In 2013 North American Holstein breeders sampled and received genomic evaluations for less than 7% of all heifers. Given the large number of articles being written about dairy cattle genomics these days, this small percentage left The Bullvine asking why there has not been more uptake on genomic testing?

Uneven Uptake.

Holstein Canada’s 2013 Annual Report shows Newfoundland with 100%, British Columbia with 21.4% and Quebec with 8.6% of the purebred female registrations that were genomically tested. Other provinces are as low as 3%. I expect that the same 3-9% range in uptake of this service exists in the United States but that statistic is not available on the Holstein USA Inc website.  But based on North American averages published by Canadian Dairy Network, the national percentages would be about the same.

Some breeders label genomics as just another inaccurate index. They even call it a production index. Believe those things if you wish, but genomic indexes are 55-70% accurate and genomic ratings exist for all traits – yields, component percents, each conformation area and all management traits. The breeders genomically testing their females are definitely ahead of the curve.

On the male side of the equation, 100% of the young Holstein bulls entering into A.I. in North America are being genomically evaluated. A.I. companies are making extensive use of the genomic results in their young sire proving and marketing programs. In the past five years young sire usage by Holstein breeders has risen from less than 20% to over 50%. This rising amount of semen sold is due primarily to the higher genetic merit for the genomic bulls compared to the proven sires. For the most recent two weeks, 66% of the top 25 bulls on the “Holstein USA’s High Registry Activity by Bull Report” were genomically evaluated unproven bulls.

So what is responsible for this disconnect between what is happening on the young male and young female sides of the pedigree?

Heifers Don’t Matter

Breeders always have reasons for why they do or do not use a service. So let’s talk about what is happening in the breeder’s world.

On the upside, milk prices are high, the USA is exporting 15% of the milk produced, high feed costs have eased somewhat and semen prices are reasonable. However on the downside are areas such as prices for newly calved first lactation females do not cover their rearing costs, sexed semen is not routinely available for young sires and the average herd size in the USA has reached 187 milking cows and many small herd breeders are about to retire or exit the industry.

The real kickers in this scenario are that the market price for high pedigreed animals has fallen off (Read more: An Insider’s Guide to What Sells at the Big Dairy Cattle Auctions 2013 and Is There Still Going To Be A Market For Purebred Dairy Cattle In 10 Years?) and with sexed semen and IVF (Read more: Sexed Semen from Cool Technology to Smart Business Decision, SEXED SEMEN – At Your Service!, SEXING TECHNOLOGIES: Gender Vendors in a Changing Marketplace and IVF: Boom or Bust for the Dairy Industry) there is, what seems to be, an over abundance of heifers. That includes numerous full sisters from the very top dams. This spring we have seen 2300-2400 gTPI or 3.00 PTAT deep pedigreed heifers sell for less than the IVF costs it took to produce them. Is that overabundance or shrewd buying?

The industry has changed and is not likely to return to the times when a small family farm could make a good living from milking 50-75 cows and selling breeding stock as the gravy on the meat and potatoes. Full heifer pens, losing money on raising heifers and no extra reward on sale day for high, but not the very top, heifers does not have breeders feeling positive about the heifer side of the herd. It has resulted in breeders deciding not to incur the cost of genomic testing, if the results are not going to provide information that will help and have a positive impact on the bottom line. Perhaps breeders are not assigning dollar values to genomic benefits or are not breeding for what the market is now demanding.

Current Benefits of Genomic Information

A synopsis of what genomic information has brought to the dairy cattle breeding industry include:

  1. With every young sire being genomically tested, the ones that in the past would have received low proofs no longer need to be sampled. That saves A.I. companies money and saves breeders the holes in pedigrees and animals that must be culled.
  2. Bull dam indexes are now much more accurate and only the top cows have sons being A.I. sampled. This has increased selection intensity but it has resulted in less income for breeders and the significant IVF fees for the, often many, full brothers that did not make the grade.
  3. The parentage of every genomically tested animal can be verified. Increased accuracy.
  4. Where a heifer’s parent average index was formerly 35% reliable, the genomic index is now 65% reliable. Almost double the accuracy.
  5. Brood cows now have indexes that are over 90% reliable where they were formerly in the 60% range. Significantly increased accuracy.
  6. More accurate breeding decisions can now be made for both cows and heifers. More rapid herd and breed improvement.
  7. Herds genomically testing all their heifers can sell off their low end heifers. Decreased rearing costs.
  8. The rates of breed improvement have doubled (Read more: The Genetic “SUPER COW” – Myth vs Reality) due to increased accuracy and much shorter generation intervals. Increased profit for herds and the industry.

For $45 breeders can get a 9K panel run. An interesting comparison is that this is equal to the costs to classify and milk record a cow for a year. In fact from an accuracy perspective genomic testing is a bargain as it costs the same but gives 65% accuracy whereas having a classification and a milk record gives 52% accuracy. In addition the genomic test can be run shortly after birth, saving on raising costs and presenting marketing opportunities.

But what’s the future?

The science of genomic evaluations in dairy cattle is advancing quickly. Breeders can expect in five years to see the following:

  1. The accuracy of Holstein genomic indexes will be over 80% for traits of moderate heritability.
  2. Current research for feed efficiency will produce a genetic rating for that important trait.
  3. Genomic indexes will be available for more traits and with more accuracy for health and fertility traits.
  4. More use will be made of genomic indexes for breeds beyond Holsteins.
  5. Breeders will implant low end cows with high merit embryos and will not need to raise low end heifers.
  6. Cows will stay in the herd longer resulting in higher daily herd average milk yields.
  7. Breeders will be able to focus genetic selection on herd life, feed efficiency, fertility and health traits.
  8. Genomic information will be used to breed for feeding (Read more: Forget Genomics – Epigenomics & Nutrigenomics are the Future) and management (Read more: Herd Health, Management, Genetics and Pilot Projects: A Closer Look at ZOETIS) purposes.
  9. Breeding companies will focus on providing semen and embryos that meet their customers’ needs.
  10. A.I. sires will only need to be housed in stud until there are 25,000 to 100,000 doses collected. (Read more: The End of the Daughter Proven Sire Era)

In five years time, discerning breeders will use genomic information like any other tool to breed better cattle and generate on-farm profit. If the cost of testing could be lowered from $45 to about $30 for a 9K panel evaluation, then the uptake would definitely increase significantly.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

We must always look to the future. For some breeders that may be one year until they sell out. However for many, including many young people just entering the industry, that future could be 10 to 30 years from now. Their decision should not be how they can do the heifer side as cheaply as possible. It needs to be how they can have the most profitable cows. The time is now to start genomically testing all heifers. Eliminating the lower end. Correctively mate to make the top end even better. Knowing all the facts and having all the information about the heifer herd is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Do not let opportunity pass you by. 

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


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