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During this past week many of my Facebook friends have been debating on whether a third generation Excellent cow with good milk production should she be used as an ET recipient or should she be bred to produce her own calf (Discussion Part 1Part 2).  The debate started when one friend shared the picture of his Excellent cow with her latest calf – an IVF heifer from young highly rated genomically evaluated parents. Opinions weighed in from all points of view, each participant stating emphatically why their position was the one that was most correct. The majority said that, if it were their cow, they would breed her to produce her own calf. Well as I see it – that should depend on your herd’s genetic plan and how you define profitable.

Tradition Is Shifting

For quite some time, Excellent cows were few and far between. In Canada 0.2% were Excellent and in the USA it was about 1.0% Excellent.  Because of scarcity, daughters from Excellent cows would bring a very good price in leading sales. Sons, if by the right sire, were often of interest to A.I. for entry into young sire proving programs. Therefore if you owned an Excellent cow you owned a revenue generator.

Forty years ago the focus in breeding was the long lived Excellent cow with good lifetime milk production. Then the focus shifted to first or second lactation high scoring (minimum VG85), high producing and high indexing cows from respected cow families. With genomic evaluations coming on the breeding scene, high genomically evaluated heifers, three to twelve months of age, are now the sought after group. This change in focus to a 65+% reliable high indexing heifers has created a divide in breeder thinking and breeding goals.  (Read more: Is Type Classification Still Important? And Is Good Plus Good Enough?)

Take Your Pick

Today some breeders long for a return to the days when Excellent or 1st prize at a major show was all you needed to know about a cow. Other breeders are uncertain as to what they should be breeding for. Others simply state that they want cows that are less prone to being culled than in the past. Others have incorporated production and type genomic evaluations into their breeding programs. And still others are thinking in terms of using total selection indexes that put significant emphasis on health, immunity, fertility, labor efficiency and feed efficiency.  (Read more: The Truth About Type and Longevity and RF Goldwyn Hailey: Cash Cow or Cash Hog?)

Reality Check

The fact is that we now live in a new era for dairy cattle breeding.

Let’s look at some 2014 realities for Holstein breeders that did not exist in 2000:

There is no going back to former times!

Looking Forward

Type and also milk production will receive less attention in the breeding of dairy cows in the future because breeders have already made significant progress for those traits. Specific proteins, fats and solids in milk will be what consumers want in the milk products that they include in their diets.  Producers will breed for a herd of cows that return the most profit (Read more: She Ain’t Pretty – She Just Milks That Way). And yes, cows will be polled (Read more: From the Sidelines to the Headlines, Polled is Going Mainline!, Polled Dairy Genetics: The Cold Hard Facts and The 24 Polled Bulls Every Breeder Should Be Using To Accelerate the Genetic Gain in Their Herd). Excellent cows will not be a singular focus.  Perhaps I should qualify that statement. The Excellent cows of the past will not be sought after. It could well be that breeders will redefine what is required for a cow to be classified as Excellent.

Dr. Paul VanRaden, USDA-AIPL, has laid out the challenge for breeders in the future. He identified that today the best animal has a Net Merit of $1009 but knowing what we currently know about the genome, the best animal could have a Net Merit of $7515. (Read more: The Genetic “SUPER COW” – Myth vs Reality)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Technological advancements make breeding more profitable Holsteins a reality for future breeders. Conformational correctness will be only a fraction of what we need to know about a cow relative to profitability. For the breeder of the cow in the Facebook discussion, profitability included milk in the tank while producing a calf of high genetic worth. Excellent did not matter. We cannot ignore the realities relative to consumer demands, business management and genetic improvement. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.



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The udder may be a cow’s most prized physical asset, but her feet and legs literally provide the support for everything she does. How many situations with problem cows boil down to problems with their feet and legs?

In most herds foot care and hoof trimming are considered to be a very necessary event and, therefore, an expense that cannot be avoided. With this absolute in mind, we tend to march on breeding, feeding and managing cows without taking the time to consider ways to stop merely treating the symptoms we`re stuck with. Solving the problem before it becomes a health or management problem could completely avoid starting our animals off on the wrong foot. The Bullvine invites you to consider the genetics of feet and legs with us to stimulate a breeding solution for these issues.

The Heels of a Dilemma

In milk recorded herds, culling cows for feet and leg problems is #1 on the list of conformation culling reasons. In the past, udder breakdown was once the leader. However breeders have placed sufficient emphasis on improving udders that we are now to the stage where milk producers are saying they do not need to select bulls for udder traits except to avoid ones that are too deep.  It’s encouraging to know that with focus and time identified problems can be solved.

Although removal of horns may be the current hot button for people concerned about the welfare of animals, and therefore breeders are selecting for polled, there are numerous reports predicting that lame cows will be the next and much larger target.

Certainly, there are no dairypersons who are saying that feet and legs are good enough that genetic improvement for feet and legs is not needed.

Locomotion is Costing Us an Arm and a Leg

Reports show that for a cow with one temporary sore foot it reduces her annual profit by at least $100.  So what is the cost of a cow with foot construction that requires trimming 3-5 times per year, medication, less milk production, milk withdrawal, extended calving interval and premature culling? Feet and leg problems could be costing some herds $300 per cow per year.  On a one hundred cow herd that is $30,000 less profit. Significant by anyone’s standard.

A Vet Looks at the Genetics of Lameness

Gordon Atkins, DVM and a member of Holstein Canada’s Type Classification Advisory Committee, was a speaker at the recent annual meeting of the Wisconsin Holstein Association. He is not prepared to accept the fact that feet and leg heritabilities are as low as they currently appear to be.  Additionally, he shared some interesting facts about feet and legs:

  • Lameness is 88% a rear foot situation
  • That leaves only 12% for it being a front feet and leg problem
  • The outside rear claws bear the brunt of the lameness issue
  • The fact is that the rear outside claw grows faster because it is growing tissue in response to the greater pressure it endures while walking
  • Thin cows have a higher incidence of lameness
  • Thin cows mobilized fat from their bodies including the fat from the foot pad or digital cushion within the base of the heel structure. This results in less protection for the foot and heel.
  • The foot’s fatty pad can be replaced as the cow regains body condition but over time scar tissue will form when adequate fat is not present in the pads

Dr Atkins went on to highlight

  • His very telling statement followed, that being, “we need to evaluate feet and legs better”


Diagram – cross section of the foot

Diagram – Cross Section of a Bovine Foot

Let`s Go Toe to Toe with the Facts Only Please

Let’s summarize:

  • Dairy cattle have a genetic problem relative to feet and legs especially for animals not allowed to get off cement or to exercise
  • It is rear feet that are the major portion of the problem with respect to lameness

The Achilles Heel for Classifiers

The classification system scores numerous traits but there are factors in the area of feet and legs that are beyond their control.  Foot angle is not a good trait to measure because it is so variable due to foot trimming. Cattle owners have feet trimmed before classification so type classifiers do not see the animals in their natural state.  Classifiers do the best they can, given the circumstances. Add to this the fact that classifiers do not see every cow walking. Since the ability to walk is what is most important, classifiers again are at a distinct disadvantage.

Estimating heritability using classification data shows these percentages:

  • 30% for bone quality (moderate)
  • 24% for rear legs side view (moderate)
  • 13% for rear legs rear view (low)
  • 11% for foot angle (low)
  • 8% for heel depth (low)

Yes the report card is in – we need to improve the evaluation feet and legs especially for rear feet and rear legs rear view. Genetically we have bred for thin cows and thus less fat in the foot pad. The only place we collect feet and leg data for genetic purposes is in the type classification programs and there the classifier, as mentioned, is at a disadvantage. What’s left that breeds, classifiers, people doing the genetic evaluations and breeders can do?

Getting a Toehold on the Solution

A collective approach is needed:

  1. We must admit that we have a problem and that we need to find a solution to more accurately knowing the genetics of feet and legs.
  2. The problem is not limited to one country and it is more prevalent in cattle not allowed to walk on natural surfaces.
  3. Resources (people and money) must be allocated to investigation and research.

Some suggestions the Bullvine has heard on ideas to consider include:

  • observe or measure the females over their lifetime
  • evaluate the feet on calves at weaning
  • evaluate the feet on heifers at first breeding
  • measure the feet on first lactation females on their first milk recording test day (before they are trimmed)
  • compare sire’s daughter feet and legs on confined versus pastured daughters
  • compare the genomic profiles of cow families that are both desirable and undesirable for feet (and legs)

It is encouraging to see that there is one hoof trimmers’ guild that has public support for a study to collect pedigree information at the time of trimming, to complete a report of the condition of the feet before trimming and then to have the data analyzed. That could be a start.

In the Interim… Feet Forward

Research takes time and cows are bred every day, in the mean time, breeders must use the information currently available from sire indexes or proofs. It is strongly recommended that sires be highly ranked for Net Merit, TPI or LPI and higher than 1.5 FLC or +7 Feet & Legs. A recent addition to the information to consider on bulls is their Body Condition Scoring index. Bulls whose daughters do not get as thin during lactation should not drain all the fat from their foot pads.  (Some Bullvine recommended sires to use can be found at From Fantasy To Reality – Top Sires To Address Herd Culling Problems)

The Bullvine Bottom Line- “Stop “Digging in Our Heels”

What is needed is an international approach to studying dairy cattle feet, much like the approach being taken to studying feed efficiency.  Hopefully a way will be found to move feet research in dairy cattle to the DNA level. If the industry collectively has the will, there will be a way. All we need now is a champion to take the first step.


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People are starting to realize that the old market for purebred cattle, if not dead, is definitely endangered.  Why is this once “healthiest” of marketplaces facing the current flat line?

The basic assumption has always been that there is a premium for purebreds that is paid back on sale day.  Ever since there have been purebred cattle there has been a movement to convince commercial operators of the value of owning purebreds and registering their cattle.  For about the past 20 years the focus has gone from educating the commercial producer on the increased value of purebred cattle to making the process and the system a better fit for the commercial producer.  While the intentions were great, this change in philosophy has ultimately led to the demise of the premium received for purebred cattle.

Industry vs. Breeders – Whose Fault Is It?

For years I have heard both sides of this discussion.  Seed stock cattle breeders complain that industry executives in organizations like milk recording and A.I., as well as geneticists, would not know a good cow if one kicked them in the head.  I have also heard the other side of this argument where these geneticists and officials complain that purebred seed stock breeders don’t know how to see the bigger picture and the two sides have batted heads at the board level all along the way.

The part that many people don’t understand is that these industry officials did not set out to harm seed stock breeders.  Neither were they looking to discriminate against them.  Rather they saw this group as a niche segment of the market place and thought they needed to serve the bigger picture instead of catering to this small, but vocal group.

For many years the only organizations that seemed to hear the cry of the seed stock breeders were the breed associations.  Initially, the breed associations were great about trying to build new marketplaces, as well as trying to help educate commercial producers on why they should pay a premium for these purebred cattle.  They also educated commercial producers that by registering their cattle they too would receive a premium when they went to sell these cattle.  Ironically, all that changed when breed associations started to try to become a greater service provider to commercial producers, instead of building the marketplace for purebreds.  This shift in emphasis from worldwide market potential to bottom line domestic cattle and membership numbers, as much as anything, killed the premium paid for purebreds.

It Started Slowly, but Got Rolling Quickly

In the beginning the changes were small.  They simply made it easier for commercial operations to register their cattle.  Then came subtle (and necessary) changes to the classification systems to target a more commercial friendly cow.  Followed by significant changes where breed associations stopped being a marketplace developer and focused on being a service organization to the commercial producer.

While this helped increase registrations and showed that the breed as a whole was growing, the objective set out by our breeder boards, it started to have a small but significant side effect.  As the system changed to be more commercial friendly, the premiums commercial producers were expecting to receive for selling purebred animals disappeared.  Take a look at many of the sale barns today and compare the price of a grade fresh heifer to that of a registered one.  There is not as much difference as there once was.  There is certainly not enough for many commercial producers to justify the cost and effort of registration and type classification.  Add to that the fact that in many regions and with certain high end sires, there are no longer semen incentives for young sire usage, semen cost for young sires is almost as expensive as proven, and commercial producers ask, “If it doesn’t make financial sense, why do it?”

Without that premium selling price, many producers will stop registering their cattle.  With less herds registering, that means that costs for the programs will fall on the niche group of seed stock breeders.  Breeders who already have less income from fresh animal sales, and like all milk producers are battling the increased cost of production and the decreased milk sale price.  It certainly isn’t a time to take back additional expenses.

Yes, your top 0.1% index seed stock breeder is seeing greater prices than ever.  In addition, there is certainly still value in consistent generation after generation breeding families that provide a stable investment (more on that to come next week) but we are talking your average every day purebred breeder.  They have certainly seen the prices for fresh heifers go down.  Many have attributed that to the introduction of sexed semen and genomics.  I would contend it was more accurately due to the fact that the cost of milk production went up, milk prices worldwide went down, and commercial producers, the buyers of these animals, no longer see the need for the extra investment in the purebred pedigree they once did.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

By making that small shift from building the marketplace for purebred cattle, to trying to woo the commercial producers into registering their cattle, the industry as a whole has, in a sense, contributed to its own demise.  Now all sides need to find a way to work together, before it’s too late.

Has the heart of the industry stopped? Is there time for resuscitation? Who knows marketplace CPR?



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Is Good Plus Good Enough?

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

For years GP-84-2YR was the kiss of death when it came to marketing and selling genetics.  However, along comes genomics and it seems that GP is good enough.  Nevertheless, the question it has me asking is “Is Good Plus Good Enough?”

I can still remember when Summershade Icebreak Luke, was the #1 LPI cow in Canada.  The problem was she was scored GP-83-2YR.  The A.I. companies where not sure if they should even sample bulls from her and how would they convince their members to use them in their young sire programs.  Then came along Summershade Igniter and Summershade Inquirer and A.I. companies took the chance.  While hindsight is 20/20, maybe they should have passed.  On the female side, Icebreak had 34 daughters classified and only 7 of them going VG.  We ourselves had one of those daughters Summershade Icemarti.  While she did score VG, it was not until her 2nd lactation, long past her peak marketing time.  In the past, we have purchased many daughters out of GP 83 and 84 two year olds, expecting them to go VG before our purchase calved in.  It has proven to be a risky move, but one that could have paid off big time.  On the male side Icebreak had six sons enter A.I. service but none where ever returned to service.

On the flip side, I can also remember when we first purchased into the Braedale Gypsy Grand family and many people around us had concerns about her GP-83-2YR dam.  While there was a very good reason why Moonriver never went VG, we still found ourselves having to explain things many times.  Then along came Second Cut, Baler Twine, Freelance and Goodluck and we found that changed everything.

As we all know genomics has changed the name of the game, and we now see A.I. companies sampling high genomic sires irrelevant of their score or the score of their dam.  With that in mind, I decided to take a look at the current high index dams that are NOT scored VG.  The following is what I found.

The Story in the US

In the US, there are three GP cows on the Top 25 GTPI Cows List (GP-83-or Higher).  Leading the way is BEN-AKERS PLANET LUISE26-ET, she the #3 GTPI cow and the #1 NM cow scored over 83 points.  While Luise is from the Ricecrest Luke Lisa family and has solid type numbers, her genomic values for type are actually lower than her parent average and yet she still has a son at Alta Genetics, Ben-Akers AltaRazzle.  Joining Luise on the top GTPI list at #18 is SURE-VIEW MP PLANET LEXI.  Lexi is from the M&M-Pond-Hill Leadman Luba family and is scored GP-83-2YR.  Similar to Luise, Lexi has high genomic values compared to her parent average but yet again has conformation scores that just meet expectations.  Unlike Luise, it appears to this point that Lexi does not have any sons currently in A.I..  The third member of the list is SULLY PLANET MANITOBA , this GP-83-2YR is out of the great brood cow, Sully Shottle May the former #1 GTPI and GLPI cow of the breed.  Of course May is believed to have more offspring genomic tested over 2200 & 2300 GPTI than any other cow in the breed.  Unlike the other two GP 2yr olds on the top list, Manitoba has outstanding type numbers and her genomic values are actually higher than her parent average.  It’s these outstanding values that have her with at least three sons currently in A.I., SULLY HART MERIDIAN-ET and SULLY HART MUNICH-ET at Semex, and SULLY ALTABRANDON-ET at Alta Genetics.

The Canadian Story

Much like the US list the #3 spot on the Canadian List is held by a GP-83-2YR, Benner Planet Jakova-ET.  Being a Planet from a Goldwyn, Jakova has strong parent average for type and has strong genomic values as well.  Coming from the Benner Luke Jean family, Jokava has yet to put a son into A.I.. Joining Jokova on the list is Delaberge Planet Lulu.  However, on April 25th Lulu was raised to VG-85-2YR, 244 days fresh.  Lulu comes from the Bryhill Lindy Lilly family and already has a son at Semex, DONNANDALE LUMI.  The third member on the list is Alexerin Oman 993. Of interesting note about 993 is that there are no VG dams anywhere in her pedigree, she has mostly production sires and yet her parent average for conformation is five and her genomic value is a six.  Not surprisingly, 993 does not have any sons currently in A.I.  The last member on the list is Calbrett Planet Empress.  Much like Lulu, Empress has since been moved to VG-86-2YR later in lactation.  Empress is from the WABASH-WAY EVETT dam of the popular genomic sire Genervations Eclipse and the same family as Epic and Highway.  Given the strong maternal pedigree, Empress has PA of +10 for conformation and actually exceeds that with a +12 for her direct genomic value.  Given her increase in score and strong maternal pedigree it is just a matter of time before she has sons in A.I..

The Bullvine Bottom Line

While GP-84-2YR use to be the kiss of death for many marketing and genetic programs, genomics has changed the game.  With genomics, we are seeing many GP 83 or 84 cattle used as dams that would have never been touched before.  While many will increase in score later in life, many do not, and yet that does not seem to be as big a factor.  Many A.I. companies and breeders are more concerned about their genomic values than that of their actual classification score.


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Monday, March 26th, 2012

Tom Byers, who is in charge of classification for Holstein Canada knows a lot about the differences in cattle. “The show ring cow, with the emphasis on red carpet style is more the extreme. This is exactly what she should be. When you see her at the Royal in that ring every Holstein breeder in Canada wants to own her whether he thinks he’s commercial or not . Good breeders know that. They appreciate a good cow, show ring or barn.” Having said that, Tom points out that the Canadian classification system does not reward extremes.  He goes on to point out where they are similar. “There are two things that make the show cow and the cow in barn the same, when it comes to being judged or classified. Those two things are the two most important traits – udders and feet and legs.”

Tom Byers - Ferme GilletteUDDERLY EXCELLENT

Byers has classified many amazing cows but, when it comes to udders, he tells about one cow that got him excited. “It was at Ferme Gillette and it was the old Smurf cow who is the new World Champion for Lifetime production. We were walking past her stall when I asked Louis, ‘What is that cow classified?’ He gave her a pat on the rump and she immediately got up. Faster than some two year olds I might add. When I saw that udder and felt the texture I could have stretched it from Ferme Gillette to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and it would have sprung right back. Looking at her spring of fore and rear rib, I knew I had to make her EX.” Classification doesn’t reward extremes but Byers can sure describe them!


Tom doesn’t really think it is necessary to have cows ready for the previously mentioned red carpet when the classifier comes. “The simple answer is ‘No!’ it’s not necessary.  But I do think it makes a difference to the Holstein member. A self satisfaction if you will. Classifiers always appreciate good housekeeping.” Having said that, he goes on, “If you mean getting up in the middle of the night to have their udders full and most times over full to present to the classifier, I would just like to quote an old colleague and mentor of mine, Don Aylsworth “Feed the cow and the udder will fill itself.” Classified information indeed!

Future of Dairy Cattle ClassificationFACING FORWARD WITH CLASSIFICATION

Dedicated to his career and the members he serves, Byers takes his customary positive approach to the future. “I think we will continue to evolve our program to meet the needs of the dairy producer. Classification is without a doubt a very important animal welfare program and by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the individual, we can corrective mate to help the next generation take care of herself in the different environments we ask her to work in. We have always combined science and cow sense as we have made changes.”


Byers feels that “Classification will be the conformation verification of our Genomic selected sires.” He is justifiably proud of the dairy industry, “We must always remember that the world comes to Canada for its cow.  If Genomics can enhance our accuracy of genetic selection that will be a bonus! Our cow in Canada has never been better than she is today.  She is calving from 22 to 25 months of age. For the first time her udder is 5 inches above her hock and she wants to milk 40 plus liters.” That’s “Oh Canada” as sung by classifier Byers.


Tom Byers feels it has been his privilege to represent Canada domestically and internationally and to build lasting memories with his colleagues and Holstein Breeders.



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