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Does The Current Conformation Evaluation System Work for Commercial Breeders?

Go to a commercial dairy cattle sales barn, anywhere in the world, if you want to get the low down on what successful milk producers want in the physical traits of the cows that they bid on.

At one time, you would have heard that udders were #1. However, with conformation progress, udders have been significantly improved and have been lifted to hock level in mature cows. It is likely that feet and legs are now #1 when it comes to selection. But do these breeders have good information on which to select for mobility?

Do Breeds Care about Commercial?

That’s a fair question. Do Holstein breed organizations care about what commercial dairy people want the conformation of their cows to be? The answer is, “Apparently; they don’t care!”, as proven by the fact that stature, height at shoulder, depth of rear rib and excessive angularity get an extra reward by type classification programs the world over.  This state of affairs is not surprising since type classification programs around the world have been modeled after the US and Canadian systems, where marketing often far outranks animal improvement in the use made of the information.

Other breeds may not be as obsessed with these ‘pretty’ traits, but they still want them.

Holstein US has acknowledged that there are strong positive correlations between stature and final class and stature and udder composite but, so far, it is an acknowledgment, not a plan to change. Why is that? Could it be that tradition overrules what the cows of the future need to be?

In Canada, Holstein Canada type classifies all the dairy breeds, so the other breeds will get the Holstein goal of tall cows, by proximity, if for no other reason.

I leave the final answer to The Bullvine readers to say if breeds really do care about the conformation of cows in commercial dairy breeders’ herds.

Commercial Dairy Breeders’ Needs

The Bullvine addressed this question in the article, Are You Breeding For The Correct Conformation To Produce The Greatest Lifetime Profit? From our discussion with the three breeders in preparing that article the take home message on conformation we got was:

  • The current ideal cows for breeds are not their ideal cow for conformation
  • Stature is a detriment, not an asset
  • Udders need to be what robots can milk
  • With cows milked 3x (or even 4-5x in robots) udders don’t need to be large
  • Mobility and no maintenance, not feet & leg structure, is what is needed

The Bullvine has produced other related articles on ideal commercial cow conformation including She Ain’t Pretty She Just Milks That Way and What’s Needed In Type Beyond Udders, Feet, And Legs?

So, if breed type classification programs are not concerned about serving the commercial dairy breeders when it comes to conformation evaluation what alternatives are there?

What Alternatives Are There?

Here are some alternatives to using the current type classification programs available to commercial dairy breeders:

  1. Stop classifying
  2. Stop breeding for conformation
  3. Ask breeds to immediately change the programs
  4. Ask breeds to initiate a program that only collects descriptive/linear traits on key traits
  5. Only use the information that A.I. or other companies collect for conformation

Do any of these work for you?

A.I. Caught in the Middle

At one time, some A.I. companies collected their own conformation information, and they published the breeding tendencies of their bulls.

However, for approximately forty years A.I. companies have supported and used the results from the type classification programs to select young bulls and promote their sires’ daughters.

Unfortunately, the kicker is that high PTAT or CONF are not correlated with high lifetime yields in milk producing herds.  A.I.’s are therefore caught. They use information that their primary customers do not see the benefit of having.  

This trend is also seen in the new wellness traits introduced by Zoeits.  For many commercial breeders the current CDCB official evaluations that included parentage, production, reproduction, health and type data was not accurately predicting the actual lifetime profitability of their animals.  Zoetis used on farm data that was not typically used or accepted by CDCB to introduce mastitis, lameness, metritis, retained placenta, displaced abomasum, and ketosis traits.  (Read more: The Complete Guide to Understanding Zoetis’ New Wellness Traits – CLARIFIDE® Plus and Can you breed a healthier cow?

What about Electronic Imaging?

Today with new exciting and very useful technology coming out almost monthly, why not consider something for electronically capturing animal conformation at the farm level. Surely, it’s possible.

I can see it now! A camera in the milking parlor or milking stall that snaps multiple pictures or records a video of animals. The images are uploaded to a data base where special software does the analysis. In parlors, it would probably work best in exit lanes where cows could be funneled through in single file. With single box robots, it could be done just after the cow is prepped.

“Not possible” some would say. Electronic imaging works in every other industry so, why couldn’t it work for cattle conformation evaluation? Of course, there will be naysayers, but there are always those people in the world. If it is not breed ‘approved’ so what? If it does the job to help with animal improvement, nothing else is needed.

The newest generic software in this area is very versatile, and it learns quickly. The software initially uses experts to give it “lessons,” but then it begins to build on those lessons. For this, a cow’s ID would be linked to her performance, and health data and a database would soon be created to connect the dots between “physical” traits and performance and/or health data. Some software is already in development in this area (i.e. lameness), but there are other great possibilities for the future.

By the way, this type of a system was talked about twenty years ago by breeds, but it was nixed as it presented the possibility of eliminating or redefining classifiers’ jobs. Breed organizations were not prepared to accept that technology could replace human judgment.  Politics won out over cost, service and animal improvement. Today I feel that more consideration needs to be given to the opportunity for more accurately capturing data and enhancing assessments using traits information from all traits, not just conformation traits.

What Evaluations would be Possible?

The list could, in time, be long but to start with here are a few:

  • Udder depth and udder cleft
  • Teat length and teat placement
  • Udder attachments
  • Feet, Pasterns, and Legs
  • Mobility (video or series of pictures)
  • Thurl location, Slope of Rump,
  • Stature, Body width, and depth

What else could happen?

In time, such an automated system would be able to decide how best to evaluate and combine the data captured. If we limited that data to only certain traits we would not get the advantage of artificial intelligence from the software and imaging system. The equipment could take 1000 images on each pass and then scrutinize them to match body parts up to performance and health traits.  A trained machine would be very quick, accurate and cost effective.

Commercial breeders would have more data than they ever imagined possible. Furthermore, a common software and data system could be used worldwide so that dairy cattle improvement organizations could easily share data. Organizations could focus on providing breeders with accurate information and avoid the expense of harmonization.

It could even go further. Going beyond only cows to doing heifers could be helpful for all non-mammary traits, as well as to monitor structural development. The data could even be used on young calves to match genomic data.

Who Would Do This?

To start with, it would take some venture capital for research and development. After that, it could be any interested party, independently or in collaboration with others. In short, it would be individuals or organizations that saw a benefit to having accurate, unbiased conformation evaluations for genetic indexing and animal mating purposes.

It could be an add-on to services offered by milk recording, breed organizations, A.I. companies, milking equipment companies or animal health companies. Perhaps it could even be a company like Google.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Breeders need relevant and accurate evaluations and indexes for making the best possible mating decisions for their herds. Much of the current information for conformation supplied by breed type classification programs is not suited to the needs of commercial dairy cattle breeders. Alternative means for evaluating and capturing cow and heifer conformation data needs to be given serious consideration.



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