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The Bullvine: Evolution vs. Revolution

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Change is inevitable.  Anyone who denies that will be left behind!  And even though the dairy industry is stereotyped as one that is “behind” other industries, in reality the dairy business has evolved significantly in recent years.  Technological advancements such as smart phones, tablets, GPS systems and robots have radically affected our day to day lives and, inevitably, how we farm.  Nevertheless, there are still those among us who refuse to evolve.  They hide their heads in the sand and are missing the revolution that is modernizing agribusiness.

Since starting the Bullvine we have had the opportunity to meet many people from all facets of dairy life.  From producers, to seed stock breeders to industry members, the dairy industry is certainly where you find amazing examples of people who are passionate about this incredible industry that we are all part of.  While there are many characteristics that unite us, change is the one area where I see the greatest differences between us.  On the one hand, there are those who prefer a slower more evolutionary approach to change.  They are happy to take calculated incremental steps towards change.  And, on the other hand, there are those who prefer a more revolutionary approach.  These are the ones who are ready to run with the latest technology and be at the front of the line.  Change for them is always moving forward.  Making adjustments. Getting better all the time.

Genomics is another area that defines our different approaches and highlights the variation that can separate even those who have the same ultimate goal. (Read more: Dairy Cattle Genomics)   While some producers have embraced genomics to a point where the majority of the semen used on their farms is from genomic young sires, others have not been so fast on the uptake.  They have decided to take a wait-and-see approach on genomics until more substantiated proof is available.  While there are merits to both methods, the strongly held opinions and significantly different approaches can only be settled by the results produced.  And … that takes time!!!

Speaking of strong opinions, many more of those opinions have been pushed to the forefront as a result of articles we have written here at the Bullvine.  While regular readers certainly recognize that we have taken a much more revolutionary approach to genomics, we have also taken a much more revolutionary approach to how we run our magazine as a whole.  We don’t do a print edition. We provide all our content free online and we let passion drive what we write about not who pays us the most money.  This is certainly a revolutionary approach compared to most of the options available to dairy breeders.

There is no question that our content has been revolutionary as well.  As the year winds down and we take a look about at some of the most popular articles of the past year (Read more:  Top 13 of 2013 – The Bullvine’s Most Popular Articles of the Year) and some of the top editorial choices (Read more:  EDITOR`S CHOICE 2013 – The Top 12 Picks from The Bullvine) there is no question that revolutionary is the best word to describe the overall flavor of the content we produce. In fact I can confidently say that if you took these 25 articles and compared them to all the other articles our competitors produced, there is no question that they would stand out for their unique content and unbiased perspective.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Since starting the Bullvine we have always tried to take a revolutionary approach to change, as opposed to that of our competitors that are stuck in their evolutionary mindset.  It’s with this aggressive approach to change that we have many new and exciting things planned for 2014. We will continue to drive change instead of simply trying to keep our heads above water.  In the coming year we plan to bring our revolutionary perspective to all aspects of the dairy industry as we increase our coverage of the key issues that all producers face.  We greatly appreciate everyone who joins us and cheers us on in the revolution.  We look forward to sharing the insights, passions, frustrations and visions that will power the dairy industry throughout 2014.


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Dairy Cow Behavior –Nature vs. Nurture?

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Which animal behavior type do you prefer to work with on your farm? The meek, the aggressive, the laid back, the eager calf that bunts the milk bottle out of your hand, the cows that get to the feed bunk first and stay there the longest …etc?. Perhaps the question should be “are animal behavior related traits something that cattle breeders need to be paying more attention to as they continue to replace people in their barns with machines?” If they are important, then more thought needs to be given to capturing field observations so we can have actual facts to base decisions on instead of some random comments in sire catalogues about a bull’s daughters’ behaviour characteristics.

New Technology

Each year breeders add new machinery or procedures to their operations in order to cut costs or increase revenue. The cows are simply expected to adapt and keep on producing large volumes of milk, fat and protein and get back in calf. Of course all the time doing it more cost efficiently.  Well it just does not work that way.  So breeders must cull the animals that do not adapt to the robotic feeder or milker, the new loud noise, the isolation in a pen, the crowding in pens and the list goes on.  Seldom is the behaviour of our animals given a second thought when breeders make a change.

Behavior – Management or Genetic?

Recognizing that management plays a role in animal behaviour, we do need to ask ourselves if there are genetic difference between sires in how their daughters react to and cope with the daily routines and procedures on farms.

University of Guelph researchers and Holstein Canada, in 1985, surveyed breeders on behavioural traits and from the findings determined heritabilities of 0.16 for milking temperament, 0.12 for ease of handling and 0.11 for aggressiveness at feeding.  The study also showed a strong correlation between milking temperament and ease of handling. From that research, milk recording in Canada started collecting breeder assessment of milking temperament on the second test day for all first calvers.  Sire proofs for milking temperament are calculated by CDN. That has proven to be helpful information as no breeder wants cows that kick the milking unit off, do not easily settle to the milking routine and are not easy to handle or move.

In 2012, Kees van Reenan, Wageningen University reported that, based on many researchers’ studies, balanced breeding for animal lifetime profit includes selection for three main areas: i) milk production, ii) temperament / behavior (which includes animal fearfulness, ability to cope with stress & socially interact with contemporaries) and iii) fitness (which includes health, fertility and longevity). Breeders are already quite aware that selection for lactation milk yield without regard to fitness has left us with animals that may be inferior in health and longevity but definitely are inferior for fertility. With van Reenan’s findings we can also see that, if we do not include animal temperament and behaviour in our selection indexes, we could well be limiting our genetic progress for lifetime profit. In his research report heritabilities for temperament and behaviour are reported as moderate, similar to the Canadian study mentioned above. However the same old problem still exists – we do not have farm data to use to genetically evaluate animals for behavioural traits.

Let’s switch to beef cattle for a moment. Renowned Colorado State Animal Behavior Professor Temple Grandin reports that beef animals that remain calm in the squeeze chute when being weighed or worked with have 14% higher weight gains than agitated animals. Part of her studies also report lower fertility and poorer meat quality for the agitated cattle group. Since we do not have data for dairy heifers we do not know if fearful heifers, when under stress, may have lower fertility.

The take home message from research is that behaviour involves both management and genetics and it points to the need for more studies into dairy cattle behavior and how it impacts profitability.   

Stress On Farm

Since the topic of animal behaviour is not frequently talked about in breeder circles, it can likely be said that breeders do not routinely think of ways to minimize animal stress. Breeders talk about the stresses associated with a cow having a difficult calving, with lameness and with mastitis. However what about the stress on a calf after a difficult birth, of boss animals on their pen mates, of the fear of isolation, of loud rough farm staff and of a host of other factors.

The approach breeders often take is to allow animals, that do poorly due to stress, to self eliminate. Yes breeders want calm, not easily stressed, animals but in designing their buildings and selecting their sires they may not be giving adequate attention to animal behaviour and temperament.

Where Does This Leave Breeders?

Only in the Nordic Countries and Canada are there genetic evaluations for temperament. So the vast majority of breeders, around the globe, do not have access to genetic information for behavioural traits. Since we do not have genetic evaluations based on farm data we can not even calculate genomic indexes from DNA profiling.

All breeders can do is: i) not raise heifers that themselves or their family’s exhibit poor behaviour or temperament (link to not raising all heifers article); ii) redesign their facilities or management to minimize animal stress factors; or iii) cull problem animals.

Some sires with high ratings for milking temperament in Canada include:

  • Long-Langs Oman Oman-ET             113
  • Picston Shottle                                    112
  • Amighetti Numero Uno-ET                110 (DGV)
  • Zahbulls Alta1stClass-ET                   110 (DGV)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The area of animal behavior could definitely benefit from more thought and study. At both the farm and research levels, there needs to be input. Until there is data captured at the farm level and genetic evaluations are produced, breeders will only be able to address this problem from a management perspective or by culling otherwise valuable animals.  Knowing the genetic answers to animal behaviour problems would have the benefit of giving both breeding stock and milk production focused breeders the opportunity to enhance on-farm profits.


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By definition, being strategic requires that you look forward — identifying trends, opportunities, and threats. That’s how good drivers drive on super highways and it’s how good breeders keep moving forward too. You can choose the less risky route of staying in the parking lot but you won’t get anywhere. Here are a few ways to keep your herd moving toward the future.

Check out your blind spot

By the end of next year, even the skeptics will have to admit that genomics, smart phones and tablets are here to stay. The early adopters and best-practice breeders are using these devices. They love being able to see all incoming e-mail, social messaging, text messaging, and voice and video messaging in a single place. They`re using them as the new resource to learn about and manage almost every aspect of cattle breeding.

Traditional Marketing will Decrease.  New Marketing will skyrocket.

As dairy breeders zero in on genomics, finding the leaders, at the right price in the right location and instantly … will change the face of dairy cattle marketing.  The twice a year showcase or the every three to five years  reduction sale will gradually give way to a marketplace that is in “sell” mode 24-7 and 365 days of the year.  Sellers will move beyond single page ads, special events and the cattle ring for promotion as a whole new breed (pun intended) of niche players will be born with the intention of providing the best results from your advertising dollars.  The days of a few key players topping the markets with their well orchestrated, for-your-eyes only live marketing events will gradually give way to on line live video interviews, marketing and promotion one-on-one. Rather than the traditional “one-size-fits-all” advertising strategy, a targeted personalized approach will be required if you expect to have a reasonable chance to sell in the new marketplace.

Genomics will increase its impact by becoming more focused and data driven

Most dairy breeders recognize that genomics is a tool to improve selection. As results become more refined and defined the potential impact will have even more converts.  Global economic issues will be with us for years to come and that too will drive genomics development to target more and better ways to breed great cattle to their highest potentially in the fastest, healthiest and most economical way possible.

The Global Marketplace has attracted the Big Players

The continued growth of technology, social media, and easy communications now makes it possible a dairy breeder in China to come to your barn, see your cows and complete a sale with no middle men, expensive “tire-kicking” trips or costly international time zone, travel and financial issues.  Today it’s take-a-look and complete-the-deal. With the whole world able to look over your shoulder in your barn, big business definitely sees the potential and is ready to grab a piece of the pie.

Dairy cattle research is picking up speed

Remember the good old days (that would be 10 years ago) when we had to sit through breeder meetings and association animal meetings and hear about the difficulties of getting the right research done at the right time and at a reasonable cost?  Industry and government were supposed to be pulling together to fund research that would have an impact on more than the scientific community. Sometimes breeders were skeptical, or unaware, of the practical applications.  Remember CAAB?  Genomics has changed all that.  Now not only are the money streams more accessible and flowing, the really big players with the really big bucks are ready and willing to become the new best friends of the cattle breeding industry.

Farm Branding is the Express Lane to Success

You can no longer hope that a few expensive colour layouts in a magazine will give you the profile you’re looking for to sell those also expensive genetics that you’re investing in. Having good genetics, a great work ethic and savvy cow sense, is no longer enough to have you speeding through the rapidly expanding crowd where everybody says, “Been there. Bred that!”  The increased use of social media and digital marketing will be the new way for the cream to rise to the top.

The Buyer Experience

In the past, you knew who the “players” were and the rest didn’t blip on your radar.   Today, you’ve got one chance to make a good first impression.  You never know when someone’s phone will capture a video and or audio of your inventory (is that what she “really” looks like?) and share it around the world. You could try keeping your doors selectively  closed but that will send a message too and it could be a negative one!  You are caught between the camera and a hot place!

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Forward-looking decision-making: Although hindsight is 20/20, if you’re moving ahead you cannot spend your time looking backward at what happened in the past. The dairy business of the future is following the growth signs:  market supply and demand; new dairying technologies and genomics to name a few. This forward-looking focus will not only improve decision-making but will lead the way to a future that is built on the past but moving way faster than we ever though possible.  Keep moving on the dairy industry express lane or you could be stuck on the off-road ramp or, even worse, left in the parking lot!


Before the recent Kueffner Kows at Cowtown Sale Horace Backus, commented that he had never seen anything like it in all his years!  “The quality of every animal and the homebred breeding was just so good.  Just before the sale started, I took a moment to walk through one of the lines of cows while it was quiet and everyone was already gathered in the tent.  I stood looking at a line of maybe 40 animals, and thought I was standing at Madison seeing that many great cows all together.”  These comments reminded me of the ones he made before the 1998 Hanover Hill Dispersal where Horace said, “In the history of the Holstein Breed, there have only been four or five herds that have created a distinct blood herd.  Today we are selling a distinct bloodline herd.”  This got me think will there ever be another distinct bloodline herd?

Over the years, the marketplace has changed greatly.  The improvements in technology have been incredible.  It is now easier than ever to market, compare and transport your genetics to anywhere in the world.  To get a better understanding how each of these will play into the potential of having another distinct bloodline, we decided to take a closer look at each one.

Marketing to the World

In the era of Hanover Hill era buyers did come in person from around the world.  The world has changed greatly with the Internet.  I often wonder what a great marketer like Peter Heffering would have done in today’s time.  The ability to market to a much larger audience through the internet and Facebook is expanding the marketplace.  You are no longer just selling to the person next door or in the same country or the few who are able to travel to buy.  You are often selling to people half way around the world.  And more importantly than where they are, is how quickly and easily you can reach them.  You no longer have to run magazine ads in each country’s major breed magazine.  Today you simply post a quick smartphone picture, or better yet video, on your Facebook page and share it with the world.

Cross Country Comparisons

One of the things that contributed greatly to each country or region having its own distinct bloodlines was that the ability to compare performance data on in each country presented challenges.  In previous generations, it was hard enough getting everyone to talk in the same units (ex. Lbs. vs. kgs.) let alone the fact that they had different methods of evaluating things.  Then came Interbull and MACE proofs. That started to open up the marketplace, but for some the confidence in the MACE system was not there and for the most part most countries still had regionalized breeding and evaluating systems.  Then came genomics that has given breeders around the world the confidence no matter where the bull was proven to use him on their cattle.  We now see that there is no longer a negative stigma in North America on foreign proven bulls.  Moreover, many of the great international cow families are gaining significant respect in the North American marketplace, especially as sons of these cattle have proven themselves well on the North American genetic base.

Transportation of Genetics

All the great marketing and evaluation systems in the world mean nothing if you cannot get the genetics to the consumers.  Artificial insemination had a drastic impact on the ability of breeders to develop distinct bloodlines.  Instead of just running your own breeding program where you sell the odd breeding bull, artificial insemination meant that when you sold that bull to an AI center, he would now be able to reach the world market.  With AI companies also becoming less regional or country focused and more world focused, that meant you could sell a bull in Chicoutimi Quebec and his semen could be used in Kamifurano Japan.  Breeders no longer had to develop their own bloodlines and could draw on the best bloodlines from around the world.  Furthermore, as embryo transfer technology advanced you could also import and export embryos and further accelerate your breeding programs.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Today breeding herds like De-Su limit the amount of genetics they sell and AI organizations like Select Sires are entering the female animal ownership side in order to develop a distinct product in the marketplace.  Nevertheless, I truly feel that with the overall changes in the global marketplace we have a much more level playing field through evaluation systems and technology and, therefore, it is highly unlikely that we will see the achievement of a distinct bloodline at the level reached by Hanover Hill.


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