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Could Breed Wars Be Heating Up?

Various dairy media reports, including recent Hoards Dairyman and breed journal articles, have documented differences between breeds in both performance and trends. The question remains “What factors will influence breed choice in the future?”

Tradition Has Ruled

We often hear breeders and show judges say “A good dairy cow is a good cow no matter what the color.” Is that true? Do you agree? If passion determines your answer, then you will not likely agree with the ‘anything works’ philosophy.

Breeders are usually not color blind when it comes to seed corn, haybines, barn cleaners or computers. Our forefathers were not tied to breed when they started move from dual purpose to milk production breeds in North America, one hundred years ago.

For this article, I ask that you set passion aside and consider the factors that may determine the breed of choice in the future.

The Players

Although there may be ten or a dozen dairy breeds around the globe, it basically comes down to two breeds. Holsteins and Jerseys. These two now account, in North America, for just short of 99% of purebred animals on the farm.

Table 1 Percent by Breed of Cows on DHI

1988 2013
Ayrshire 0.6 0.2
Brown Swiss 0.9 0.8
Guernsey 1.4 0.2
Holstein 91.4 89.1
Jersey 5.3 9.5
Milking Shorthorn 0.1 0.1
Red and White 0.3 0.1


So the breed of choice is between the Holstein and Jersey breeds. Why have Jerseys gained in popularity? Was the gain because of what Jerseys did or Holsteins did not do? Why have the other breeds dropped in market share? Think about that – it could be a combination of many factors.

Jersey Breed Not Standing By

Almost twenty years ago Jersey Canada had a slogan ‘a brown cow in every barn’. Moreover, during the last two-plus decades American Jersey has put considerable resources into marketing of Jersey milk and promoting payment based on the component content.

In 2014, Jersey Canada and a University of Guelph economics professor published a study report that claimed that Jersey herds can be slightly more profitable in the Canadian supply management system. Recently Hoards Dairymen published an article showing Jerseys yield $66 more profitable per cow per year in the large herd environment of California.

Holstein Breed Satisfied

While Jerseys have been aggressive about competing for market share, Holsteins have seemingly looked the other way. Holsteins have been satisfied, confident and perhaps even complacent. They are assuming Holstein dominance will prevail without the need to: 1) promote the strengths of Holsteins; and 2) remove from their breeding population animals with significant limitations (i.e. negative DPR, negative PL, lower component yields, …, etc.).

Why Crossbreeding Happened

It is estimated that 4.5% of dairy animals on DHI test in the USA are crossbreds. The proportion may be even higher in non-recorded herds. Based on the numerous reports on crossbreeding it is obvious that cross breeding came about because of limiting factors of purebreds. Even though the benefits of heterosis are short lived, one generation or two generations when a three-way crossing program is used, crossbreds have provided dairy enterprises the opportunity to increase profit in a short period.

The F1 black beauties sometimes called Hojo’s, as the Holstein x Jersey cross is known, have been popular for dairy farmers focusing their attention on fertility, component percents, younger calving age for heifers, less time spent in dry cow pens and the cost of maintaining larger body mass animals.

If there was some way for Hojo’s to breed true perhaps both Holsteins and Jerseys would be challenged for market share. That could be possible once we know more about how to use the DNA information. Time will tell.

Future Challenges for Breeds

The future of dairy farming and the genetic makeup of animals on a global basis promises to be much different than in the past. How breeds prepare genetically, beyond solids yield and productive life, will be significant in determining which breed comes out ahead.

Here are a seven change makers to think about:

  • New Breed
    Some Holstein breeders currently will not use a sire that does not have 100% North American lineage. And it is only within the last few years that Jersey Island breeders have allowed the registration of animals sired by Jersey sires from outside of Jersey Island. Are breeds so sacred that they cannot be improved upon? Perhaps purebred breeders have missed an opportunity in the past to bring new genetic material into their chosen breed. Then again could there be a move to a new composite breed in the future? It has happened in beef, why not in dairy?
  • Genomics
    Gene level study of the gene makeup of animals is here to stay. Realistically it is even more than that. It will be the driving force to moving genetics forward at a very rapid pace. (Read more: Forget Genomics – Epigenomics & Nutrigenomics are the Future) From the Holstein Canada 2014 Annual Report, it can be seen that about 8% of animals being registered were also genomically tested. That percentage is far too low given that parentage can be verified, genetic defects can be tested for, 60–70% accurate transmission patterns are available and that in the future genomic information will be used to make feeding and management decisions. Breeds need to be progressive and move the percentage genomically tested up to 50% by 2020. This is the Information Age and the breed with the facts will have the advantage.
  • Animal Nutrition
    Considerable work has begun to study the role that genetics can play in enhancing feed conversion efficiency in dairy cattle. In 2014, Holstein USA started rating bulls for FE (Feed Efficiency) which considers the extra production of a bull’s daughters less feed and maintenance costs. We can expect to learn a considerable amount about the topic of feed efficiency over the next few years. Some believe that there are breed differences but as yet that is not proven. However, if one breed shows superiority for converting feeds to milk, then it could be a big leg up for that breed.
  • Reproductive Ability
    We already know that the Jersey breed, through the bloodlines they have used, out-do Holsteins reproductively. Jerseys breed at an earlier age and have higher conception rates. The race is on. For Holsteins to identify bloodlines that are reproductively superior within the breed ….. for Jerseys, through genetic selection, to improve their already lead position. It behooves both breeds to give reproduction added attention. If they stand still then, a composite breed might ride to the lead position for reproduction.
  • Environmental Factors
    Dairypersons are familiar with information on carbon footprint, pollution, water usage, heat and cold stress, nutrient management, the cost of transporting the water in milk… etc. Although today we do not have facts and figures on animal or breed differences on these matters, our industry can expect that we will learn more about them in the future. Breed associations need to assist in the development of animal and breed information in these areas.
  • Health & Immunity
    Breeders have, for some time, had information on animals and breeds about Holsteins have the advantage in number of breed leading sires that have low SCS ratings. Immunity to disease information on sires is now being used or watched by breeders. We are in the infancy of knowing more about breeds and their ability to resist diseases, including production limiting diseases. Breeds need to be prepared to retain accurate health and immunity genetic information on their data files and, no doubt, to include them in total merit indexes.
  • Animal Maintenance
    All breeders want a cow that does not require special attention. High maintenance pampered cows must be a thing from the past. We often hear about cow families that are promoted as low However, there is usually little hard data to support the promotion. If a breed can genetically identify that their cattle require less labor and attention across a whole herd, then it would have a selling point.

Breeding Strategies

Currently, Holstein and Jersey breeding strategies are mainly limited to production and conformation. The breed, which expands its breeding strategy to include some genetic information for the factors mentioned previously, will position itself for increased market share.

One total merit index (TPI, LPI, JPI, NM$, Pro$… etc.) will not satisfy all breeders within a breed. I read with interest the comment on The Milk House by Hei-Bri Jersey (Iowa, USA) “Jersey is a breed that is two breeds within one. The show or the go. We see an enormous drop in first lactation production when using showring bulls. I think producers that buy the wrong style for their operation are the ones missing out on the true Jersey cow.” Can the same be said for Holsteins?

The Immediate Future

Predicting the future, as to breed dominance, is not a perfect science. However, the proportion of current semen sales is a good indicator.

Table 2 USA Dairy Semen Sales*

Holstein 83.50%
Jersey 12.60%
R&W / Red & RC Holstein 2.40%
European Breeds (3x) 0.60%
Brown Swiss 0.40%
All Other Breeds 0.50%

*Total sales 23.64M doses (Domestic 98.8% + Imported 1.2%)

Table 2 shows that Jerseys, at almost 13%, has the potential to grow in market share. Having said that it could be that a portion of the Jersey sexed semen sales may now be used on Holstein cows to produce crossbred females. At the very least, the increased proportion of Jersey semen sales should be taken seriously by the Holstein breed.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Today breeds are more than color markings, unbroken lineage, and tradition. Breeds in the future, on a global basis, will be about their genetic makeup and how they serve the needs of the dairy food industry.

Accurate visioning, strategic planning, research & development and effective service provision are all integral to what breeds need to do on a continual basis. If that means there will be increased competition for market share amongst breeds, so-be-it.



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