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How Milk Producers Can Breed Problem Free Dairy Cows

Increasing output has been the dominant theme in dairy cattle improvement for decades. Average cow milk production has been doubled and redoubled in the past century by dairy farmers applying the new information on genetics, nutrition and management. However, as every dairy farmer knows, more and more is not always better. One dairy friend recently mentioned to me that “it is not the sprint but the marathon that dairy cows need to be bred for. There needs to be much more emphasis placed on reducing the costs of animal turnover. Also, on capturing extensive facts on daily cow events and body functions and eliminating animals that cannot function without individual care. Breeding for the disposable labor-intensive cow needs to be a thing of the past”.

A major but achievable challenge going forward on the breeding side of the dairy animal equation will be to capture new field data and turning it into genetic indexes for traits that are currently holding animals back from achieving even more profitable lifetime performance.

Current On-Farm Animal Problems Traits Without a Genetic Solution

A short list of animal problems that can be genetically improved include: foot growth and disease; animal mobility; animal resistance to health-related diseases; calf and heifer health and growth; cow fertility while in the peak of lactation; and cow transition from non-milking to milking. These problems have been considered as having too low a heritability or lack data. It has been necessary for dairy farmers to address those animal problems from a nutrition or management approach rather than genetically. With the current rapid progress in on-farm data capture, there will be new data relative to animal problems and we should expect to see genetic indexes for these and other animal related problems.

Animal Problems Traits with Genetic Indexes

Many traits that create problem animals now have genetic indexes available because farmers supplied the data and geneticists developed genetic indexes. These traits include: udder conformation; difficult calvings; udder health; milking speed; infertility; metabolic diseases; and genetic defects. Industry collaboration from the farm to the labs got the job done.

Problem Free Animals will be Even More Important in the Future

Predictions abound on what the dairy cattle industry will be at the farm level in the future. Without going into extensive detail on those predictions, some of the predictions that will benefit from more attention being given to breeding problem free animals include:

  • Farm labor will be costly and it will be replaced by machines, likely to where there will be double (even triple) the current number of animals per farm worker.
  • Consumers will demand to know details, including animal welfare, before they buy livestock products (milk and meat).
  • Dairy farms will operate on narrower margins and matters holding back higher and higher performance will not be tolerated.
  • Animals will be required to perform in large group, in totally monitored environments and in some parts of the world where dairy animals graze on non-prime land. and
  • Achieving at least an extra lactation on every cow, which first calves earlier, which requires less labor and which works well in an automated system will form the backbone of every viability and sustainability farm.

Start by Assessing the Current Herd Animal Problems

In the past most often herds have primarily focused sire and female replacement selection on one or both of production and conformation indexes. That is fine but those improvements have come at the expense of deteriorations in fertility, foot health, mobility, overall animal health and disease resistance. Add to that that monitoring of and genetic improvement of calves and heifers for problem traits have not been addressed.

Time well spent for all herds would be to assess their herds’ current genetic status and future needs when it comes to additional cow, calf and heifer traits that could lower animal related problems. Every dollar saved in cost can go directly to an increase in the bottom line.

Choosing a Genetic Route for Decreasing Animal Problems

Progress in decreasing problem traits will not be fast as inseminations made in 2021/2022 will only significantly impact the future herd when the cows conceived now form 50% of the miking herd in 2027/2028 and 75% of the herd’s milk production in 2030/2031. All traits cannot be improved simultaneously – select the 2-4 animal problem traits needing the focus.

Improving lowly heritable animal problem traits can be done by two routes –by selection within a breed or through crossbreeding. Either route will work provided superior sires are used. Crossbreeding will be quicker but usually focuses on sequences of breeds used and not on sire genetic merit. Selection within breed will maintain breed purity and will be permanent. It usually takes the use of superior sires for more than two successive generations to see major improvement for lowly heritable traits.

The result will be healthy growthy early calving (19-21 months) replacement females and long-lived (5+ lactations) healthy fertile non-labor-intensive cows.

How to Know Which Sires are Superior

It is important for sire selection decision makers to know which animal problem indexes correspond to superior, average and inferior sires.

With every index run CDCB ( publishes on its website breed and sire group means and standard deviations for all indexed animal (including problem) traits. Average is not always 0.0.

Superior sires for PL are above 5.0 for proven Holstein sires and above 4.0 for proven Jersey sires. Average PL for proven sires in both breeds is approximately 2.0. Superior genomics Holstein sires are at least 6.0 for PL. For most other animal problem traits their average index is close to 0.0 and superior sires are above 1.0 to 2.0.

At Lactanet ( ) superior sires are rated above 105, average sires are 100 and inferior sires are 99 and lower for functional and health traits.

Other countries evaluate sires for animal problem traits. The Nordic Genetic Evaluation Center and CRV (The Netherlands) have published sire indexes for animal problem traits for many years. Details on their systems and sire profiles are available on their websites.

Suggestions on How to Select Sires for Animal Problem Traits

It must be stated that perfect sires that will significantly improve each and every trait do not exist. Definitely, semen from sires that are below average for any economically important traits including for animal problem traits should not be purchased.

The following is a suggested five step process for milk producers to use to narrow down the available sire ranking lists.

Steps to Arrive at Sires to be Used

Step #1             Identify Top Genomic Sires (60%-70% of AI services)

From the top 100 Holstein / 50 Jersey sire listings for gNM$, gCM$, gPro$, gTPI, gLPI, gJPI or gDWP$, select 15-30 sires that fit the herd’s breeding plan for revenue generating traits (milk, fat, protein, %F, caseins,…). Remember that because genomic indexes having lower reliabilities it is recommended not to over-use any one genomic sire. If genomic sires are not used, ignore Step #1.

Step #2             Identify Top Daughter Proven Sires (30% to 40% of AI services)

From the top 50 Holstein / 20 Jersey sire listings for NM$, CM$, Pro$, TPI, LPI, JPI or DWP$, select 10-15 sires that fit the herd’s breeding plan for revenue generating traits (milk, fat, protein, %F, %P, caseins, …). If daughter proven sires are not used, ignore Step #2

Elimination of Sires for Step #1 and Step #2 Lists

  • Sires that do not significantly improve their daughters for longevity (PL/HL) are not recommended for use in milk production focused herds. It is a proven fact that older cows produce more profit on both a lactation and lifetime basis.
  • Additionally sires that improve their daughters for calving at an earlier age (EFC) reduce rearing costs and give the opportunity for animals to achieve a positive lifetime profit earlier in their life.
  • Not all high Total Merit Index sires significantly improve longevity and/or early first calving.

Step #3             Remove Sires that Do Not Significantly Improve Longevity and Early First Calving

Remove from the Step #1 (genomic) sire list all sires that are below PL 6.0 or HL 106 and EFC 4.0 for Holsteins and PL 5.0 or HL 105 and EFC 3.0 for Jerseys.

Remove from the Step #2 (proven) sire list all sires that are below PL 5.0 or HL 105 and EFC 2.5 for Holsteins and PL 4.0 and HL 105 and EFC 2.5 for Jerseys.

Step #4             Remove from the Step #3 lists sires that are Below Average for Animal Problem Traits

Sires in Step #3 Lists that are below average for problem traits needing improvement in a herd should be removed from consideration for purchasing semen. Currently indexed animal problem traits include DPR/DF, SCS, HH, DCE/DCA, MDR’s, BCS and LIV/HLV.

Step #5             Purchase and Use Semen

Sires remaining on the herd list at the end of Step #4 will leave superior daughters for production, body functions, reproduction, health and are more animal problem free. Mating sires to females can be by complimentary mating or random mating. Remember matings made in 2021/2022 are for females that will be milking in a herd in 2027 to 2030.

Upcoming CDCB Webinar on Mobility

Bullvine readers may be interested in taking part in a webinar hosted by CDCB – Improving Cow Mobility Through Genetics– Wednesday October 20, 2-4 pm Eastern Time. Speakers will cover reducing lesion related lameness, hoof health and lameness, digital scoring for lameness, plus a researcher-industry-producer roundtable on improving mobility. Register for the CDCB webinar at Questions may be directed to Amy te Plate-Church at

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The rate of genetic improvement in dairy cattle breeding is currently very good and will be even faster for dairy farmers that use current and future genetic indexes for animal problems.

Dairy farmers and their advisors must be open-minded in sire selection and include traits that will reduce animals with problems.

On an industry basis it is time to capture more data from animals with problems, to calculate genetic indexes for more of the animal related problems and to use those indexes to produce animals that are even more profitable.




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