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Archive for Genetic Advancement

Too many people say that dairy breeding is an art. If they manage their herds this way, they will be unable to compete in an industry that grows with science. Art places value on the ‘family’ and sees both parents contributing equally shared value to their offspring. In practicing the science of dairy cattle breeding parents are not equal when it comes to which one is the most important when deciding upon a herd’s genetic improvement plan (Read more: What’s the plan? And Flukes and Pukes – What Happens When You Don’t Have a Plan, and Pick The Right Bull – Your Future Depends on The Decisions You Make Today!).

3 Factors Determine Genetic Advancement

On a simplified basis, the rate of genetic advancement in a dairy herd is primarily a function of three factors: 1) the superiority of parents; 2) the accuracy of the parent’s genetic indexes and 3) the generation interval expressed as the time between the birth of the parent to the birth of the calf. Dairy cattle breeders have, in the past, placed a priority on intense selection, but today with genomic information generation interval is necessary.

Four Pathways for Improvement

In a population of dairy cattle there are four groups, commonly called transmission pathways that are considered when determining the overall population rate of improvement. These pathways are: 1) the Sires of Bulls (SB); 2) the Sires of Cows (SC); the Dams of Bulls (DB); and the Dams of Cows (DC). Breeders do not have equally accurate information on each pathway and definitely do not apply equal selection intensity for each pathway.

Which Breeding Scheme is the Best?

The following table outlines the importance of the different pathways for three improvement schemes when animals are ranked and selected using total merit indexes like TPI, NM$ and LPI.

Comparison of Genetic Improvement Schemes

Pathway Selection % Accuracy Generation Interval Relative Emphasis
1. Traditional Progeny Testing Program
Sires of Bulls (SB) 5 0.99 7 44%*
Sires of Cows (SC) 20 0.75 6 22%
Dams of Bulls (DB) 2 0.6 5 31%
Dams of Cows (DC) 85 0.5 4.25 3%
Relative Total Merit Genetic Gain per Year = 100%
2. Genomic Testing Program
Sires of Bulls (SB) 5 0.75 1.75 34%
Sires of Cows (SC) 20 0.75 1.75 23%
Dams of Bulls (DB) 2 0.75 2 40%*
Dams of Cows (DC) 85 0.5 4.25 3%
Relative Total Merit Genetic Gain per Year = 185% to 200%
3. Genomic Testing Program with IVF
Sires of Bulls (SB) 5 0.75 1.75 30%
Sires of Cows (SC) 10 0.75 1.75 20%
Dams of Bulls (DB) 2 0.75 2 36%*
Dams of Cows (DC) 10 0.62 2 14%
Relative Total Merit Merit Genetic Gain per Year = 225% to 250%

* Pathway of most importance The Bullvine appreciates the assistance of Dr. Larry Schaeffer, University of Guelph, in providing information for the above  table. Further details can be found in Dr. Schaeffer’s 2006 paper “Strategy for applying genomic-wide selection in dairy cattle,” Volume 123 of Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics.

Progeny Testing has Served Breeders Well

Breeders have been successful when they used the results of the traditional A.I. progeny testing programs. That is when only elite sires are used to produce bulls (SB) for progeny testing, each year newly proven sires are used to produce the heifer calves (SC), Dams of Bulls (DB) are elite indexing milking females and the bottom 10-15% of the cows in the herd are not used to produce replacement heifers. (Read more: Why you should get rid of the bottom 10% and  8 Ways DNA PROFILING Your Whole Herd Will Improve Your Breeding Program) most important pathway, by quite a distance, is the Sires of Bulls (SB) at 44%. Combined the sire pathways (SB & SC) account for 66% of the total genetic progress. That is opposite to what many breeders say ‘Sires are not as important as cow families. The cow family, in a herd, dominates.’

Genomics gives 185 – 200%

Over the past five years, breeders have become familiar with the program whereby the genomic indexes on young animals are used for animal selection.  Even though this program is much discussed, it has been implemented on less than 10% of the farms in North America. In Holsteins, less than 7% of calves registered are genomically tested. Breeders are obviously not confident with the lower accuracies and the much shorter generation intervals. So let’s dig deeper to see what the facts are when it comes to rates of genetic improvement. With the genomics program the relative importance between pathways shifts to where the Dams of Bulls (DB), at 40%, is the most important followed next by the Sires of Bulls (SB) at 34%. Again in this program, as in progeny testing, very limited selection pressure is applied to Dams of Cows (DC), pathway resulting in only 3% of the total progress. The relative ratios of improvement from sire and dam pathways is 57:43. The telltale important fact is that by using a genomic program the rate of annual genetic gain is 185% to 200% of what can be achieved by using the traditional progeny testing program. Another important difference between these two programs is that considerable money can be saved by only having to progeny test less than half as many young bulls with the genomic testing program.

Adding IVF gives 225 – 250%

Some breeders add IVF to their genomic selection program however due to costs and the challenge of mating carefully to avoid inbreeding it is not for everyone. The accuracies of this program match those of the genomic testing program, but the selection intensities are increased for the Sires of Cows (SC) pathway and greatly increased for the Dams of Cows (DC) pathway. For all pathways the generation intervals are short, something many breeders state as being a concern.  These farms use IVF on maiden heifers to produce all of the next generation of animals. Again the most important pathway is the Dams of Bulls (DB) at 36%.  However, the differences between emphasis on the pathways is narrowed. The ratio of emphasis sires to dams is 50:50. Farms employing this program can have annual rates of genetic gain of 225% to 250% compared to what is possible for herds using a progeny testing program. To fund this more expensive program breeders often sell surplus embryos or animals.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Determining which parent pathway is the most important rests with which testing and selection program a breeder wants to follow. For breeders using the traditional progeny testing program by far the most important animals are the sires of the young bulls (SB) that enter A.I. progeny testing programs. For breeders wanting to advance their herds at a faster rate by using the less accurate genomic information and shorter generation intervals, the dams of the bulls (DB) is the most important pathway. No matter which program a breeder chooses it is important to have a plan and always use the best available animals.



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For the past two years we here at the Bullvine have been warning breeders about changes that will come as a result of large A.I. companies and other genetic corporations owning top females.  The comment that many breeders come back to us with is,”I will take a “master breeder” over some geneticist any day.”  As well they say,   “If it was up to the geneticists, we would never have had sires like Goldwyn.”.  Well we here at the Bullvine decided to take a closer look to see who the true master breeder is.  Is it the Geneticist or is it the Seed Stock Breeder?

What makes a true master breeder?

For years the Master Breeder award has been one of the most coveted awards given out by breed associations.  This award is the pinnacle of success for any purebred breeder.  In Canada there have been 924 Master Breeders shields awarded since its inception in 1929.  While Holstein USA does not have a master breeder program, it does have the Elite Breeder Award, bestowed annually upon a living Holstein Association USA, Inc. member, family, partnership, or corporation who has bred outstanding animals and thereby has made a notable contribution to the advancement of the Holstein breed in the United States.  As well it designates the Herd of Excellence award which recognizes registered Holstein breeders who have bred and developed excellent herds made up of cows with superior type and production.

Except for the AltaGen herd, run by Alta Genetics, which won a Master Breeder shield in 2001, all the winners have been seed stock producers or, in the early years, government herds.  But now, with the large A.I. companies and genetic corporations entering into the ownership of top females, this could be about to change.  (Read more: Should A.I. Companies Own Females? And Why Good Business for AI Companies Can Mean Bad Business for Dairy Breeders)

Who owns the top genetics?

If you look at the top genomic index lists over the past 2 years, you will see six names consistently producing the top index animals.  The names include De-Su, S-S-I (Select Sires), EDG (Elite Dairy Genomics now managed by Sexing Technologies), Alta Genetics, ABS Global, and the Co-Op program at Genex.  Over the past year, more than 50% of the top 100 females have been owned by one of these companies.  The interesting fact is that all but one, De-Su, is either a large A.I. company or a genetic corporation.  So it is clear to see that these companies have already entered and are starting to win the race.

Now I know you are probably saying that just owning the top females does not make them a master breeder.  And I agree it doesn’t.  But what it does do is give them control of the genetic advancement race.  (Read more: The Genomic Advancement Race – The Battle for Genetic Supremacy and What the Experts Will Tell You about Who Is Winning the Genetic Improvement Race)  Sure there are some who think “Breeders can still breed a better next generation than the corporations can with all their number crunching and statistics.”  That is because many feel that the geneticists at these corporations lack one key element and that is cattle sense.  The knowledge that comes from working day in and day out with cows.  The cow sense that makes cattle breeding part art form and part science.  In my opinion, that is correct!  Unfortunately, correct or not, it doesn’t matter.  What really gives the geneticists at the large corporations the edge is the resources that are at their disposal.

It’s a question of resources, not cattle smarts

Let’s take a look at the typical seed stock producer versus the geneticist and just see who will produce that next list topper.  The seed stock producer can probably afford to flush each animal 3-4 times per year in order to produce the next generation of great ones.  Given typical ratios that would mean about 10 females a year and let’s say 10 males a year.  Therefore, that breeder would have 20 progeny to compete with against the large genetic corporations.  Now let’s look at the case for the large genetics corporations.  First of all they already own the majority of the top genomic index animals so that they are already starting ahead of the game.  But, more importantly, they can afford to flush their animals 10+ plus times a year.  This gives them at least 50 plus females and over 50 males (and possibly 100 of each) to submit to the ranks of the genomic test gods.

It’s not that they are better about making sire selections, it’s that they can afford to flush each donor cow to every possible sire thus making sure they have all their bases covered.  So yes I would not be surprised to see that the resulting ratios and consistency numbers of the Seed Stock producers end up being as good or better than that of the geneticists at the large corporations.  However, geneticists at the large corporations have much greater resources at their disposal and, therefore, can afford to keep shooting until they get it right.

Of course there are   those of you who are more discerning and say, “Let’s see who produces the better proven sires.  After all that is where you find the true measure of a master breeder,” To them I say, look at the semen sales in the world today.  More than 50% is genomic test sires.  A bull getting a good daughter proof is less and less important, when it comes to winning the genetics race.  (Read more: The End of the Daughter Proven Sire Era)

Another key factor is the significantly increased genetic reliabilities due to the introduction of genomics.  In the past these geneticists were using data that was 30-40% reliable.  Now with genomics the information is more than double that, taking what once was a scientific crapshoot, into an artful science.  (Read more: The Truth About Genomic Indexes – “show me” that they work!, Genomics – Lies, Miss-Truths and False Publications! and The Genomic Bubble Has Burst?)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The real question isn’t really about who are the better breeders.  The real question comes down to who has the biggest pocketbook.  Since the large A.I. companies have greater financial resources than those of the seed stock producer, they can afford to invest significantly more in order to win the genetic race.  The time to have changed this situation isn’t today.  The time to do something about it was two years ago when we told breeders that these corporations owning females would spell the end of the seed stock producers.  It was a good business opportunity that was taken by the A.I. companies.  They now have a relatively cost effective source for top genetics over which they have exclusive control.  So, while the seed stock producers may be the better master breeders, unfortunately they may not be around long enough to enjoy their victory.



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What Color Do You Bleed?

Friday, May 31st, 2013

There is no question dairy breeders as a whole are a very passionate group.  For the most part, it’s not a “line of work” you get into for the money.  Between the equity burden and the long hours, it also doesn’t appear to be a “sexy” choice in the opinion of outsiders looking into the industry.  But the one thing that all those who are in the industry know is that breeders are also extremely loyal.  And the one area where most breeders demonstrate this insane loyalty is to the A.I. companies they purchase their semen from.  They pretty much bleed the colors of the A.I. company they support.

Such brand loyalty is something companies like Apple and Coke would die to have.  While these two massive global brands spend billions in marketing to build brand loyalty, A.I. companies have done it in a very different way.  They have done it through generation after generation of brain washing.  That’s correct brain washing.

Is there any difference in the major A.I. companies?

Recently my staff was working on some brand research for GE and I gave them the exercise to look at the Artificial Insemination market and look at each of the major A.I. companies and tell me how each company was different.  You know what they found?  Nothing!  For the most part they are all within 5% of each other for product offering.  While some do offer a few more services, they all, for the most part, offer the same service.

This really got me to thinking, and remembering my days of running the roads selling semen.  It actually made sense.  When I went into herds that were well established and had been operating for generations, they pretty much bled the color of their local A.I. cooperative.  However, when I went into herds that were new to the industry or herds where the operators came from other countries, I found them much more open to what I had to say.

While many of the companies are trying to position themselves differently in the market like Wal-Mart, Apple and Amazon in reality there really isn’t any difference.  (Read more: A Wake-Up Call to All A.I. Companies)  Even in our article, Semex – The Rise and Fall of a Semen Empire, we highlight how Semex grew rapidly and developed an extremely loyal following around the world by being different, by breeding “the Canadian Kind”.  However, as they got bigger they started to lose their focus on what made them different and now from an outsider looking in it would appear to be no different from all the rest.

Thinking about this I wonder how much breeders are limiting their genetic advancement due to loyalty to a certain A.I. company?  Yes there is not a great difference when you average out the top sires from each company, but why do you seek to be average?  Wouldn’t it be best to just use the best each company has to offer and forget the rest?

I think part of the problem is that there seems to be very little difference between the top sires.  Something I was shocked to see is that Canadian Dairy Network actually accentuates the issue.  Instead of promoting how the LPI formula was better at spreading out the top sires and differentiating them, they actually adjusted the formula to make them all closer?

Now I have had it said to me that this was done at the request of the large A.I. companies because they wanted to sell more proven sire semen and needed the genomic test sires to look less attractive.  There is some logic behind this, because young sires do produce less semen and there always seems to be a limited supply (Read more: $10,000 a dose Polled Semen and $750 Dollar Semen! Are you crazy?).  But the breeder in me says, “What’s more important marketing semen or genetic advancement?”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Sure the A.I. companies will give you nice hats, maybe even a few coats and shirts, but is that enough to trade your future for?  As we have more and more options of companies to purchase semen from, and more and more ways to purchase the semen, I ask you three important questions.  ”How much of your semen purchase is dictated by tradition or brand loyalty?”  Moreover, “Is your decision based on what is genetically best for your herd?”  And finally “Who bleeds for your bottom line?”


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There is no question that when it comes to understanding what cows will transmit and what cows will not, it is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.  There is much that we don’t know and some would argue it is not meant to be known.  The problem is, for those of us with a passion for breeding great dairy cattle, we want to know it all.  For that I turn to the three greatest genetic geniuses in the history of the world, Darwin, Mendel and Hunt (No they are not a law firm).

Charles Robert Darwin He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

Charles Darwin

Ask anyone in the world to name a geneticist and the first name that comes to mind has to be Charles Darwin.  No better demonstration of Darwin’s theory of evolution exists in the world than in dairy cattle breeding.  While there is no question that artificial selection and selective breeding exist on a daily basis, a cow’s ability to reproduce and produce milk leads to a natural level of selection that epitomizes Darwin’s theory.  “The laws governing inheritance,” Darwin wrote, “are for the most part unknown.”  Moreover, while many modern geneticists have theories about the tendencies of the modern Holstein cow, their genetic transmission pathways in large part remain a mystery to this day.

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel

Then along came Gregor Mendel who introduced the concept of “genes” to explain heritability.  Mendel changed the whole way we look at breeding when he introduced the theory that the chromosome is the carrier of genetic traits.  He also explained why a trait can disappear in one generation and reappear in the next and why these traits occur in a three-to-one ratio.  One of Mendel’s disciples, three quarters of a century later, was Thomas B. Macaulay.  Macaulay conducted his own studies, on his Mount Victoria Farms (Read more: Mount Victoria Farms – The art and science of great breeding).

Thomas Hunt Morgan

Thomas Hunt Morgan

Then along came Hunt. Well, more specifically, Thomas Hunt Morgan, but my ego wouldn’t let this go as my name is Andrew Morgan Hunt (Read more about my ego: I’m Sorry But I’ve Had Just About Enough Of… ).  In research that is now reproduced by grade 9 science students around the world, Morgan introduced the concept of X and Y-chromosomes.  Morgan concluded that a female has two X chromosomes and that males have both X and Y-chromosomes.  He also posited that the male of the species, because of the presence of the Y chromosome, transmits differently than the female.

To get a better understanding of this, let’s look at this from both sides of the story.

His side of the story (XY)

If you look at Holstein bulls throughout history you find four distinct patterns:

  1. Great daughters but no legacy sons
    These are the bulls that sired amazing brood cows but none of their sons were able to continue their genetic legacy.  Examples are Hanover-Hill Triple Threat, Carlin-M Ivanhoe Bell, and Braedale Goldwyn.  They all were able to sire brood cow daughters beyond compare, but no real sons to advance that genetic legacy.  Why did these sires seem to produce better on the female side than that of the male?  For that we need to turn to Morgan and his X and Y chromosome theory.  Since the Y chromosome is the only one that is inherited solely via the paternal  line, this leads  some geneticists to believe that it carries little genetic information, and as a result  a great sires genetic legacy rest more with his daughters than with his sons.  Therefore, with this first group of sires it is thought that much of their genetics were transmitted on the X chromosome rather than the Y.
  2. Great sons but not as many brood cows
    Bulls that sired outstanding sons but never produced a top daughter.  A couple of great examples of this are Montvic Rag Apple Sovereign, Maizefield Bellwood and O-Bee Manfred Justice.  All of these sires have left outstanding sons, but are not found as often in the maternal sire stack of the great sires.  There is no question as to their genetic contribution to the breed, but it was more as a sire of sons than their ability to leave an equal number of brood cows.
  3. Sons and daughters both extraordinary
    These are the sires that have gone down in history as the all-time greats.  Sires like Johanna Rag Apple Pabst, Governor of Carnation, Montvic Chieftain, Wisconsin Admiral Burke Lad, A.B.C. Reflection Sovereign, Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, Pawnee Farm Alrinda Chief, Walkway Chief Mark, Hanoverhill Starbuck, Madawaska Aerostar and Maughlin Storm.  These are the bulls that not only displayed personal greatness but were also able to transmit both outstanding brood cows as well as legacy sons.
  4. Sons and daughters that were inferior
    Sons and daughters that are both below average.  These bulls left inferior daughters and as a result were never even given the chance to produce sons.  Bulls in this category are too numerous to mention and loads of their daughters go to the slaughterhouses every day.  No explanation necessary other than a lack of genetic merit and here enters the need for genomics (Read more: The Truth About Genomic Indexes – “Show Me” That They Work).

Her side the story (XX)

The female side of the story uses the same four distinct groups.

  1. Great daughters but no legacy sons
    These are cows with outstanding female descendants but undistinguished males.  Great examples of these are the cow families of Hanover Hill Papoose, Krull Broker Elegance and Plunshanski Chief Faith.  They all were able to leave outstanding female descendants generation after generation, but were never really able to accomplish the same feat on the male side of the story.
  2. Great sons but not as many brood cows
    These are the cows with potent transmitting sons, but daughters who didn’t outperform the average.  Examples of these are Wylamyna Tidy Kathleen (dam of Sir Bess Tidy and Sir Bess Ormsby Tidy Fobes) Lakefield Fobes Delight (dam of Lakefield Fond Hope, Lakefield Fond Delight Fobes and Carnation Royal Master) and Pawnee Farm Glenvue Beauty (dam of Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief).  All of these cows had outstanding maternal lines but for some reason were just not able to transmit that legacy through their daughters.
  3. Sons and daughters both extraordinary
    Among the females in this category are Glenridge Citation Roxy, Mil-R-Mor Roxette, Comestar Laurie Sheik, Braedale Gypsy Grand and Snow-N Denises Dellia.
  4. Sons and daughters that were inferior
    Cows who, in terms of influence, failed to produce anything worthwhile.  Blame it on lack of genetics, bad breeding, improper management, or just bad luck, these cows just didn’t influence the breed. We have all seen examples.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

There has never been a clear explanation of why some bloodlines seem to transmit better through maternal lines, others through the paternal, and still others do well in both.  Even genomics does not answer this.  There are high genomic animals that still have these same tendencies.  Maybe if we could genomic test the genes on each chromosome we might find the answers?  Until then Genetic Transmission in the Holstein Cow will remain a mystery.

To read more about this get a copy of The Holstein History by Edward Morwick and read the chapter on Inheritance Patterns.

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


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