Archive for Don Bennink

Arm Chair Quarterbacks, Monday Night Football and Tuesday Morning Genomics

If you were the coach of an NFL football team, would you  select your players based solely on  looking at them or would you want to see their performance statistics, in order to decide how to assemble the best team possible?  That is the question that Don Bennink (Read more: NORTH FLORIDA HOLSTEINS. Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable!!) asked at the recent genomics conference.  (Read more. Genetics in the Age of Genomics – Seminar Recordings and Recap) While it’s a pretty simple question, it may forever change the way you make your mating decisions.

For generations, we have all been taught to look at a cow the same way, and that’s the way we continue to teach the next generation to look at dairy cows today.  But just because that is the way it has always been done, does not mean that we have been doing it correctly.  We all start out learning the parts of the dairy cow and have learned the same way as we always have on how to evaluate cows.  In fact, one major publication did seven editions in a row about how to evaluate cows, and each one presented the same way it’s been done for generations.  It doesn’t seem to matter that evaluating type or conformation has been proven not to be the most accurate way to determine longevity (Read more: She ain’t pretty she just milks that way).

For years, it has been assumed that, if a cow had “high type” and lots of production, she was the perfect cow.  But we all know that perfect cows don’t always exist (Read more: The Perfect Holstein Cow).   Nevertheless, we have bred for these two key areas: high type and lots of production.  We totally disregarded that we did not make substantial gains in profitability.  And, furthermore, herd life actually decreased, even though we all bought into to the theory that a high type cow is a long lasting cow.  Unfortunately, actual performance data shows that, as we bred for this the cows were actually lasting less time than before.   In fact mortality rates increased; conception decreased and the number of lactations that most cows lasted decreased.

Through the years, the use of high production and low fertility bulls has actually decreased overall herd conception rates.  Don points out that when he “first started milking cows, and AI was in it’s infancy, farmers up and down the road, had a 60% conception rate. Today people brag if they have a 30% conception rate.”  Don also points out that in 1996, 93.4% of the calves that were born in the US lived, (i.e.  a 6.4% stillborn rate). In 2002, the stillborn rate increased to 11% (i.e. 89% lived) and by 2007, 14% of the dairy calves died at birth. It’s only in more recent years that the industry has acknowledged this trend and has started to put more emphasis on conception and the significant impact it has on profitability.  The reason for this is we put so much emphasis on a two-year-old production that we were killing reproduction.  That is because cows that get back in calf regularly drop in production because they have to use some of their energy to support the development of their calves.  So the sires that gave the maximum amount of milk were also the sires who had the lowest conception rates.  We all know that a cow that is milking hard is the hardest cow to get back in calf.  No matter what their conformation.

The thing is that we have the systems and technology to make the changes we need to make for the future.  As Don points out, we don’t need to go to the 125-year old technology of type evaluation to solve this problem.  Instead of having to use theory to predict longevity, we can actually measure productive life through the actual length in months that cows last in herds compared to their herd mates. We don’t need type evaluation to guess who will last longer; we have the actual information. We have the ability to see just which cows will last longer, not from trying to figure out what type trait links best to longevity.  We have actual longevity data, SCS, fertility, conception, still births, etc.

We are all armchair quarterbacks.  We are all willing to second guess the mating decisions of others after the fact. The challenge is that, with the technology we have available today, we don’t have to do as much second guessing as in the past.  Tools like genomics and new performance data such as DPR, Still Birth Rate, and Productive Life tell us everything we need to make an informed decision.  Don asks, “Can you just pick the perfect team by just looking at your players? Or would it  help to know which players have drug issues, which ones will end up in jail, which ones will last a full season, and which quarterbacks can actually complete a pass, or know how many sacks your linebackers have made in the past.  As a coach, you want all this data to choose your team.  Well we are not coaches we are dairy farmers, and we make our money milking cows. Don’t you want that data on your animals? Or are you just going to keep looking at them and think that you can guess which ones could perform?”

In today’s day and age, we not only have traits that are more directly connected to longevity than type evaluation, we also have genomic testing that can more accurately predict  what sires and cows will last longer. Every Tuesday we now receive genomic predictions on animals.  We don’t need  to wait till  for a quarterly classification visit, that may or may not catch a cow on her best day, to evaluate what we think from  looking at her is the probability that she will last more lactations.  We can actually get much more accurate data at a younger age on how long she will stay in the herd.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Sometimes it can be hard to change the way we have always played the game.  When something has been done for generations, there will always be those who are resistant to change.  However, the industry has changed and the amount of information available today to make mating decisions is light years ahead of what it was just a few years ago.  The game is changing, and you need to change what you base your breeding decisions on. .  The best coaches and quarterbacks make their decisions based on performance data, not on hypothesis. Genomics has helped take away the guessing game.  We can now know at a very young age, what the genetic potential of that calf is.  We can make better decisions faster.  In the past art and practical knowledge was what drove mating decisions.  However, today’s breeding world calls for a different approach.  It takes a level of focus and commitment, and it’s a business.  It is just like football, where the coaches now use all the information possible to decide what players to put on the field and how to use those players for the big game on Monday nights.  Tools like genomics have changed the game forever.

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


Not sure what all this hype about genomics is all about?

Want to learn what it is and what it means to your breeding program?

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The Shocking Speed of Social Media and the Dairy Industry

There is no question that social media has changed our world.  From the ability to talk to people of like mind from anywhere in the world to the ability to learn the latest news instantly, the dairy industry has changed dramatically as a direct result of social media.(Read more: How Social Media Is Changing the Holstein World)

Every second 2,200 tweets are posted, 580 users update their Facebook status and 24 minutes of video are uploaded to YouTube.  The scary part is that adoption rates of new social networks are accelerating.  It took LinkedIn 3.5 years to reach 10 million users.  The same feat took Twitter just over 3 years, and Facebook 2.5 years.  Most recently Google+ did it in just 2 weeks.  The reach of social networks is spreading faster than any infectious disease in the history of mankind.  From 2005 to2010, Facebook gained over 500 million users.  More than the entire world population at the time of the Black Death. (Read more: How Social Media Is Changing the Holstein World)

Shocked and Amazed in the Show Ring at Summer Show

This past week’s events highlighted for me just how astonishingly fast social media is.  First, while attending the Ontario Summer Show, the power of the Internet and social media certainly flexed its muscle (Read more: Ontario Summer Show 2013 Holstein Results).  Coming into the show, I would have told you that Valleyville Rae Lynn VG-89-2yr, the Res. All-Canadian Sr. 2yr old from 2012 and 1st Senior 3 & Intermediate and Reserve Grand Champion Ontario Spring Show 2013 would be able to stroll her way to an easy win.  Then entered Raivue Sanchez Pamela and Desnette Alexia Roseplex and you could hear the excitement in the crowd rise to another level.  Roseplex, a cow that probably has one of the greatest side profiles I have ever seen, has been developing well since winning Intermediate Champion at the 2013 Quebec Spring Show and has gained more chest width and rear udder width to go with that amazing profile.  Then there is Pamela that on any other day, against any other competition might have been the talk of the town.  Instantly, I was getting messages from breeders around the world saying how amazing that class was and speculating about who would win.  The shared pictures from all three cows were extremely popular.  But once you saw these three amazing cows in line, you realized that Rae Lynn was simply that much longer and dairier than these other two also outstanding cows.


Valleyville Rae Lynn VG-89-2YR
First Senior 3 year old, Intermediate Champion and Reserve Grand Champion
Owned by Quality, Granja Ponderosa, Al-Be-Ro Land & Cattle, ON and Spain

Almost instantly the questions switched to asking when we will see Rae Lynn against the likes of Butz-Butler Gold Barbara VG-89-2yr and Eastriver Gold Deb 850 EX-92 EX-92 MS?  The challenge is that since Rae Lynn has been milking since last October and is not due again until March 2014, we may not see her again until the Royal, passing on the long trip to World Dairy Expo.  Let’s hope that we may see her at Madison to give us the greatest Senior 3 year old class in history.

Grand Champion Ontario Summer Show - Calbrett Goldwyn Layla (Goldwyn), Mature Cow, For then owners: Cormdale, Genervations, Kruger, Al-Be-Ro land and cattle.  Now owned by Comestar Holsteins and Ponderosa farms of Spain.

Calbrett Goldwyn Layla EX-95
1st Mature Cow and Grand Champion Ontario Summer Show
For then owners: Cormdale, Genervations, Kruger, Al-Be-Ro land and cattle.
Now owned by Comestar Holsteins and Ponderosa farms of Spain.

Having said that, none of this chatter could compare to what was to follow around Calbrett Goldwyn Layla EX-95.  Normally, when it’s time for the mature cow class, it comes down to which cow has had held up to the wear and tear.  However, this year at Ontario Summer Show, things were a little different.  The winning mature cow was a 3rd calf 7 year old.  This became a subject that was very polarizing to breeders at ringside and especially online.  She was shown perfectly by the great showman David Dyment.  He always seems to know how to make a cow stand out.  There is no question that Layla catches your eye.  She is extremely dairy and strong and looked the part.  She did handily win the class.  The part that shocked many was when Judge Bruce Mode went on to name Goldwyn Layla Grand Champion of the show.  We are certainly fans of judges who take bold moves here at the Bullvine (Read more: Dairy Show Judging – It Takes Courage)

The reaction online was certainly mixed.  Almost instantly, there were comments being posted either in agreement or disagreement.  Questions starting coming in about just how good did she look and did she need extra help in order to make it to the ring?  It’s not unusual for these rumors to swirl around champions. And stories — true and false — begin to be shared. Today they’re shared instantly!! Call it marketing.  Call it borderline ethical.  The concern is there, especially for young breeders who are looking to get into the marketing of elite cattle genetics.  If the concerns are true, what message does this send to them?  Here we may have a cow being rewarded for all the wrong reasons.  Will she contend at Madison or the Royal?  Will she even be there?  Moreover, how is she beating a cow that has the potential to become one of the greatest of all time?

Changing the Conversation

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the conversation to change to a more positive note.  This year’s International Intrigue Sale hosted by Ferme Blondin was certainly a positive for the industry.  (Read more: International Intrigue: Forget the Records It’s About the People and International Intrigue at Ferme Blondin Sale Results 2013).  While the sale didn’t have some big name World Dairy Expo Grand or Intermediate Champion contender, it certainly did have a strong line up with many outstanding individuals.  Extremely popular online was Jacobs Sid Bamba, a Sid from World Dairy Expo contender Jacobs Goldwyn Britany EX-96 who sold for $50,000 and Ms C-Haven Oman Kool-ET (VG-87-2YR), the former number one gTPI “Man-O-Man” daughter in the U.S. and second highest protein cow at +80, who sold for $92,000.

Jacobs Sid Bamba

Jacobs Sid Bamba
A Sid from World Dairy Expo contender Jacobs Goldwyn Britany EX-96
Sold for $50,000 at the International Intrigue Sale

While Layla selling to Comestar and Ponderosa for $125,000 at the Cormdale Summer Sale on Monday (Read more: Cormdale Summer Sale Results) re-ignited the conversation, I thought we would have a quieter time for the rest of the week.  However, that certainly was not the case.  Normally it’s my personal opinion editorial pieces that get us here at The Bullvine in trouble.  This time it was our interview with Don Bennink (Read more: North Florida Holsteins: Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable!!)  that took the conversation in a different direction and to completely new levels.  This time is wasn’t just the small segment of the marketplace that follow the shows, but rather it was the dairy community at large who felt the need to let their opinions be known.  There is no question that Don’s opinions about type classification, type evaluations and how they predict longevity have fueled this    polarizing subject.  .  As a strong supporter of type classification, it has caused mixed thoughts in my own head (Read more: The Truth About Type and Longevity) and has generated some amazing conversation on Facebook.

Just When You Think It’s All Over

Just when I think that it’s all over, and that we can now settle down to a holiday long weekend with the family, a completely new fire erupts.  One of our news items from the weekend about how the Whitaker family of Georgia had the unfortunate occurrence of having one of their trusted employees  suspected of illegal activities leading to 40+ cop cars, and SWAT personnel in cooperation with the family descending on the farm.  This led to the finding of several guns, marijuana and methamphetamines, which investigators estimated could be worth $50,000.  While this is certainly unfortunate for a great family who are strong members of the dairy community, the reaction to the news article we collated “FBI Storms Whitaker Farm For Drug Bust”, certainly caused a commotion on Facebook with a few breeders who felt the title did a disservice to this family.  Yet another example of the power and speed of social media.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.  Dairy farmers have never been short on having them.  The difference is that, through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, breeders can now share their opinion with thousands instantly instead only with a few local breeders.  You no longer have to call several breeders to find out what happened at the show or sale.  You don’t even have to wait for it to be printed in one of the old school magazines.  Things are happening in real time and the news is now coming to you, instead of you having to go and find it.  One of the biggest changes we have noticed since starting the Bullvine is how many breeders no longer go to the news sections of the dairy publications anymore.  They now watch their Facebook news feed and if there is an article or news item of interest that has been shared by a fellow breeder or company they follow, they go ahead and read it.  No longer do they have to surf through many sites just to find the few tidbits they would be interested in.  Now they can get it all in their Facebook news stream complete with the ability to share their opinion with their friends and fellow breeders.  It is truly shocking the speed of Social Media and how it has affected the dairy industry.

For those of you wanting a little guidance check out “The Dairy Breeders Guide to Facebook”.

NORTH FLORIDA HOLSTEINS. Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable!!

Don Bennink2013ect “With persistence and a plan anything is possible”.  Don Bennink grew up in Western New York in a small family who were not farmers. Early cattle purchases which he housed in the garage were the first remarkable chapter of this lawyer-cattleman’s inspiring story.  Don looks back. “I started accumulating Holsteins while in junior high school and high school and managed to maintain them through college.  On graduating from college, a 35 stall tie stall barn was rented and a small Farmers Home loan obtained.  Eventually several farms were purchased and the herd size expanded cow by cow.  In 1980, the move from New York to Florida was made.” He makes the evolution sound easy but we know that there are many blanks that had to be filled in between those early highlights and the 10,000 head that comprise the current operation known as North Florida Holsteins!

North Florida Holsteins Sets Example of 180 Degree Turn Toward Healthy and Profitable

North Florida Holsteins is the single largest dairy in Florida and home to roughly 4800 cows and 4400 heifers.  The balance are bulls and steers. The current acreage is about 2,400 acres.  Don outlines a very clear mission statement for their dairy genetics. “We believe that the function of a seed stock producer is to produce the animal that is the most profitable for the commercial dairyman.” He doesn’t mince words in referring to the breed association. “Don feels that the current philosophy of the Holstein Association is very contrary to this.” He gives three main targets that he seeks out as profitable. “High production with health traits and feed efficiency are our by words.  The present classification and type evaluation system are 180 degrees away from cattle that pay the bills.  Bigger, taller, sharper doesn’t cut it.  The latest correlation of final type score with stature is .77.  Worse yet, the correlation of udder composite with stature is .57.  That means if you breed 100% for udder composite, you will increase stature at more than half the rate that you would if you bred for stature alone.” There is only one conclusion for this dairy farmer. “The current 88 and 89 point 2 year olds are dysfunctional for the guy making milk for a living.” (Read more: The Perfect Holstein Cow)


NO-FLA Oman Heidi 20611 VG-87
2-01 305D 25760M 861F 739P
3-06 275D 25260M 101F 806P

Focused on Generations of High Health Produces Results

With such extensive experience, it is exciting to have Don describe an outstanding example of North Florida breeding. “The individual cow that has had the largest effect on our breeding is NO-FLA Oman Heidi 20611.  Heidi was the result of us stacking high health sires up for generations.  We have not used a negative DPR bull for decades.  One of her sons is either the highest or second highest DPR available in AI.  He also has a 9.1 PL.  An added bonus is he is a 4 on both sire and daughter calving ease.” Thus it isn’t a surprise that nearly every major bull stud has one or more of her active sons and Don expands on Heidi’s impact. “Her daughters are among our best individuals and indications are they are transmitters.  Her dam is an Excellent Mtoto with over 200,000 milk and the next dam an EX Rudolph.  This is a cow family that came down with us from NY.  A major portion of the herd traces to this family.”

NO-FLA DA RUDO SUE 15039 EX-94 Lifetime 259,313 8069F 7374P Dam - EX-93 Blackstar

Lifetime 259,313 8069F 7374P
Dam – EX-93 Blackstar

Major emphasis has been placed on established cow families.

Early North Florida breeding decisions were very specific. “These were largely centered around tough, rugged, long lived, high producing, consistent individuals.  Commonly whole herds were bought to get a cow family.  Don prefaces this list with the comment, “These kind of folks are way under recognized! Some of our best cow families came from Joe Dell in New York, Dick Wheeler in Pennsylvania, Brian Young, CV Vincent in Tennessee, Ted Olsen in Kentucky, David Greene from Tennessee, DeWitt Head from New York and the Newberry family from Georgia.  We then used the best production and health traits sires that were outcrosses to them and balanced their weakest traits.”

By-My Rudolph Salley

By-My Rudolph Salley

“Genomics has added an enormous opportunity to breeding Holsteins.”

So says this early adaptor of many leading edge technologies. “When I was young, a common statement was you have a maximum of about 10 generations of dairy cattle breeding to prove yourself as a breeder.  That was because a bull or cow was about 5 or 6 years old before you knew whether he or she met the standards you were breeding for.  Now that I am in my seventies, with a new generation every year, we can do 10 generations in a decade. With a considerable number of examples in stock to prove it, I place a lot of confidence in production and health trait genomics. “

Woodwind Juror Gutele

Woodwind Juror Gutele

“I place no confidence in type genomics.”

Once again Don holds a firm position supported by numbers.With the current correlation of .59 between udder composite and stature, it is not unusual to see the same udder scored good on a short or medium sized heifer that is very good on a tall heifer.  No study including the ones done by Holstein show any real correlation of foot and leg composite with foot health or herd life.  Bulls with + 3 and + 4 type proofs have daughters that are too big and too sharp for commercial dairymen.  For this reason gTPI or TPI are essentially ignored in bull or female selection.  Net Merit $ has some value.”

Jerseys Show and Work.  Holsteins are the Princess Breed.

My good friend in New Mexico, Buster Goff, and his son milk 5,000 Holsteins on one farm and 5,000 Jerseys on another.  Buster loves to show.  He shows his Jerseys because when the shows are over, he can take his Jerseys home and turn them in with the other cows.  If he were to show winning Holsteins, he would have to have a special barn because show type Holsteins can’t survive commercial conditions.


Don feels strongly about the urgency of the issues facing the Holstein dairy industry. “Today in the US, 3 % of the dairy farms make half the milk.  A decade ago Jerseys were 2% of the cow population.  Today 15% to 17% of the population is Jersey and Jersey crosses.  There are about 7 herds over 30,000 cows.  These are either all Jersey or switching to Jersey. The difference between 1% too much milk in the market and 1% too little milk in the market is $4 per cwt.  The difference between 15% too many Holstein heifers in the market and 15% too few is $500 to $1,000 per head.  The people that used to buy surplus Holstein heifers in volume are switching breeds.” This is a crisis which Bennink sums up this way, “ The US Holstein Association badly needs a wakeup call.  Our Holstein cow and our Holstein breeders are the losers if we continue to ignore the obvious long term stable customer.”

Choose Lifetime Achievement Over Star Chasing

With almost his entire lifetime devoted to dairy cattle, Bennink accepts the changes as well as the challenges. “Early on the grade dairyman looked to the purebred breeder as a source of genetic improvement.  Today the commercial dairyman looks at a purebred breeder as someone chasing stars.  The incomes of a substantial number of commercial dairymen are on par with CEO’s of substantial corporations and that of professional sports stars.  Rather than tap this resource, the typical purebred breeder is trying to market to someone wanting a winning show cow or a fly by night individual with a dream of owning some fancy cows.”  Certainly never one to be defined as “typical”, Don outlines the parameters that he uses.

“We are using the highest production and health sires we can find.

All AI matings have inbreeding coefficients run on them.  About two thirds of our heifers and a substantial portion of our cows are pregnant to IVF embryos from the top 3% of our females.  We breed the type of cow that is most profitable for us.  The market is ignored.  If folks like what we are doing and want to be part of it, they are welcome to see if there is a fit.  Our milk market doesn’t pay for protein but we emphasize it because it is in our future.”

Making Milk for a Living

Don urges all dairy breeders to weigh decisions carefully.Even though bigger, taller, sharper means shorter life, lower feed efficiency and fewer bottom line dollars, the show ring and the classifier prevail. What we have found to be the best index for the person making milk for a living is one put out by John Metzger.  It prioritizes factors according to their effect on bottom line.

With sixty years of experience Don recommends anyone starting out not to use the established dairy farm as his example.  “The first test is to be sure that you have the right stuff in the form of integrity, knowledge, ambition, reliability and performance. If you have these, opportunities will come because you are a commodity in short supply.”  After that Don Bennink, progressive dairy breeder, has five important principles that he feels are key to dairy success.

  1. Pay your bills and keep your word.
  2. You can rent a lot better setup than you can own when funds are low.
  3. Don’t be too proud to milk three titters or whatever to get your start.
  4. Don’t try it if your family is not behind it and willing to participate.
  5. Seven day weeks and long days will be in your future for some time.

The Best of Mentors. A Network of Friends.

As a responsible mentor himself, Donn Bennink looks to a special friend who excelled in this role. “Undoubtedly the major influence on me was Pete Blodgett.  The last 15 years of his life, he would come by and stay with us 4 or 5 days about 8 to 10 times a year.  Much time was spent on how to create the kind of beast that would best pay the bills for a dirt farmer like myself.  Digging out early health trait data any way we could was actively pursued.” Whether it’s staff, customers, friends or peers, Don puts people first on every major list at North Florida Holsteins.  “Our greatest accomplishment in dairy farming and Holstein breeding is the network of friends that we have established around the country and around the world.  They inspire us and add satisfaction to the challenges of a 24/7 lifestyle.  Helping them achieve as they have helped us achieve is the reward.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

When it comes to the Bottom Line, as every sustainable business should, Don has a clear formula for success. “The quality of the team is a major contributor. We have tools available to fix the problem within our breed. The future is to be had by those that please the commercial producer and the consumer.”  Wise words from a recognized advocate, educator and leader. No doubt there will be continuing achievements for North Florida Holsteins!


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