For far too long the dairy industry has neglected to capture and transmit to a central data base calf and heifer data. It is time to do a full-scope analysis of what is needed for the genetic improvement of calves and heifers. The result will be dairy farmers with calves and heifers that will positively contribute to long-lived productive trouble-free cows and profitable dairy herds.
Setting the Scene – The Cost
Herd replacement costs range from 15-20% of total herd costs. Every dairy worker knows that a sick calf can take an exorbitant amount of time. Is that calf sick because of genetics, nutrition or environment? Calves and heifers are important when it comes to herd profitability. And currently, we know only a limited amount genetically when it comes to the best calves and heifers.
Even More Perspective – Time is Money
Currently, the average number of lactations per cow in the North American herds is about 2.8 lactations. This means that the time prior to first calving equates to 45% of a female’s lifetime. When and if the average was 4.0 lactations for an average milking cow’s productive life it would be 32% of time spent pre first calving. If knowing more about heifer genetic merit for additional traits would add even half a lactation to a cow’s lifetime – that would be significant.
Heifers – A Cost or An Investment?
Most often when reporting on calves and heifers, the number provided is the cost to first calving. Currently the cost is estimated to be $2,200 (US) to $2,400 (US).
Yet costs are only a part of the financial equation. Important, but seldom mentioned, is that calves and heifers are an investment. Maximizing heifer ROI in today’s dairy economy is a must do.
The question becomes what can be done in next 2-5 of years in capturing and analyzing heifer data to maximize their ROI?
Current Heifer Genetic Indexes Are A Good Start
For some time now breeders have had genetic indexes on some traits that affect calves and heifers including: (sire) calving ease; daughter calving ease; sire stillbirths; daughter stillbirths; and genetic defects/haploids. These have been developed due to the need to primarily to avoid the death of calves are the time of birth. Recently CDCB has added a trait called EFC (early first calving). Yet these do not address the heifer rearing challenges associated with growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, health, immunity and morbidity.
Although the heritability for these traits is quite low, considerable progress has been made from when the majority of Holsteins could be a problem calving for the first time. Results included the possibility of a dead calf or a calf that was a ‘poor doer’ that did not reach its genetic potential. Sire calving ease (CE & CA) has received the primary attention. Even though daughter calving ease (DCE & DCA) has been reported it is unfortunate that it has not been given more attention in sire selection. Hard first calvings can severely hold back first calvers from achieving peak production and in quick breeding back.
Breeders have available to them sire rankings for calf related health indexes calculated and published by Zoetis. Table 1 reports the top proven Holstein sires for: overall calf health (CW$); calf respiratory problems (C RESP); calf scour problems (C SCOURS) and calf livability (C LIV). There are many genomically evaluated sires that have even higher indexes for CW$.
Table 1 – Highest Ranked US Proven Holsteins Sires for CW* (Dec ’19)
|Rank / Sire||C RESP**||C SCOURS||C LIV||CW$|
|1. Frazzled (7HO12788)||110||105||109||63|
|2. Petrone (7HO11169)||106||105||109||53|
|3. Megaman (7HO13302)||107||108||106||51|
|4. Winston (7HO13326)||102||105||111||50|
|5T. AltaCraig (11HO11749)||108||105||106||46|
|5T. CashFlow (534HO00033)||105||102||110||46|
|7. AltaCR (11HO11434)||112||101||105||42|
|8T. Atwood (7HO10506)||108||109||102||40|
|8T. Rev-Me-Up-Red (566HO01231)||107||104||106||40|
|10T. AltaTopShot (11HO11779)||111||104||103||39|
|10T. Diamondback (7HO12587)||104||108||105||39|
Notes: * Date Source – www.holstein.com; ** 100 is the average rating for sires.
The Immunity Plus program (Semex) reports that the sires, designated as Immunity+, show 4-8% superiority for many heifer and cow performance limiting health related diseases.
Other Young Stock Genetic Indexes
The Angus Breed has an extensive program that capture data and produces genetic indexes for growth (birth, weaning and yearling), feed conversion, fertility, carcass, functional conformation, health, and temperament. It has been a key factor in Angus having an excellent branding program.
As early as the 1960’s, Norway was performance testing all dairy bulls, entering its young sire sampling programs, for growth, fertility, health and hoof growth. The young sires were initially selected based on the parents’ milk production ability but only the top half of the sires based on their own performance had semen collected and were sampled to determine their daughters’ performance. This screening continues in the present day in Viking Genetics cattle improvement programs.
A recent study in New Zealand reported on the benefits of high fertility male and female lines compared to low fertility lines. High fertility lines reached heifer puberty 21 days earlier and 55 lbs. lighter than low fertility lines. High fertility line females in first and second lactations had 30% more pregnancies six weeks after first breeding than low fertility lines. This research supports the moves by many A.I. not to return to proven service low fertility sires even though their total merit indexes may be high.
New Traits for Calves and Heifers
The potential list is long. Every dairy farmer will have 1 to 3 performance traits they wish to improve in their calves and heifers. Which traits would add to the profitability of your herd? Calves that resist disease? Calves that grow faster? Calves with more functional feet? Heifers that have their first heat at a younger age?
It would be beneficial if young A.I. sires could also be evaluated before semen is sold for their own ability to grow and resist disease. Genomic indexing will be important when adding new heifer traits. Almost every A.I. company is working on some trait to genetically improve calves and heifers.
New Technology Will Provide Usable data
Currently there are automated calf feeding devices that have considerable information for calves from birth to weaning. We can expect to have many new monitoring devices, cameras and management softwares in use on-farm in the near future. There will be data that will have significant benefit for management at the farm level and improvement in the industry. The data for new traits will need to be uniformly defined and it needs to get to the central data system.
Organizations Must Act
The way forward will require data captured on-farm, the data transmitted to the national data bases and then analyzed and reported for benchmarking and genetic advancement purposes. If this process is not part of the national system, then the calf and heifer data systems will be taken on by breeding companies in order to support their services and products.
Animal improvement organizations are procrastinating in moving this matter forward. Why is that? This inaction should not continue.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
The dairy cattle improvement industry must expand the focus from primarily the milking herd to all animals covering from birth to removal from the herd. And as the dairy herd expands to be a larger portion of the meat production industry, the data needs to be more than just milk production focused.
Breeders, milk producers and industry organizations need to insist that the matter of monitoring and sharing of calf and heifer data be given a much higher priority in research and development.