Dairy farmers use a total merit index (including – TPI, NM$, JPI, CM$, LPI, Pro$, DWP$, …) as their primary tool when selecting sires that they will purchase semen from. Using such indexes equates to what is commonly referred to as following a “balanced” breeding program. Balanced because the emphasis placed on the traits included in the index are proportional to the historic economic importance of the trait or balanced because the relative equal emphasis is placed on conformation and production traits with a lesser emphasis on auxiliary traits.
It is time to go beyond total merit indexes when selecting sires.
Total Merit Indexes – Too Many Masters?
Expecting total merit indexes to serve the past, present and future is an impossible situation. The past positions the ancestors in the pedigree. The present positions an animal relative to its current market worth. That leaves the future taking third place, when it comes to having progressive total merit indexes.
Animal improvement is about creating future generations. Having traits and appropriate future weightings in total merit indexes need to have higher priority for the future of dairying to be relevant.
A new concept for total merit indexes, when used to predict the future, is the need for them to be outcome-based considering both direct and correlated responses for the traits included. (For more information about outcome-based total merit indexing, read about Pro$ at www.cdn.ca/articles.)
Another weakness usually overlooked in total merit indexes is that recently developed genetic traits indexes (i.e. A2A2) are not included.
The primary reason total merit indexes are developed and published is not for breed societies animal ranking lists, bull breeders, breeding company marketers, or embryo and animal marketers … total merit indexes are for dairy farmers, who generate over 90% of their income from milk sales and who use genetics to minimize on-farm costs!
Animals for 2025+
In the past couple of years, there has been a dramatic shift in the genetic attributes that sires’ daughters must possess. The emphasis in the past was on milk volume, average milk component percentages, breed ideal conformation and a limited number of auxiliary traits. Dairy farmers are now seeing genetic indexes, produced by genetic evaluation centers and breeding companies, for additional traits. Traits that will either generate more income, reduce costs (i.e. feed, labor, herd replacements, etc.) or do both simultaneously.
One example of a trait that has had a dramatic shift in emphasis is stature. Many dairy people are saying that they want mature cows that are 5+ inches ( 12.5+ cms) shorter in order to have animals that are longer lived, require less labor, are healthier, are more fertile, are more resistant to disease, are able to consume more dry matter, … yet are able to produce more fat and protein volumes each day.
This author’s current read is that dairy farmers have increased their demands for expanded genetic sire information before they purchase semen. For almost 75% of the doses purchased the decision is based on genomic indexes. The shift has been made and not all total merit indexes are now futuristic enough. Breeders now want to know the outcomes they can expect for the sires they use not just the weights applied to the traits in the total merit indexes.
Just last week the author had a conversation with an eager young dairyperson asking why breeding companies do not produce and publish more genetic information on what their sires’ daughters are capable of from birth to first calving,
It is a new era for what must be known about a sire’s genetic abilities for an expanded array of traits.
What’s Not in Current Total Merit Indexes
All total merit indexes are different in the traits included. However, here are eleven of the areas where additional trait information may be of benefit by increasing revenue or reducing expenses.
As you read these, consider which ones would make a dramatic difference to your specific situation.
These traits are not presently included in most of the current total merit indexes.
- Significantly Positive Deviation for % Fat (Reasons: lower cost associated with storing, transporting and processing less water; consumers now buying based on full fat; and less milk volume demands on milking cows to produce high fat yield.)
- Casein Composition (Reasons: consumers want A2A2 milk; and processors get higher cheese yields from BB milk.)
- Optimal Animal Health (Reasons: every farmer wants cow wellness [WT$]; heifer wellness [CW$]; disease resistance [MDR & MR]; and immunity[I+].)
- Genetic Ability for Nutrition Matters (Reasons: feed conversion efficiency [FE & EcoFeed]; optimal dry matter intake; maximization of income over feed costs [IOFC].)
- Functional Feet & Legs (Reasons: hoof health [HH]; hoof growth; and locomotion)
- Heifer Performance (Reasons: calf vigor; weight gain; growth pattern; age to first calving [AFC].)
- Milking Parlor Performance (Reasons: milk let-down; milking speed [MS]; milking temperament [MT].)
- Reproduction (Reasons: age at first heat; embryo viability; metritis; retained placenta; hormone levels post calving.)
- Transition Time (Reasons: ability to perform without problems in transition and fresh pens.)
- Environments (Reasons: ability to perform at an optimal level in cold, temperate and hot climates; performance in confined or pasture situations; robot/parlor ready.)
- Labor Costs (Read Bullvine article – “Don’t Waste Time! Choose Sires that Save on Labor”)
Decide on the Additional Trait Information that You Need
The Bullvine recommends the dairy farmers identify three to five traits that are important to their farming operations but that are not currently included in the total merit index that they use when selecting sires.
How to Consider Additional Traits when Selecting Sires
First off, shortlist the sires that meet and exceed your minimum requirements for traits that are included in the total merit index (i.e. 70 lbs. fat yield, PL 4.5, DPR 2.5, above average mastitis resistance, ..etc.). For dairy farmers not sure which is their preferred total merit index, The Bullvine recommends using NM$, CM$, JPI or Pro$.
Secondly, using your shortlist of sires, check each sire to make sure they are significantly above breed average for the three to five additional traits that you identified above and that are not included in your preferred total merit index. Do not purchase semen from the sires on your shortlist that are below average for your additional important traits. (i.e. If a sire’s daughters are below average for resistance to metabolic diseases do not purchase his semen.)
The Bullvine surveyed the top twenty Holstein and Jersey sires in all the major total merit indexes and found very few sires that were significantly above average for all current and new novel traits. So, dairy cattle breeders will need to do extra homework when selecting sires. More than simply ranking, buying and using sires based on total merit index.
Sire Selection Assistance
Breeding companies have staff members that can assist dairy farmers in identifying if a sire is superior or inferior for all traits. Breeding companies want dairy farmers to be successful. They can also offer programs in which farm breeding goals are established and mating recommendations are provided.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Future dairy cattle genetic improvement is more than production and conformation. Breeders need to determine the additional areas in need of improvement in their herd.
The best scenario is to use only sires that are significant improvers (i.e. 70+%RK) for the health, milk composition, feed conversion, fertility and body functioning traits that need improvement in a herd.
The tried and true method applies – identify the traits in need of improvement in your herd. Only buy and use sires that are superior for those traits.