to ask, “Are Holstein associations relevant to the majority of today’s dairy producers?”
On a personal level, I see great value in purebred dairy cattle, registrations, type classification, and the many other programs. But obviously the fact that almost 78% of the Holstein Cattle in North America are not registered tells me that the large majority do not see the value. Why is that?
When I ask that of many the commercial producers that I chat with the answer often boils down to one comment. “I don’t see the value in the investment.” Most of the time this position is held by commercial producers that run their operations more like a corporation, rather than passion for a specific breed or way of life. While many are larger operations, I get the same answer from both large and small.
Technology has changed the world
In the 1980s the value of a purebred heifer of fresh cow was far greater than that of a grade. But in today’s marketplace, the difference in prices does not warrant the need for registration. Also reducing the pressure for registrations is the fact that computerized record keeping has evolved to a state that the records available on-farm are as complete as those available from the breed associations. This has further reduced breeder’s perception of the value of registration.
So then it comes down to the other programs that breed associations provide. The largest of them has to be type classification. Now let’s be clear I am a HUGE fan of type classification. But more and more I hear producers wondering if it is really worth it. (Read more: Is type classification still important?) They cite things like the use of genomics as a reason that they no longer need to type classify. Well as we all know Genomics is not a perfect (Read more: The Genomic Bubble Has Burst?, Genomics – Lies, Miss-Truths and False Publications! and How Genomics is Killing the Dairy Cattle Breeding Industry), but it is a great tool. However, in order to improve its accuracy, the breed still requires the phenotypic data from programs like type classification and milk recording.
While we are talking about technology, why can’t we use more of this on-farm information for genetic evaluations? Sure I have heard the concerns about accuracy of data, and the ethics of allowing producers to record their own data. But who said that this data had to be used for female genetic evaluations? Why can’t we include this large data set in bull genetic evaluations, so that we can greatly increase the accuracy of sire proofs? We could even develop more management based genetic evaluations that connect more directly to the bottom line?
Who Cares About Index?
From many of the most passionate breeders in the world, I hear “mixed” comments about the index systems, like TPI, LPI, etc. (Please note that TPI is a trademark of Holstein USA) Yet breed associations continue to focus on this as a major issue. While there is no doubt that having a national index has done wonders for marketing and genetic advancement. In reality every breeder should have their own index. The best index is the one that the works hand in hand with specific management goals. Having one National Index isn’t working. First of all we are in a global marketplace. Secondly, we need at least have three difference indexes. One that represents the needs of the seed stock producer (similar to TPI or LPI). One that represents the needs of the commercial producer (similar to NM$). Finally one that works for those breeding for the show ring (similar to CONF or PTAT). Only then will you start to settle this debate.
As long as we continue to try to promote one “unified” national index, it will continue to be seen as nothing more than a marketing tool. If you really want to have a tool that is for breed advancement and not for marketing, you need to understand that every breeder’s needs are different. And when you start to look at things from the different perspectives of all producers, and try to represent and respect each one of their individual needs, you will start to see the greatest advancement in the breed.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Really the breed strategy must come down to, “How do you make me more profitable?” All other issues are secondary to that. For years I have heard “Well a higher classified cow will last longer in your herd and produce more milk over their lifetime.” Well I am sorry to tell you that the data does not always support that conclusion. What if the cow has reproduction issues? What if they don’t milk very hard? All of these challenges to profitability also greatly reduce their productive life, yet they are not factored into most of the programs that breed associations currently offer. If you really want to get a larger share of the national herd pie, you need to show the average producer the measurable effect that registered animals and the associated programs have on their bottom line. All other issues are just smoke and mirrors that many of the politicians (Breed association board members) spend far too much time focusing on. I want my breed association to “Show me the money!”