Archive for Dairy Cattle Breeding Strategies

Can We Create Holstein Blood Lines to Feed The World?

Are we missing out on an opportunity to exploit the genetic potential of the Holstein breed worldwide?

Opportunity Knocks

There is already robust global trade among countries involving semen from Holstein bulls and embryos from Holstein cows. This market is competitive and profitable for those that understand its needs and cultures.

Much of this market is in countries that have businesses, organizations and agencies that are members of Interbull These countries had an estimated 44.5 million milk cows in 2017, based on the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. This is a large market, but it leaves out nearly 85% of the world’s milk cows.

Fine Tuning Holsteins

Holstein cows can be found around the world, but when one digs a little deeper to see why there aren’t more, it seems likely that the breed is missing some traits, genes or characteristics that just don’t fit some parts of the world. Maybe there is a lack of heat tolerance or a lack of resistance to some diseases or parasites. Maybe it’s associated with a need in parts of the world for cattle to provide power for ploughing and hauling, but it leaves out nearly 85% of the world’s 290M milk cows.”

Or maybe it is a reluctance of Holstein breeders to break out of there shell of purity to create cattle that will serve much of the world more efficiently. This is no longer a dilemma in some other agricultural species like chickens and pigs because the breeders and breeding companies that serve these species have developed different lines to meet different needs within and among countries. We’ve seen the same thing with soybean breeders where different lines of soybeans have been developed for different latitudes and climatic regions of the world.

Four Cattle Climate Zones

Climate experts have looked at the globe and classified the types of climatic zones that exist worldwide. The experts say we have 5 zones, but only 4 of those are tolerable for cattle. The Polar Tundra may be tolerable someday, but not in the foreseeable future. That means that we have only four climate zones to serve worldwide. Four! That’s right: 4! We even have 3 of those zones in North America. Every continent has at least 3 of the 4 zones. That makes the problem of creating lines for different climate zones simpler.

The global map shows the zones and their locations. We’ve numbered these from 1 to 4 and put numbers in various areas to illustrate the zones within a single country or region. If one looks carefully at North America, South America, Africa, Asia or even Australia, you will see multiples of the four zones.

The Challenge Is Doable

Four lines of Holstein cows! That does not seem too challenging, particularly with the huge amount of global data that we already have and the number of countries around the world that are already engaged in Interbull and similar organizations.

So how do we get there?

First, most of our existing Holstein cows fit well in the Cold Zone (Zone 1). That represents lots of the Northern Hemisphere. We just need to continue focusing on improved health and fertility and enhance components for Line 1.

Zone 2 is temperate, and we’ve generally used housing and cooling technologies to allow Holsteins to do well in these areas. Worldwide there is a lot of temperate land base, and as we see warmer temperatures in the summer in many regions, such as we’ve seen in Europe over the last two years, it may be time to put some heat-tolerant genes in Holsteins in these regions. Some breeders and universities have already done that, but we need to make it easier and simpler to do some crossbreeding to get desirable traits without taking too many generations to be called a “Holstein line”. Today’s genomic tools will allow us to do that more efficiently and effectively, potentially by screening embryos before they are transferred so that we get the most desirable of genes quickly.

The Dry Desert (Zone 3) is filled with Holstein cows today, but there are some traits that could be enhanced for cows in these zones. Solar stress may be their greatest challenge and when one adds that to the internal heat generated by rumen fermentation, it becomes a challenge for the cow to dissipate heat, even in a climate with low humidity. Traits like increased sweat glands, changes in color pattern and even changes in digestion efficiency may be important in these areas. Zone 3 also comprises countries in Africa that have millions of cows. Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Tanzania collectively have 34 million milk cows! That is a huge marketplace. We need to know a lot more about what traits they need to meet their needs.

The Tropical Zone (Zone 4) is characterized by high humidity and high temperatures year-round. There are very successful dairies in these regions where Holsteins have been crossed with native breeds. They can grow a lot of forage, but often it has lower digestibility. The traits needed in this line are probably already reflected in some of the local crossbreds that one sees. Upgrading those a bit may be a quick way to create this line

Four Holstein Lines – Advantages / Disadvantages

What additional advantages would be derived from creating four Holstein lines?

  • We could greatly enhance the ability of various countries to provide high-quality food for their residents while adhering to some of their traditional practices.
  • We would introduce greater genetic diversity into the breed and potentially prevent “genetic crashes” that could occur because of limited genome sequences in some DNA segments on some chromosome in the breed.
  • We could help our industry be prepared in advance as our climates change and our own farms transition from one zone to another as future generations take over the farm.
  • We could help breeders develop some specialized lines for the non-traditional global market – a market which will grow a lot in the next few decades.
  • Advances in using genomics to evaluate crossbreds will be a big advantage in such an undertaking.

What are the disadvantages?

  • Holstein breeders might begin to look more like hog, chicken and soybean breeders. Is that good or bad? It is probably a bit like reality television. People may not like the concept, but they tune in!
  • The Holstein Associations may have to loosen their rules a bit. They have already discovered that there was a 10-20% error rate in sire or dam ID when genomics started being used broadly. Maybe 100% purity needs to be rethought. If you have an 80% chance of winning the lottery, maybe you would still buy a ticket.

Lines Must be Created Through Selection

Can we do this with gene editing? Nope! Most of the traits that are of interest to us are controlled by many, many genes. Gene editing can work well for one gene, but not for 10 or 20 or 30 that might control some trait of interest. We will need traditional breeding with high levels of genomics before mating and after birth of the calves to do this correctly.

Lines are different than line breeding! Linebreeding typically traces back to a bull or cow over multiple generations. Lines are developed by focusing on certain traits and environmental situations to meet the ultimate needs of the farmers and their customers.

Let’s Get Started

Do our Holstein breeders and organizations have the courage to jump into this pond and swim to the other side, not knowing what is beneath the surface? It is a bit like July 20, 1969. “Tranquility base here, The Eagle has landed.” It was the vision of getting to the moon and back that drove this accomplishment. No one knew how to do it when they started. But they started!



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Should You Breed for Feed Efficiency?

Feed costs account for nearly 55% of the daily cost for a milking cow. As well feed costs contribute to a significant portion of daily costs for calves, heifers, and dry cow. Daily margins are currently under severe pressure, and it is only a matter of time until breeders start asking their genetic suppliers for facts and figures on how to select for animals that are superior for converting feed into growth, milk and milk solids. Breeders are now hearing or reading claims by breeds, genetic suppliers, and even other breeders that their genetics are the best buy for feed efficiency. But is there evidence to support those claims?

The Bullvine feels it is time to collect and comment on some of the known facts and the areas where breeders can expect to see information on feed conversion efficiency.

What History Tells Us

Breeds of dairy cattle have been developed over centuries and are an adaption of bovines to the regions they originated from. Whether is was an island, country or continent, all breeds were developed mainly based on the climate, the crops available or the milk and/or meat products produced. Measurements such as feed intake were not collected on an animal by animal basis to determine which animals were the most efficient at converting what they ate into meat or milk.

So, in fact, history tells very little about any breed’s feed conversion abilities or any of their differences in ability to convert feedstuffs to meat and milk energies that humans can utilize. The data for analysis does not exist. Therefore, to date, breeding for feed conversion efficiency has been by impression or at best by indirect selection using other documented traits.

Feed Efficiency – What is It?

Michael VandeHaar from Michigan State and his five associates (from U of Wisconsin, Iowa State, MSU and Wageningen UR) have produced a very complete and forward-looking paper called ‘Harnessing the genetics of the modern dairy cow to continue improvements in feed efficiency.’ They published it in the Journal of Dairy Science in April 2016 (JDS 99:4941-4954). Some summary excerpts from that paper follow.

“Feed efficiency is a complex trait for which no single definition is adequate. Generally, feed efficiency describes units of product output per unit of feed input, with units being mass, energy, protein or economic value. For dairy cattle, the primary product is milk, but the energy or value of tissue captured cannot be neglected. Losses or gains of body tissue can result in misleading values of feed efficiency if the only product considered is milk. Feed efficiency should be considered over the lifetime of a cow and include all feed used as a calf, growing heifer and dry cow and all products including milk, meat, and calves.”

There is much to consider in the previous paragraph, but VandeHaar also adds “In addition, we should consider that feed efficiency is more complicated than just feed and product. At the farm level, economic efficiency is clearly a priority.”

More Facts about Feed Efficiency

VandeHaar and Associates also report.

  1. “Feed efficiency, as defined by the fraction of feed energy or dry matter captured in products, has more than doubled for the US dairy industry in the past 100 years.
  2. This increased feed efficiency was the result of increased milk production per cow achieved through genetic selection, nutrition, and management, with the desired goal being greater profitability.
  3. With increased milk production per cow, more feed is consumed per cow, but a greater portioned of the energy is used toward milk instead of maintenance or body growth.
  4. The dilution of maintenance has been the overwhelming driver of enhanced feed efficiency in the past, but its effect diminishes with each successive increment of production relative to body size and therefore will be less important in the future.

Predictions about the Future for Determining Feed Efficiency

VandeHaar and Associates make some interesting predictions about the future relative to feed efficiency.

  1. Research will be needed on new ways to enhance digestive and metabolic efficiency. One way to examine the variation in efficiency among animals is the measurement of residual feed intake (RFI) a measure of efficiency that is independent of the dilution of maintenance. Study on about 6000 cows by the VandeHaar team has identified that RFI is 17% heritable – so there is definitely the possibility to improve animals through genetic selection.
  2. Cows that convert more efficiently and, thereby, are potentially more profitable, will also need to be healthy, fertile and produce a product that generates high revenue.
  3. Genomic technology will help to identify the animals that have high genetic merit and therefore the animals to be used as parents in genetic improvement programs.
  4. At the farm level, nutrition and management will continue to play a major role in feed efficiency. Animal groupings and precise nutrient balancing in group TMR’s will play a role.
  5. New computer-driven technologies that consider genomics, nutrients, management, grouping and environment will be a reality.

All of these facts make us realize that much more work must be done on feed conversion efficiency before is can be applied at the farm level.

It Goes Beyond Feed

The Bullvine called on Jack Britt Ph.D. for input on the topic of feed efficiency. He is a very respected agricultural consultant and formerly a scientist, teacher, and leader at three universities.

Britt comments include:

  • The use made of the milk produced is significant. Farm gate revenue can be maximized with high solids milk for cheese production, whereas lower solids milk is likely best when the use is liquid.
  • Conversion feed efficiency must be considered along with a host of other factors, beyond genetic, nutrition and management, including methods of harvesting forages; climate and environment; animal housing; and economics
  • As yet there is not enough data to know if feed efficiency for maintenance and growth is different than feed efficiency of milk production. Therefore, selecting for RFI based on milk production may or may not result in less feed for maintenance and growth in heifers and young cows.
  • For the immediate future, producers need to focus their attention on factors they can control including profit per cow per day; feed quality; dry matter intake; cow comfort; enhanced management techniques; improved reproduction; animal health and increased production.

Some Salient Facts

In our study of this topic, The Bullvine has noted the following important facts:

  • We can not expect to have feed conversion data for all cows. Measuring exact input and outputs for individual cows is costly. There may be hope regarding estimating feed intake. Dr. Jack Bewley (Kentucky) is currently researching using remote camera technology to capture changes in feed volume in front of cows.
  • Both inputs and outputs are important. It is profit per cow, per group or per herd that drives viability and sustainability. In the immediate term, producers are advised to think and manage regarding income over feed costs (IOFC) or return over feed cost (ROF) on a per cow, per group or herd basis.
  • Breeders can expect to see various terms used to rank sires and cows for their feed conversion efficiency. The formulae for these rankings, at this point, have only limited scientific backing.
  • Large cows must produce more milk than smaller cows of the same breed to have equivalent feed efficiency.
  • Changes in body condition scores must be accounted for in estimating feed efficiency because a cow losing condition will appear to be more efficient than one gaining condition if only feed intake is measured.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Accurate genetic information on feed conversion efficiency of dairy cattle is in its early stages. Making decisions on selecting animals for this is not recommended at this time. Expect to see genomic animal ratings in the coming years but take care to consider the accuracy of those ratings. If and when there are reliable feed efficiency indexes, expect to see them included in total merit genetic indexes like NM$ and Pro$.  The answer to the question is “NO”. Breeders should continue to focus on breeding, feeding and managing for profit using the tools currently available.



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Sire Selection: Work with the best and forget the rest!

There is considerable debate among dairy cattle breeders, whether breeding is an art form or science?  With most telling you it takes a combination of both to achieve sustained success.  The question becomes how you can improve your current breeding program to go from good to great?  The answer lies in your sire selection intensity.  When you work with only the best sires you will achieve the greatest success.

Dairy cattle breeders use science and numbers every day when they go about selecting a bull to use or when they cull a female from their breeding program. The rigor and intensity of these two acts has a great bearing on the genetic progress that a herd can make. When it comes to the genetics added to or removed from a herd, the question every breeder must continually ask is – “Am I being demanding enough?”.

You have to Apply the Science or Lose Genetic Progress

In measuring genetic progress, four factors are considered: a) the superiority (or inferiority) of the animal selected (or culled); b) accuracy, on a genetic basis, of the information used; c) genetic variation for the trait under consideration, and d) the generation interval from parents to progeny.  The sum of a, b and c is divided by d to get an annual genetic gain.

The superiority of the animals used as parents is a vital factor over which a breeder has control in genetic improvement in a trait. Only using the very best sires and dams when adding females to the breeding herd will move a herd forward rapidly for the traits under consideration. This is referred to as the intensity of selection. (Read more: The Genomic Advancement Race – The Battle for Genetic Supremacy Sire vs. Dam – Which has a Greater Impact on Your Herd’s Genetic Improvement?, and Impact of Genomics on Genetic Selection and Gain)

Why You Should Care about Genetic Improvement

In the future, dairy cattle breeders will be more interested in their overall herd improvement rather than in producing one or two breed list toppers or show winners, while being satisfied with their herd being just average. The focus will be on total farm profit. The dairy cattle breeding industry is seeing this change already where breeders are following programs that use sexed semen, use only top indexing sires, use only implanted embryos from elite females, use low indexing females as recipients or mothers of beef calves and select for the future generations based on economically important traits.

A.I.’s are doing the same. Some A.I.’s are breeding to get breed topping males, and others are breeding to produce top males and top females. These breeding companies want their products to provide their customers with the opportunity to maximize profit in the era of narrowing margins, automation, guaranteed product quality and feeding a hungry world.

Where the maximum rate of genetic improvement was once thought to be 1% per year, it can now be 1.5% for some traits in both Holstein and Jersey populations.

Recent rates of genetic improvement are as follows:

Table 1 Genetic Trends in USA – Average Breeding Values (Cows)

Table 1 Genetic Trends in USA - Average Breeding Values (Cows)

Notes: 1. Data Source is CDCB
2. Years compared are the birth years for females
3. * change is postive due to method of trait expression

Table 2 Genetic Trends in Canada – Average Indexes (Cows)

Table 2 Genetic Trends in Canada - Average Indexes (Cows)

Notes: 1. Data Source is CDN
2. Years compared are the birth years for females
3. * change is positive due to the method of trait expression

Breeders are effectively using genetic information to make significant improvement and, therefore, that rate of improvement is speeding up. From studying sire usage in recent years, we know that the rates will increase even more.

Is Genetic Improvement REAL?

For those breeders who question whether genetic improvement is being made, here are five places it can be seen:

  • type in the show ring
  • a lower percent of low producing first lactation cows in herds
  • improved type animals in milk production herds
  • elite brood cows leaving not two or three but many high daughters and sons, and
  • many more top indexing unproven sires are leaving top daughters and sons.

Focus, Focus, Focus on Traits Needing Improvement

In 2021 dairy farming will be considerably advanced. The cows in the herds then will face different conditions.

Given this scenario, The Bullvine recommends that breeders consider placing their focus on three or four of the following traits.

  • Fat yield
  • Protein yield
  • Productive Life / Herd Life
  • Daughter Pregnancy Rate / Daughter Fertility
  • SCS and animal disease resistance
  • Daughter Calving Ease / Daughter Calving Ability

These are key traits in order to drive up revenue or decrease expenses and extend the average length of herd life on a per cow basis.

Readers will note that The Bullvine has not included total merit indexes (TPI, JPI, LPI, NM$, CM$ or Pro$) in its trait list. The reason for not including such indexes is that they are a sum of all traits included in them, and thereby there can be animals with high total merit indexes, but that can be deficient for traits recommended in the previous list.

When Good is NOT Good Enough

Sires used today do not have milking daughters until three years from now. Their indexes must be significant pluses today just to be average by then. For example, in North America Holstein and Jersey sires must be +30 lbs fat today to be average in 2019. For PL it would be +1.75 for a US Holstein sire and for CONF it would be over + 4 for a Canadian Holstein Sire. In general, a sire needs to be 10% – 20% above the current average for a trait in order to be just average when his daughters are in their first lactation.

But average today in three year’s time will not be good enough!

The Bullvine recommends that sires used today have at least the following indexes:

Table 3 Recommended Minimum Indexes When Selecting Proven Sires

Table 3 Recommended Minimum Indexes When Selecting Proven Sires

Pick Your Sires

The following tables contain daughter proven sires that are superior for the list of Bullvine recommended traits.

Table 4 Proven Sires That Are Superior for Bullvine Recommended Traits

USA Holsteins
USA Jerseys
Canadian Holsteins
Canadian Jerseys

Breeders should set up their own list of focus traits. On-farm profit focused breeders will focus on traits where their current herd is not genetically high. While show breeders everywhere may wish to select for Holstein cows with less stature but correct conformation as 60 inches (150 cm) may be the ideal stature in five years’ time. After viewing, on-line, the animals at the recent EU Championship Show, it appears that EU breeders have already adopted having less extremely tall Holstein cows.

Since the genomic sire lists change almost monthly, it serves only a limited purpose to provide a list of top genomic sires. The Bullvine recommends that the values in Table 3 be increased by 25% for genomic sires to help balance out for the lower accuracy of the indexes. Of course the industry standard recommendation applies, do not use only one genomic sire in a herd. It is much better to buy ten doses from each of five genomic sires than fifty doses from only one genomic sire. (Read more: 4 Steps to Faster Genetic Improvement)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Using AVERAGE sires is not good enough especially when there exists the opportunity to have many more top animals in your herd by using sires that EXCEL. This also applies for the female side of breeding. Increasing the genetic merit levels required for animals selected as parents of the next generation will always pay big dividends.  By taking these actions and increasing your selection intensity, you will take your current breeding programs from good to great and see enduring success.



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4 Steps to Faster Genetic Improvement

I often see on Facebook or in the Milk House discussion group where a breeder shows a picture and perhaps some of the achievements of a cow or heifer and then asks Facebook friends or other Milk House members for suggestions on a sire to breed or flush her to. Personally, even though I love mating dairy animals, I do not answer these requests. This is not because I don’t have an opinion but because I seldom know what the animal’s performance or genetic facts are and, more importantly, I don’t know what the owner’s goals are.

For me, there are four important steps involved in improving an animal or a herd: 1. Measure first 2. Set goals 3. Narrowing the list of sires 4. Choosing the best mate for your cow.

Step #1: Measure First

Dairy cattle improvement long ago moved past the practice of only doing a quick visual of an animal before selecting a sire to improve one or two physical characteristics. The modern dairy animal is a complex milk producing machine that must tick many boxes to return maximum lifetime.

Until genomics arrived on the scene in 2008, the vast majority of breeders were satisfied to simply know the animal’s recorded performance in the milk pail and, if not official type classification, then at least any observed type weaknesses that the animal possessed. Over 95% of breeders used the actual performance results and not the genetic indexes for production and type traits when breeding cows.

With genomic indexes has come a rapid increase in the number of traits for which genetic indexes are available. No longer are production, SCS and type the only primary traits considered in improving the genetics of an animal or a herd.  In fact, for the majority of owners, those traits are today taking a back seat to additional traits such as reproduction, length of life, milking speed, inbreeding and age at first calving. As yet owners are still, in 2016, using the phenotypic value when measuring and not the genetic value for these new, front and center, traits.

The saying goes “you cannot improve what you do not measure”. Measurement has vastly improved and today much can be learned in the two years from conception to first breeding and the four years from conception to end of the first lactation. Today the question is, “Which traits are most worthwhile?” You have the option of considering feed conversion efficiency, haploids that affect fertility, age at first heifer estrus, protein composition, fat composition, ratings on early embryonic death and perhaps fertility in the very high producing cow. These are a few in an ever growing list.

In 2020 knowing a few basic facts will no longer be enough to succeed. By that time, the scope of what traits are measured will expand considerably. Breeders planning to have their herds remain current in the population will need to be measuring more and more traits. Services for measuring will no longer be only breeds and DHI, many new service providers are now or soon will be on the scene (Read more: WILL GENETIC EVALUATIONS GO PRIVATE?)

Step #2: Set Goals

The Bullvine regularly urges dairy breeders to have a breeding plan for the herd. (Read more: What’s the plan?, Are you a hobby farmer or a dairy business?, and Dairy Cattle Breeding Is All About Numbers). Just as frequently we hear back from our readers regarding their plans. Recent reader shares have told us about wanting to decrease the average mature stature of their Holstein cows. Other have shared that they are breeding for a totally polled or A2A2 Kappa-Casein herd. Still others want purebred Holsteins that conceive when milking heavily like they did half a century ago. By the way, keep those letters on goals flowing to us.

The point we wish to make in this article is that you will never arrive at your breeding goal if you do not have a plan to get you there. Take the time right now, perhaps while you are relaxing after first cut hay, to do a complete and realistic breeding plan for the next five years. Having a plan will mean that the next two steps, #3 Narrowing the list of sires and #4 Choosing the best mate for your cow, will be much easier and will have a much greater chance of being successful. A plan can be either a whole herd plan or for a portion of the herd. For many breeders, the plan may vary from cow family to cow family. In all cases, the plan should include the three (maximum five) traits that are to receive primary emphasis. Most A.I. companies have trained individuals who can work with owners to define the genetic goals, and thereby the plan, for the herd.

Step #3: Narrowing the List of Sires

It is no longer effective to choose sires simply from the top five TPI, LPI, NM$, Pro$, CM$, PTAT or DWPS$ sires and hope to achieve the goals set in #2 (above). “Why isn’t it possible?” you ask. A quick check shows that if your goal is to significantly improve your Holstein herd’s genetic merit for fertility, thus requiring a bull be one standard deviation about average, there are only two of the top five Pro$ sires that can do that. Choosing three of the top five means defeating your plan. And if your goal is to improve your herd for SCS, there are three of the top five proven Holstein TPI have a SCS index of over 3.00. You must zero in specifically to be successful.

Total merit indexes are an excellent guide to narrow the list of sires to be considered for use in a herd.  After narrowing your list of potential sires to the top 25 for the total merit index of your choice then eliminate all sires that are NOT significant improvers for your three primary traits.

Here are some example primary traits and minimum rating for a sire to be classified as a significant breed improver.

Table 1 Minimum Index Values for a Holstein Sire to be a Significant Improver

CDCB Evaluations CDN Evaluations
DPR 2.5 DF 106
PL 4 HL 106
UDC 2 MS 6

It does not matter how popular, how marketed or how high a sire is for TPI or LPI if he has genetic indexes that are significantly above average for your primary traits, then he’s not for you.

Achieving your genetic plan should be Job #1, when it comes to which sires to buy semen from. Two rules of thumb included: 1) semen price should not deter you (five doses of $100 semen will be quickly paid back when the one daughter gets in the milking herd); and 2) do not over buy on number of doses (with three index runs a year, there are always new top sires for your primary traits coming available.) If you don’t have the semen from former leaders in your tank, then you will not be tempted to use it.  Genetic advancement has never been as fast as it is today. We can expect it get even faster.  Don’t hold your herd back in the past.

Step #4: Choosing the Best Mating for your Cows

The Bullvine recommends that breeders find a mating program that uses genetic indexes for both sires and cows or heifers and that allows breeders to place added emphasis on their primary traits. Most A.I. companies have a mating program that can be adapted to a breeder’s genetic plan, and that can use any sire no matter what their ownership.

The objective should be to mate individual cows to one of the sires that have the superiority in your primary traits (see #3 above). It makes little sense to mate your -1.0 DPR cows to a sire that is less than +3 .0 DPR even if there is a remote possibility that you may get one daughter that wins your county show. County show winners most often can not garner extra dollars in the sales ring. But cows that are above average for DPR can stay in the herd longer and thereby achieve higher lifetime profit.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

All four of these steps are integral in being successful in achieving genetic advancement in your herd. You will have financial rewards every year and, as well, you will be rewarded by passing on a genetically superior herd to your successors or when you decide to sell your herd.



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Can you breed a healthier cow?

The most profitable cow on most farms is the cow the gives the greatest amount of milk but goes almost unnoticed because they do so while breeding back year after year without adverse health events.  That challenge, until now has been that we cannot accurately genetically identify these animals, until now. Breeders are asking their breed societies to do research that helps identify these cows earlier in their lifetimes.

Profitable dairy cows are fertile, productive and require minimal extra inputs to maintain their health throughout all phases of their lives.  The challenge is that the current genetic evaluation and selection systems in dairy cattle have primarily focused on production traits such as milk and protein production with only indirect predictors of health (e.g., somatic cell score, productive life,). Sure we know which cows give the most milk, and what cows last the longest, but the modern dairy cows are less ‘robust’ than previous generations. That is because we have been unable to accurately assess the genetic risk factors for economically relevant health challenges in Holstein cattle.

To accurately identify which cows last the longest and are the least amount of trouble we need to look at the top reasons producers cull cows.  The top known genetic component reasons for culling or removing cows are:

  • Low production 19.6%
  • Reproduction problems 15.1%
  • Mastitis 12.9%
  • Locomotion problems 4.5%
  • Undesirable conformation 0%
  • Bad behavior 0.1%
  • Unspecified reasons 30.6%

Yet except for reproduction, for which we have (Daughter Pregnancy Rate), we currently have no direct trait to predict mastitis, lameness, retained placenta, displaced abomasum and ketosis. Even DPR does not account for such reproduction issues as metritis.  However, all this is about to change as Zoetis has now introduced their new wellness trait evaluations as part of their CLARIFIDE® Plus genomic testing. (Read more:  ZOETIS LAUNCHES CLARIFIDE® PLUS)

What Has Changed

Zoetis has introduced six new traits that are directly connected to the key wellness issues that producers encounter.  The new traits are Mastitis, Lameness, Metritis, Retained Placenta, Displaced Abomasum, and Ketosis.  None of these have had a direct trait to assist in genetic selection decisions on who to keep and making breeding decisions on in the past. This new single genetic test will provide U.S. Holstein producers with direct comparable and viable assessment tools for assessing the genetic potential for production, health, fertility, longevity, and profitability like we have never seen before.  Producers will be able to use genomic information for more comprehensive heifer selection and breeding decisions.


When you consider that the cost of a single instance of mastitis is between $155 – $224 per case and that it occurs in 12% to 40% of lactations, the ability to now accurately make direct breeding decisions on this issue is truly game changing.  How many times have you had to cull a cow because she retained her placenta, got metritis and would not breed back and yet you had no way of knowing if she was genetically more predisposed to it than others animals?  Well, now you will know.

Where does the data come from?

Genomic predictions for wellness traits have been developed by Zoetis based on an independent database of pedigrees, genotypes and herd records assembled from commercial dairies and internal assets.  The database incorporated primarily large commercial U.S. dairy operations and included more than 10 million lactation records; 4 million cases of mastitis; 3 million cases each of metritis, retained fetal membranes, displaced abomasum, and lameness; more than 1.9 million cases of ketosis; and more than 15 million pedigree records.

Health events were assembled from on-farm dairy herd records provided with consent by commercial dairy producers. Data editing procedures to convert documented disease incidence to a standard format were developed based on a review of event codes in on-farm herd management software and in consultation with dairy production and veterinary experts.

Private vs. Independent Database Accuracy and Reliability

The first thing that will occur to many breeders’ minds is that this is a private or selected database.  While the database is certainly more from commercial than seed stock herds, it is in no way selective with any inherent herd biases.  While some metrics produced by AI organizations could come from a selective data set, this independent database is derived from a broad spectrum of herds. As well thanks to the parentage verification of genomic testing has already accounted for the large percent of records that might have been miss-identified.

Also, all the data talks to each other in one step, vs a 2 step process, allowing for more reliable results with the same amount of data. This is a cutting-edge genetic evaluation method that has become the new gold standard, and requires a lot of computer power to do.

Don’t Forget Polled

In addition to wellness traits, the new CLARIFIDE Plus includes information for the Zoetis proprietary Polled trait. Results will indicate animals as either tested homozygous polled, polled carriers, tested free of polled or indeterminate. This is an even more conclusive polled test than other options as it contains a wider range of markers for the polled gene than other options currently on the market.

Two New Dairy Wellness Indexes

Zoetis is also introducing two economic selection indexes based on these six new traits.  They are:

  • Wellness Trait IndexTM (WT$TM)
    This multitrait selection index exclusively focuses on the new wellness traits (Mastitis, Lameness, Metritis, Retained Placenta, Displaced Abomasum, Ketosis, and Polled) and directly estimates the potential profit contribution of the wellness traits for an individual animal that will be passed on to the next generation.
  • Dairy Wellness Profit IndexTM (DWP$TM)
    This multi-trait selection index includes production, fertility, type, longevity, calving ability, milk quality and the wellness traits, including Polled test results. By combining the wellness traits with those found in the current Net Merit (NM$) index, DWP$ directly estimates the potential lifetime profit contribution an individual animal will pass along to the next generation. DWP$ identifies greater genetic variation around profitability than other industry indexes due to greater description of the actual disease risk.

Using DWP$ for selection decisions can have significant financial impacts on the dairy by increasing expected profit per cow by an extra $53,000 when compared to no selection strategy for genetic selection based on NM$ parent average. In fact, DWP$ also outperforms using NM$ as your selection index with 15% cull rate by over $55 or 44% greater lifetime return.($185.65 vs. $129.72)

The Elephant in The Room

For many breeders when they choose to genomic test there are two parts to it.  Firstly, there is the ability to make culling decisions, which these new six traits and two indexes will assist in.  However, the second part is the ability to make breeding decisions.  The challenge is that currently there are only values for your animals and any sires you wish to mate your animals to do not have publically available indexes for these traits.  For example, currently if you identify that you would like to improve on lameness issues, you can cull problems, but there is nowhere to find out which sires are genetically superior for lameness.  When I asked Zoeits about this, they explained that they are indeed talking with AI units about the potential for them to test or obtain this information. However, just now the data is not available.

It will be interesting to see if Zoetis goes the route that Semex has gone with Immunity+ Plus where it became a sole use for one AI unit, or will it become like Sexing Technologies has done with Sexed Semen where they license the technology to all partners, with each putting their branding on the process. Zoetis has commented that “we are open for business” to provide testing for customers wanting our new CLARIFIDE Plus outcomes for both females and males.   The offering will be commercially available for Holstein dairy cattle and we are looking forward to overall industry adoption.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

For years many producers have been screaming for these traits and the industry side has been hesitant for two main reasons: 1) low reliability for health and management traits, and 2) the lack of verifiable data. All this data is based on user generated information and has not been supervised by any testing organization like milk recording or breed associations.  The lack of supervision indeed does enter the possibility for bias, but with genomic testing, that bias is certainly minimized.  While it appears that this change would put Zoetis in direct competition with the likes of CDCB, they insist that is not their intent, but rather they are moving to develop their differentiated solution that is more ideally fitted for modern commercial producers to complement the other core CDCB information.

One thing is for sure, with the introduction of these six new traits, breeders have greater insight into exactly what causes many of the profit-robbing and labor-intensive events that have never been accounted for under the current genetic evaluation system.  While it will be interesting to see how the industry responds to this, there will certainly be some significant changes to the genetics industry in the weeks and months to come.

Want to learn more?  Check out our upcoming webinar  “New Innovation in Genomic Selection to Reduce Disease Risks” presented with Zoetis on March 16th  & March 23rd

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Are We Getting Desired Genes Into Our Cattle?

Livestock genetic improvement is all about increasing the proportion of desired genes in the animals that breeders have on their farms. Even though this process has been occurring since animals were domesticated, it has only been documented over the past couple of centuries. With the vast majority of the improvement in yield occurring in the past seventy years.

The challenge that today’s breeders must address is how they will choose to further eliminate the unwanted and increase the proportion of desired genes in our milk producing animals. This applies to all species – bovine, buffalo, goats, sheep and yes even yaks, reindeer, and camels. Today few of us think of breeding dairy animals that are specific to their environment.

Dairy cattle breeding has gone through many stages to arrive at where we are at today with top cows that can produce over 2,200 pounds (1,000 kgs) of total fat and protein in a single lactation or have near perfect conformation.

The Bullvine looks both back and ahead at selection tools.

Advancements Made In Selection

Natural selection was a start but only a small start. Since then breeders had worked to develop animals and breeds using such tools as measuring performance, selecting sons and daughters from top cows, culling bottom enders, buying the best herd sire available, inbreeding followed by outcrossing, linebreeding and sharing elite bulls amongst an ownership group.  With all of these breeders used what their eyes told them or the actual measured performance. (Read more: 6 Steps to Understanding & Managing Inbreeding in Your Herd, The Truth about Inbreeding and Stop Talking About Inbreeding…)

Significant genetic gains have occurred since WW II when breeders joined forces to jointly work to goals and geneticists analyzed the data to determine which animals had the best genetic make-up. The sampling of young sires from elite parents moved the dairy cattle breeding industry far along the journey to having cattle capable of producing over three times their previous yields. Recently an American cow is credited with 74,650 lbs of milk, 2,126 lbs of fat and 2,142 lbs of protein in 365 days. That’s almost 205 lbs (93 kgs) of milk per day for an entire year. And it seems almost every month now that we hear about cows scoring EX95 to EX97 in numerous breeds and countries.

Cloning was a tool tried, but the cost and the fact that an animal was replicated but not improved left it in the tried but of no use garbage bin. On the other side, there is sorting of semen by sex which now is nearing perfection for producing the sex of calf desired and matching unsexed semen for the ability to obtain a pregnancy.

The opportunity for improving the genetic ability of dairy cattle took a significant step forward in 2008 when genomic facts were added to the genetic evaluation process. The animal genomic information was added to the pedigree, classification and milk records resulting in genetic indexes with 60-70% accuracy where they formerly were 30-35%. Not since the change from only using visual observation to using parent, classification and milk records as the basis for decision had the accuracy of predicting genetic merit doubled.

Will Improvement Continue?

Where will the process of changing animals all end? Well, it won’t end.

The race to having a higher and higher proportion of animals with the genetic makeup that will maximize profit in tomorrow’s world will continue.

What Tools Are On The Horizon?

Already here is crossbreeding. Many breeders have been experimenting with taking genetics from top animals in pure breeds and crossing breeds. From a Holstein base, which is the case in most countries, numerous other dairy breeds are being used on a rotational or backcross basis to improve animals especially for health, fertility, longevity and other management traits. Without effective alternatives for selection from within breeds, crossbreeding schemes are likely to become more prevalent as a way to lessen the need for individual animal care, minimizing some of the added costs associated with high production and having animals that will perform in more rugged or extreme environments.

For some dairy farmers a new breed may be the answer. In New Zealand the Kiwi Breed (a combination of Holstein and Jersey) now makes up 50+% of the dairy cow population. It could be that Kiwi or some other composite breeds may come into popular support in other countries. Could it even be that in some regions of the world there is a return to dual purpose animals, breed for both milk and meat?  (Read more: Holstein vs. Jersey: Which Breed Is More Profitable?)

Gene editing as a means of changing the genetic makeup of living beings is in the popular press at this time. The February 2nd National Post described gene editing as “… using tools to precisely edit genes inside living cells”. The National Post article added “There are a few methods but the technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 is a relatively fast, cheap and simple method that many researchers are keen to try”. On the human side the possibility for ‘genetic’ cures to miscarriages, infertility, HIV, MS, sickle cell disease and many others are a great hope. On the animal side fixing the problems by gene editing at the embryo stage sounds interesting at this moment.

Breeders and breeds need to be prepared for gene editing, perhaps as early as the next decade. For breed loyalists concerned about breed purity, it could be that the edited genes could come from selecting the ‘good’ genes from within a breed. I have had breeders, mainly in topical countries, wonder if the high milk solids percentages and heat resistance of the water buffalo could be added to our dairy cows. At this time there is are only questions and speculation. However progressive breeders always have and always will look to new techniques, as they come along, to make sure our dairy animals have the best genes possible.

What Cows Could Be On The Horizon?

Do we actually know what our dairy animals will be in the future? In fact, … NO!

But we can speculate. The Bullvine has produced many articles on what the dairy cow will be in the future. (Read more: She Ain’t Pretty – She Just Milks That Way!)

 The Bullvine Bottom Line

Improving the genetics of dairy cattle will not go away or stop. The dairy cattle breeding industry needs to be open minded when it comes to the tools and techniques that will be used to make the cows of the future.



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Why Balance Breeding is No Longer Relevant

In the 1960’s “Best to Worst” for conformation and production ranking revealed that there was a wide range in all dairy breeds. There were first calf Holstein cows that lost their median suspensory ligaments at calving time. There were Jersey first calvers that did not produce even one pound of butterfat per day. Our dairy cattle have come a long way forward in the past half century.

Balanced Breeding Got Us Here

The bottom end cattle in all breeds have disappeared. Those tail-enders were still here until the early 1980’s but then the Balanced Breeding approach came into vogue. With it came the use of genetic indexes for both production and type. This meant that genetically inferior daughter proven sires were no longer available from AI companies. Young sires only entered organized sampling programs if they had superior parent averages and progressive breeders used genetic indexes in breeding, marketing, and culling. The saying “We’ve come a long way baby” now rang true. Balanced Breeding started in North America but soon became global. Today the question has changed to “Will Balanced Breeding Still Be Relevant in 2020 and Beyond?”

What is Balanced Breeding?

Originally Balanced Breeding meant that equal emphasis was placed on type and production (milk and fat present) when making a breeding decision. It followed the breeding era when breeders would place the entire emphasis on either type or production. Yes, either or, and never the twain did meet. So even a program that placed 50% emphasis on each of type and production was a significant step forward.

Balanced Breeding usually meant using sires that did an overall good job of producing above average, but not exceptional, progeny.

Total Merit Indexes Fit the Balanced Breeding Approach

In the 1990’s total merit indexes were developed by genetic evaluation centers and breed societies to bring a reasoned and balanced means of ranking both males and females. What started out as a type and production index (often called type production indexes) has now been expanded to include many traits beyond type and production. Today every dairy cattle breeding country has, at least, a couple of total merit indexes that are routinely being fine tuned as more genetic indexes come along for more traits or as research shows that revisions are needed in trait emphasis. (Read more: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TPI AND LPI)

In fact, today it has reached the stage where there are so many total merit indexes published that bottom line focused milk producers can feel confused, dismayed or even that their genetic improvement needs are being ignored. With 20% of dairy producers producing 80% of the milk in many developed dairy countries, it is important that the genetics needed and used by milk producers not be ignored by bull breeders, female replacement breeders, and genetic markets.

Once again The Bullvine is asking, “Is the Balanced Breeding approach still relevant for milk producers?”

The Problems with Balanced Breeding

What it boils down to is that total merit indexes are a one size fits all approach. However, herds do not have the same levels of genetic merit for all traits. They do not have the same culling reasons. They do not have the same profit-loss scenarios. One size does not fit all. Add to that the fact that to improve below average cows for lowly heritable (<.10 %) traits (i.e. DPR) the sires used, in successive generations, must be very highly ranked (top 5%).  Furthermore, sires can have high TPI’s but they can be inferior for essential traits. (Read more: SHE AIN’T PRETTY – SHE JUST MILKS THAT WAY!)

Balancing gives you average, but it does not give the opportunity to rapidly genetically improve traits where a herd has a significant deficit. It is almost impossible to breed the exceptional if every breeding decision is based on getting an animal average for everything.  Balanced Breeding is least risk breeding and does not push the already exceptional to new heights. (Read more: BREEDING FOR LONGEVITY: DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE – IT’S MORE THAN JUST HIGH TYPE)

Today’s Scenario and Tomorrow’s Needs

As a result of what has been achieved through Balanced Breeding, milk producers consider udders, legs, milk and component yields and somatic cell counts to be at very acceptable levels. BUT not so for the genetic levels for fertility, animal health, disease resistance, mobility and length of herd life. In fact, they have deteriorated over the past two decades.  Today 30+% of the differences between herds for herd profit can be attributed to these lowly heritable traits.

Read any milk producer discussion blog and you will see their concerns about the genetic fall back for conception, for cows’ and heifers’ ability to resist production limiting diseases, for cows to breed back by 100 DIM, for cows to remain in the herd into their 4th+ lactation, for females that calve easily, for heifers that calve by 22 months of age and the list goes on.

Sires that can produce daughters that have the genetic ability to remain in a herd to complete their fourth lactations will increase their daughters’ lifetime profit by 33%. That is significant! (US$2,500) In US Holsteins that can be achieved by using sires that are 8.0 or higher for PL. In Jerseys the best PL sires are 6.0 or greater for PL.  In Canadian terms it means using sires that are 110 or greater for HL.

So Why Not Make It Simple? Select for High PL or HL!

Could it be as simple as using sires that rank relatively high for NM$, CM$ or Pro$ and which leave long-lived daughters? If a cow does not have good yield, functional type, good fertility, an ability to stay healthy and transition easily, she will not remain in the herd for four or more lactations.

Expressed another way – is the ability to produce for many lactation (high PL or HL) the most important trait that milk producers need to select for?

Total merit indexes are excellent tools for ranking sires according to breed society improvement strategies (i.e. TPI, JPI, LPI, PTAT or CONF) or populations outcome strategies (i.e. NM$, FM$, CM$, GM$ or Pro$) but bottom line focused milk producers need to dig deeper and find sires that will produce daughters that have the genetic ability to last an extra lactation above the herd average.

Which Are Some of the High PL Sires?

The Bullvine brings the following sires to milk producers attention. The sires in the tables below have very high PL’s or HL’s and they are positively genetically indexed for NM$ or Pro$, SCS, DPR or DF and DCE or DCA. It is quite unlikely that milk producers have ever read about the majority of these sires in a magazine ad or have ever considered using most of them.

Table 1: High Ranked Productive Life (PL) Sires in USA

11.6 gCo-op Achilles RC (1HO12267)Cabriolet x Colt P7175.52.735.16.6460.82454
10.1 gJaloa Ransom Terrific (14HO07471)Ransom x Shamrock7334.92.734.67.9670.532409
9.8 gKP-ACK AltaSousa (11HO11609)Midnight X Meteor6914.52.645.77.6571.042469
9.6 gMR Shot Dozer (151HO00696)Shotglass x Robust8182.92.556.78961.822618
9.6 gCo-op Graceton (1HO11840)Mandora x Meteor6973.82.812.86.7531.682492
9.6 gLadys-Manor Pred Latrobe (29HO17794)Predestine x Super6284.42.6556.7391.542339
9.4 pPine-Tree Warwick (29HO16315)Super x Wizard4424.42.726.36.810.582074
9.1 pDe-Su Ransom (147HO02431)Robusr x Ramos6933.
8.6 pPine-Tree Freddie Wright (7HO11123)Freddie x Wizard5955.
8.3 gDangie S-Sire Jax P RC (14HO07525)Super Sire x Colt P7072.72.694.87.3901.242496

Table 2: High Ranked Herd Life (HL) Sires in Canada

HLSire (NAAB Code)Sire StackPro$DFSCSDCAM SpeedInbrF + P (kg)CONFLPI
118 gRichmond-FD Troy BUB (1HO11648)Troy x Lithium25051102.341111048.5511783190
118 gSandy-Valley-I Plaza RC (200HO10298)Halogen x Uno22871122.2911010210.5510093111
118 gBush-Bros Miday 277 (14HO07620)Midnight x Tape24441122.571071029.0713723102
118 gSSI STL Reality (7HO13205)St Louis x Ziggy24051132.421081049.7510373082
117 gPeak Altabugatti (11HO11641)Canaro x Uno24491122.691101119.77108143272
115 gCompass-TRT Layton P (29HO17783)Long P x Robust20951102.761061027.1311592997
115 gBryhill Prde Labrinth P RC (1HO11626)Pride x Cameron19341072.881041047.0511882958
115 pCrackholm Fever (200HO05592)Goldwyn x Blitz14711052.611101016.3548122715
113 pCangen Pinkman (200HO06320)Super x Baxter22131062.641101046.08119112964
111 pMinnigan-Hills Day (1HO10458)Super x Bolton20311082.771031026.65107113048

Milk producers that milk other breeds can find top PL or HL sires for their breed by going to CDCB or CDN websites.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It is important to recognize that progressive breeders always know that if you keep asking questions — including “Is this still relevant? – That you will find better answers! Total merit index, at best, places 10-15% emphasis on PL or HL. Yet, the analysis of on-farm financial records shows that the most successful milk producers place 30-35% emphasis on length of herd life when it comes to sire selection. No breeder aims to be average.  Balancing all traits to get an average cow will not lead to exceptional genetic and performance results.



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