meta Four Steps to a Workable Herd Genetic Improvement Plan for Profit Focused Milk Producers :: The Bullvine - The Dairy Information You Want To Know When You Need It

Four Steps to a Workable Herd Genetic Improvement Plan for Profit Focused Milk Producers

Dairy herd managers often express the view that reading bull books or searching for bulls on the Internet is not their forte. They are rightly focused on making a profit from harvesting quality feeds and converting them into wholesome milk.

The genetic data seems overwhelming. “So many sire numbers! Which ones are of most importance? How does a milk producer use them? What does a herd genetic audit look like? How can I make a workable breeding plan? Who can help me?” In this article, The Bullvine will attempt to address these concerns.

Steps to a Successful Solution

Here are four steps to success:

  1. Select an effective helper.
  2. Narrow your focus.
  3. Complete a genetic herd audit.
  4. Implement an action plan.

Who Can Help You?

A.I. companies have trained staff who are available to work with dairymen to conduct a herd genetic audit and develop a plan for which sires to buy and how to use those sires. In today’s genetics industry typically speaking 70% of the sires will have genomic indexes and 30% will be daughter proven sires. Reputable A.I. companies and semen salespeople want dairymen to be successful. They do not first want to make a sale for their own short-term gain. The first audit is to find the partner who has milk producer success as their #1 priority.

Are There Too Many Genetic Indexes?

Over fifty indexes are available for all sires.  Yes – too many for milk producers. Very few, if any, dairy breeders use all the genetic indexes. For milk production focused dairymen, most of the indexes can be set aside as they are of limited financial significance. 

No Focus No Improvement                              

After these two initial sorts, focus comes into the picture. Once a herd genetic audit is completed (we’ll cover that later in this article) a milk producer needs to narrow down the traits that need the most improvement on their farm. The Bullvine’s recommendation is that, for milk producers, that list should not exceed nine traits. Genetic improvement research has shown that going beyond 7-9 primary traits when selecting sires results in minimal, if any, genetic advancement for a herd.

Table 1 – Primary Selection Traits for Milk Producers

Table 1 contains The Bullvine’s suggested list for the 9 primary traits. This table also contains alternatives to the primary nine for milk producers to consider.

Category Trait Trait Label Alternate Traits
Production Fat Yield Fat FE*, EcoFeed**, %F
  Protein Yield Protein FE*, EcoFeed**, %P
Function Productive Life PL HL***, LIV
  Udder Depth UD UDC*, MS***, Teat Place & Length*, Udder Attach*
  Rear Legs Rear View RLRV Foot Angle*, FLC*, RLSV*, F&L***, Heel Depth***
  Daus Calving Ability DCE CA$, DCA***, Thurl Width*
Fertility Daus Preg Rate DPR FI*, DF***, HCR, CCR
Health Somatic Cell SCS WT$****, HLH$, Mastitis & Metabolic Disease Resistance***
  Calf Wellness CW$**** Immunity+*****, 

Notes: Data Source for all values/traits is CDCB/AIPL except where otherwise noted
* US Holstein
** STgen 
*** CDN
**** Zoetis
***** Semex

How to Do Your Herd’s Genetic Audit

Before conducting the audit all information on the animals in the herd should be sourced from breeds, herd recording agencies (DHI’s), genetic evaluation centres (CDCB/CDN) and DNA testing labs.

An audit can be either by year of birth of the females in the herd or by category of the females – calves, yearlings, 1st lactation, 2nd lactation and 3rd+ lactation. Either way works.  Using the latter sorting method, by categories, sorts by current life stage which is normally how dairymen think of their animals.

There are five indexing combinations that can be used to do the herd genetic audit:

  • Parent Averages Indexes;
  • Combined Parent Averages & Performance Indexes;
  • Genomic Indexes;
  • Combined Genomic & Performance Indexes; and
  • Three Nearest Sire Average Index.

The method to use depends on what information is available for the herd. #4 will be the most accurate method. However, very few milk producers are doing genomic testing so that eliminates methods #3 and #4. Most progressive milk producers measure the performance of their animals so method #2 would be available. For milk producers that do not do performance (milk) recording then method #5 will be the method to use. Females that are to be culled or that are being bred beef can be excluded from the audit as they will not be contributing to the genetics in the herd in the future.

Table 2 – Sample Herd Genetic Audit Report

Table 2 gives an example of what might be the herd genetic audit for a milk producer’s herd for the traits that The Bullvine has selected.

Female’s Average Genetic Indexes
Animal Group            Fat      Protein            PL    U Depth         RLRV           DCE          DPR          SCS           CW$
Calves 22 18 1.1 0.26 0.01 6.6 0.4 2.81 -17
Yearlings 18 14 0.2 0.31 0.09 6.9 0.1 2.86 -25
1st Lactation 12 9 1.1 0.27 -0.11 6.7 -1.1 2.91 -22
2nd Lactation 8 5 -0.9 0.19 -0.08 7.1 -1.4 2.99 -24
3rd + Lactation -1 0 -1.4 0.05 -0.22 6.9 -1.6 3.11 -26
Approx. Breed AVG 21 17   0.8 0.5       -12
Desired Value               3.5 +                < 5          3.5 +        < 2.80  

Note: For DCE and SCS a lower numbered is the desired

The Bullvine’s assessment of this example is that the herd has used sires that increased the herd’s genetic merit for fat, protein and SCS but not for the other traits.

Make and Use A Herd Genetic Plan

  • Goals are always an important part of any plan. Using Table 2 our example milk producer, working independently or with an advisor can set goals for the traits to be improved. In this example, the function and fertility categories need significant improvement. Reaching a herd average of PL +5.0, UD +1.25, RLRV +0.75, DCE 4.5, DPR +3.5 and CW$ 30 in 5 years is possible. It would be advisable to increase Fat to +50lbs. and Protein to +40lbs. as part of the plan. SCS could be improved but it is not necessary unless the milk processor would pay a premium for low somatic cell milk.
  • Sire selection will be the key to making genetic improvement in a milk production focused herd. 85-90% of the genetic improvement will come by using superior sires. The money invested in buying sexed semen from top sires will pay for itself many times over in five years.  Using sexed semen on all heifers and the top half of the milking herd will allow for adequate herd replacements. Extra replacement heifers cost $2,500 to raise but are only likely to bring $1,800 as newly calved first lactation cows so why raise them and take the $700 loss? The bottom half of the milk cows can be bred to beef sires and the calves can be sold at birth or raised for meat sales.
  • Buy semen from only elite sires for the traits to be improved as determined from the herd’s genetic audit. The initial sort for sires to use should be to sires that have a minimum index for NM$ or Pro$. Good minimum index values are: Genomic Holstein NM$ +800 (Pro$ 1800); Proven Holstein NM$ +700 (Pro$ 1600); Genomic Jersey NM$ +650 (Pro$ 1500); and Proven Jersey NM$ +575 (Pro$ 1300). Milk producers who sell to specialty processors or cheese makers should also consider selecting sires that are A2A2 Beta Casein and BB Kappa Casein. 

Table 3 – Sire Selection Levels for Milk Producers

Table 3 is a guide for milk producers to use when selecting sires for the nine traits in Table 1.

A. Initial Sire Sort – Minimum NM$ or Pro$*
      Min. NM$   Min. Pro$
  Holstein Genomic 800   2500
    Proven 700   2300
  Jersey Genomic 650   1500
    Proven 575   1300
B. Second Sire Sort – Recommended Minimum Sire Genetic Indexes**
  Average Proven Sire Indexes for Sires that Meet Initial Sort Criteria
Trait US Hol US Jer Trait CAN Hol CAN Jer
Fat       81 lbs.       74 lbs. Fat        76 kgs        57 kgs
Protein       58 lbs.       54 lbs. Protein        73 kgs        45 kgs
PL 5.1 4.6 HL 106 102
U Depth 0.88 1.5 U Depth 103 100
RLRV 0.61 FootAngle 0.6 RLRV 103 100
DCE 4.3   DCA 105 104
DPR 1.5 -0.01 DF 104 102
SCS 2.83 2.91 MastitisResist 104 104
CW$ -12        

* Sires below these levels should be eliminated from milk producers semen purchase lists

** Sires not meeting these levels should not be used more than 25% of the time

Remember before finally deciding to buy an individual sire, a check should be done to ensure that a sire is not below average for production, functional, fertility or health indexes traits.

Why Bother with a Herd Genetic Audit?

Every Milk producer has heard other dairy people question the value of genetic information and using only superior sires. The reason often given is that it is performance, not genetics that fills the bulk tank. That is a behind-the-times way of thinking. CDN studies have shown 50% of the productivity gains being made in Canadian dairy cattle comes as a result of genetics. Even if 33% of the productivity gains are genetic, 33% are nutritional and 33% are management, improving genetic merit of a herd is important. If a herd’s genetic level is not improved the herd will fall behind other herds and the dairyman will be at a disadvantage in the efficiencies that higher genetics bring with them.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Genetic improvement is important to all dairy farmers, no matter the focus on their farm. First comes a genetic audit of the present herd, then a plan for traits most in need of genetic improvement and then the use of sires that will achieve the herd’s genetic goals. Genetic improvement is permanent. Don’t delay. Don’t fall behind.




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