Pick up any dairy magazine or go to any online dairy information site, and you will see numerous ads for milking using robots. In fact, even the ads for sires contain reference to the fact that a sire is Robot Ready as it relates to his daughters being friendly to being milked by a robot. But is it wise to only breed cows to accommodate machinery? Let’s dig deeper when it comes to breeding cows for systems and machines of the future.

Robotic Milking

The first robots were installed in herds of sixty or fewer cows and were an adaption of claw type milking machines. Difficulties were encountered when the machine could not find or attach to the teats or when the milk stimulation was not adequate, and the machine detached before there was milk letdown. Owners routinely complained about cows where the rear teats were too close, and the machine could not determine which rear teat to attach to. Often valuable cows with close or touching rear teats had to be culled from herd breeding programs.

Robot Friendly Sires

A.I. mating and marketing programs adapted and coined the term robot ready for sires whose daughters were more suited to robotic milking. As well after some experience with their robotic milking systems, breeders also removed from their breeding programs sires that produced daughters that had short teats or whose udders were too deep or too shallow to be milked by the robot. Sires, like Planet, who leave close rear teats, short teats and sometimes deeper udders were not used as much as their high TPI or NM$ indexes would warrant. Sires like O Man and Ramos were more desired as they left wider rear teat placement than normal even though the teats cold be somewhat short. Other bloodlines, like Shottle and Goldwyn, did not have problems with robotic milking, as their females had more middle to the quarter teat placement, and teat length was at least average.

Milking Machine Technology Advances

Over the past decade, there have been significant advances in robotic milking technology. The systems remember a cow’s physical configuration and know how to attach successfully. As well machines now exist that do not use the claw cluster principal and therefore are not limited by height or distance. Today’s robotic milking systems not only milk the cows and discard non-saleable milk, but they also collect almost endless amount of data that can be used for cow and herd management and also for breeding and feeding.

If a new milking system is in your future, whether in a single box unit or in a parlor, and you do not make breeding decisions based on show ring type, it may be time for you to reconsider trait emphasised in your breeding program. With milking machine technology advancing quickly and with less than 0.5% of North American dairy cows culled for poor udder conformation, then why continue to insist that your cows need to have show ring udders? Deeper in front, unbalanced side to side, only milking on three quarters or teats not hanging plumb, machines will milk them all.

Breed for Your Own Situation

No two breeders have the same dairy farming scenario or plan. Often genetics is asked to make up for management deficiencies and appropriate priorities are not attached to the traits included in the herd’s breeding program. It is your farm, and you need to decide on the traits and the emphasis allocated to them. If there is more than one trait given the lead emphasis then genetic progress will be significantly reduced. TPI, NM$ or LPI are not a trait and are best used to short list the sires that could be used.

Breed for Profit

For the vast majority of dairy farms, the length of time a cow is productive in the herd has a very significant affect on profit. If there was data captured on the heifer herds and genetic evaluations done using that data then, profit per lifetime could be used in breeding decisions. In most herds increasing the length of productive life by one lactation would reduce herd turnover anywhere from 25% to 50%. Thereby the number of herd replacements and size of the heifer herd could be reduced by 25% to 50%. The resulting cost savings for the dairy enterprise could be from 8% to 16%. That’s huge.

Have a Sire Selection Plan

Consider the following plan when you next purchase semen. Short list the bulls in the gTPI, gLPI or NM$ sire listings to those that are in the top 20 to 30 sires.

Lead Emphasis: Use the index for productive life (PL in USA or HL in Canada) as the lead selection criteria. Those indexes are a combination of factors that determine profit as they are the summation of all things reproductive, health, production, mobility, and conformation.

Secondary Emphasis: The three areas, in order of the importance for breeding, are: production (fat plus protein yield); fertility (FI in USA or DF in Canada); and health (SCS in USA or Mastitis Resistance in Canada)

Useful Information: Traits that can be used to fine tune mating decisions include: Udder Depth (deep udders are detrimental for udder health and cow mobility); Rear Teat Placement (rear teats too close together can create problems for milking); Teat Length (teats too short and too long can both create problem for milking); Milking Speed (slow milking cows lengthen the time to milk a herd); Foot Angle (deep hoofs are associated with less foot infection, less hoof trimming and superior cow mobility); Rear Legs Rear View (cows that walk straighter are more mobile and push the udder out of position to a lesser degree); and Maternal Calving Ease (MCE in USA or DCA in Canada. Bulls’ daughters that give birth easier lead to fewer health problems for both dam and calf, fewer deaths at calving and save on labor costs)

Any other traits are simply chrome for the majority of dairy farmers.

Sire Rankings Using Productive Life

The following tables rank North America sires for productive life (PL in USA and HL in Canada). In developing these lists, only the top ranked sires for gTPI and gLPI were considered.

Table 1 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Daughter Proven gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
6.72337571693.42.8260.71 S0.44 C-0.10 S1.050.88
Wright9.62355631485.32.655.2-0.21 D0.13 C0.48 L0.62-0.33
Petrone7.52361549453.82.685.91.26 S0.93 C0.14 L1.411.5
Denim7.323566158252.715.60.33 S-2.58 W1.95 L1.140.16
Erdman6.92260631913.62.777-0.36 D-0.09 W-0.81 S-2.1-0.55
Shamrock6.72304565663. S2.08 C-3.24 S-0.260.04
Robust6.325047671301. S1.14 C-0.76 S11.72
Sapporo5.92248438434.52.867.70.88 S1.19 C-1.15 S1.060.61
Freddie5.62349533614.62.915.30.71 S-0.20 W0.72 L2.341.83
Dorcy5.5233952771-0.12.798.61.75 S1.43 C1.05 L2.452.27
Epic5.322964495322.886.31.50 S0.37 C0.65 L2.861.57

Wright stands out as the clear leader for PL. The sire stack Freddie x Wizard also rings the bell in #3 position. The other sire stack with two on the list (#2 and #10) is Super x AltaBaxter. These ten proven sires produce daughters that remain in herds 202 days longer than the breed average and are sires that on average also produce daughters that are high for fertility, health, production, conformation and maternal calving ease. Robust leads in production but need to be watched for SCS. Shamrock with both close and short rear needs to be correctively mated for those areas.

Table 2 – Top 10 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 30 Genomic gTPI Sires (Dec ’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
8.426878201083.62.7151.66 S1.33 C-1.12 S1.881.48
Motega9.82665790774.42.685.22.83 S1.03 C-1.62 S2.142.44
Charismatic9.128099851521. S0.19C-1.80 S2.672.37
Halbert92702770825.72.624.22.02 S2.39 C-1.01 S0.780.54
Director8.3275988213242.844.71.31 S2.22 C-1.66 S1.090.46
Troy8.32650788963.62.6661.42 S0.62 C02.842.19
Dozer8.226508051072.92.565.81.22 S1.02 C-1.25 S1.571.34
Multiply8.2263577310032.855.82.45 S0.80C-1.01 S3.442.72
Tailor7.92634740933.32.614.71.62 S2.59 C-0.46 S1.40.81
Delta7.827098731322.42.775.51.00 S1.34 C-1.55 S2.261.46
Santano7.826527921114.42.823.70.79 S1.12 C-0.81 S0.610.51

Two points stand out when looking at Table 2. Firstly it is expected that the daughters of these sires will stay in herds 257 days longer than average. Even if we regress that number down, as we know genomic indexes are perhaps 10% overestimated, it is still a wow number. The other point of note is the fact all these bulls were sired by genomic sires and in some cases it is a genomic sire on genomic sire. On average, all the indexes are very high but it should be noted that rear teats are indexed to be both close and short. An outstanding group of sires than can be used to increase herd life.

Table 3 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL) Sires from the Top 20 Daughter Proven gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV 
Lego11229581171041071073 S9 C10 S97014
AltaRazor1112962139961021092 S5 C3 L10255
Gillsepy1092981134981021022 S5 C097136
Boulder10929121291071011013 S5 C10 L10412
Freddie10928851161121021075 S5 W010748
Dempsey1092856621001071057 C5 C5 S101912
Phoenix10828711381001031034 S7 C9 S9525
AltaCaliber10829019610510410810 S6 W2 L10783
Average10929161161031041055 S3 C1 S10157

These eight sires are all within the top 6% of the Canadian population for Herd Life. Freddie has done an excellent job of improving productive life and appears in both Tables 1 and 3. In Table 3 his daughter fertility stands out at 112. All the sires are rated above average for yield, fertility, and mastitis resistance. Among the eight there are sires that can be used to improve traits where females in a herd may be lacking.

Table 4 – Top 8 Herd Life (HL( Sires from the Top 20 Genomic gLPI Sires (Dec’14)

NameHLgLPIF+P YieldDFMastitisResistDCAU DepthRTPT LengthM SpeedFoot AngleRLRV
Average11635031811091031096 C3 C010187
Penmanship12135001631131041077 S2 W1 L10797
Rubicon11635961981101011114 S5 C2 S102813
Supershot11635421991081041103 S3 C3 L9876
Brodie11635251901071021073 S3 C3 L9854
Boastful11635001821101021118 S1 C010171
Flattop11634301671071071057 S1 C2 L10278
Kobra11635001581101031098 C5 C3 S1011211
Modesto11534301911071001114 S2 C3 S9767

The list of sires in Table 4 are, simply put, outstanding for improving Herd Life. As in Table 2 all these eight bulls are sired by genomic sires. On average, they excel for all traits included in the table. The trait where these sires shine, as compared to the sires in the other tables, is in Feet and Legs. Kobra, Rubicon, and Penmanship are particularly high for feet and legs. The fact that all these sires are rated at 105 or greater for daughter calving ability and at 107 or higher for daughter fertility is very impressive.

Table 5 – Top 5 Productive Life (PL) Sires from the Top 20 Genomic Polled gTPI Sires (Dec’14)

NamePLgTPINM$F+P YieldFert IndexSCSMCEU DepthRTPT LengthFoot AngleRLRV
Layton6.52429611862.32.8261.29 S0.44 C0.26 L0.591.14
Harpoon62281574801.42.776.11.68 S0.79 C-0.86 S0.430.86
Champ5.922824222532.617.13.05 S1.14 C1.71 L0.570.6
Homerun5.323455801000.62.827.40.83 S-0.20 W0.52 L-0.910.53
Gremlin5.32286581961. S0.91 C0.33 L0.070.14
Average5.82325554771.82.786.41.39 S0.62 C0.39 L0.510.65

First off it needs to be said how quickly Holstein polled genetics is improving. All are polled by horned crosses and show how breeders are moving to incorporating polled into their herds. Unfortunately, none of these bulls are PP but still using these sires will leave half their daughters polled and each one of the five has strengths that can match breeders’ needs. Layton stands out a clear leader. He is just now a year old and hopefully will soon have semen available. If production is a breeder’s choice for their first secondary trait, then Homerun is the leader.

Clearly there are many many sires on these lists that will increase the rate of genetic advancement for length of productive life.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Both dairy farming and breeding are changing at an ever increasing pace. Considerable pressure is being placed on on-farm margins with decreased milk prices and increased costs. Ways must be found by breeders to eliminate costs and losses. Breeding cows differently for the future will be required in order for dairy enterprises to be viable and sustainable. Using increased length of productive life as a primary selection tool needs to be part of every breeders plan in breeding for profit.


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