meta Can you breed a healthier cow? :: The Bullvine - The Dairy Information You Want To Know When You Need It

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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