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Dairy Breeders – Changing Times Require Changing Ways

It is happening all the time! Bullvine readers and Milk House members have been commenting that the dairy cattle breeding industry has changed too much for them.

How Much Change is Too Much?

As far back as 1980, the daughter performance-proven sire (95+% REL) had replaced the brood cow (15-25% REL) as the most important animal in the breeding population.

Today fewer and fewer dairy females from higher PTAT/CONF or show families command high prices.

But most difficult of all for some dairy people is the fact that dairy breeding companies (formerly called A.I. companies) have responded to the need for change by developing their own male and female breeding lines to provide the genetics their customers demand.

Should Dairies – Even Yours – Resist Change?

If you have survived any length of time in the dairy cattle industry, you can probably point to the ways you have made strides forward in the genetic merit of your herd. It may have been in production. It may have been for overall type.

You can probably also name changes that are now arriving on your doorstep that are problematic for you. Changes in your herd’s genetic merit for fertility and longevity may be a problem for you. Or perhaps you struggle with changes in your herd’s health, functionality, and welfare traits.

Today we have sexed semen being widely used and genomic testing available but not universally used. Yet, we have merely scratched the surface when it comes to what advancements new technology will bring and what the DNA of an animal will tell us.

When you add in the very public problems that consumers are having with dairy farming, you begin to feel that change has you between a rock and a hard place.

Some dairies resist change so successfully that by the time they recognize the need for change, making any change at all is much harder to achieve.

Dairying, as Usual, is Giving Way to Constant Change

The reality is that the future in dairy cattle breeding and farming will not be the present or the past. Here are some facts to set the scene for future breeders:

  • Changing Numbers
    The trend to 5%/year fewer farms due to economies of scale, limited labor, cost of technology, and increased production will continue. More and more herds will link together for milk processing, custom farming, feed storage and preparation, input purchasing, labor utilization, animal rearing/handling, etc. purposes. In some cases, expect to see 100,000 cows in a single linkage. Some estimates predict 6,000 North American farms will produce 90+% of the milk within 15-20 years.
    Who will your farm be partnering with?
  • Changing Economics
    On-farm margins are tight. Surplus breeding stock sales cannot be expected to provide a profit over rearing costs. Genetics must contribute to increased revenue, improved efficiencies, and reduced costs. Economic improvement cannot be left up to feeding and management only.
    What are the strategies for your farm to address narrow margins?
  • Changing Milk Marketing
    Milks with unique composition and high quality receive the premium at the farm gate. Farms are finding it advantageous to work in unison with processors and other farmers in order to balance milk supply with the demand for milk products. Breeding cattle for unique milks is an opportunity for the breeding industry.
    Is your farm in a position to obtain a premium farm gate milk price?
  • Changing Technology
    It is increasingly costly to employ staff to milk, feed, care for sick animals, and record the data for feeding, breeding, management and business purposes. New technologies are replacing farm labor and provide the opportunity for improving herd and farm management. Animals must be able to perform with less individual worker involvement and attention and thrive in large groups.
    All new technologies appear to be great … but …which ones are a fit for your farm. Choose carefully!
  • Changing Data
    Decisions based on data, including genetic information and indexes, are increasingly crucial in dairy farming. Herds are expanding the data captured for their own use and for use by their advisors, service providers, and animal/product marketers. Progressive dairy people tell us that they benefit by having access to data from other farms for benchmarking purposes.
    Make data king on your farm for you to be both profitable and sustainable.
  • Changing Herd Service Industry
    Farms are deciding which services they need to use based on the cost to benefit ratio of the service rather than tradition or loyalty.  Not all current service and data suppliers will survive the next ten years.
    Without the profitable sale of breeding stock and the requirement for breed purity being important, breed societies are investigating aligning with other organizations. Herd recording services are capturing data and monitor animals, birth to herd removal, for many more factors. Cloud-based systems are becoming the norm.
    International genetic companies with aggressive breeding programs, owning both males and females, are here to stay. They may or may not provide insemination services, but most will provide services is genetics sales (semen and embryos), data capture, genotyping, herd management advice, on-farm systems, genetic evaluations, … and more. Some of their products, services, indexes, and information are proprietary. Dairy people are deciding if and how they use private services and information.
    Evaluate your services and your service providers and only retain the ones that positively impact your operation or your bottom line.
  • Changing Farmer-Breeder Role
    The role of the individual independent farmer-breeder and the need for third-party verified data are faced with change. The fact is, they have already started to change.
    If your farm plans to be at the forefront of the dairy cattle breeding industry, are you making the necessary changes? Is your heart, or are the facts, your data and your analysis guiding your decisions?

Genetic Opportunities Must Reactivate and Rejuvenate the Dairy Breeding Industry

The production and type in dairy cattle have been greatly improved, but fertility, functionality and animal health have suffered. These and other new traits provide opportunities for breeders to produce animals with increased genetic merit.

Genetic suppliers, companies or individuals, need to consider addressing the following:

  1. Improved animal longevity and livability through breeding for fertility, functionality, health and disease resistance. Breeders should aim to increase PL/HL by 60 lifetime days per generation.
  2. With feed being 52-57% of total herd costs improving feed conversion efficiency for growth and milk production will be necessary. Breeders should aim to improve feed conversion by 5% per generation.
  3. As milk revenue is 87-93% of farm revenue, breeding for increased fat and protein yield will continue to be necessary. Breeders should aim only to use sires that are in the top 20% of the population for both fat and protein yield.
  4. For efficient milk processing, a correct balance of fat to protein to other solids is necessary to meet consumption demands. 4.3-4.5% fat and 3.4-3.6% protein is what is currently needed to produce the products consumers buy. Breeders should aim to breed for milk with a balance of 1Fat:2SNF.
  5. Animal conformation has been improved to the point that the functioning of feet & legs and udders and the trouble-free birthing of calves need to receive the attention once placed on ideal conformation. Many breeding companies have already shifted the emphasis, and independent breeders will need to also change their focus with respect to animal conformation.
  6. Lines of cattle will be needed globally to meet housing needs, to adapt to new technologies and varying environmental needs. (Read more: Can We Create Holstein Blood Lines to Feed The World?) Breeders should consider including new traits in their selection programs (beta-casein, kappa casein, hoof health, immunity, disease resistance, heat tolerance, slick gene, epigenetics, nutrigenetics, …etc.).

A vision based on both reality and desired outcome is fundamental to be a successful breeder. Unlocking the power of new data will be a necessity. Dairy breeders and companies supplying the animal genetics must be working ahead of the genetic needs curve to stay in the game.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Individuals that choose the blame game for why the farmer-breeder’s role has been negatively affected by breeding companies are focused on the past and not the future.

Breeders and genetic suppliers must lead are measuring new traits and putting the appropriate emphasis on all traits. CDN research has shown that genetics can contribute about 50% of the on-farm gains in margins.

Moving forward using the results from both the farm and the lab is the only way to guarantee the dairy cattle breeding industry.




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