Archive for Calving Ease

Are Your Genetics Wasting Feed and Labor?

Throughout my education and my career in livestock improvement I have heard learned people say ‘the fields of nutrition, reproduction, management and genetics are independent of each other’. As recently as last week I had a nutritionist tell me that what geneticists do is secondary to what a nutritionist can do when it comes to on-farm profit. Well today I wish to challenge that theory of no inter-relationships.

Although I do not want to get into a back-and-forth between genetics and other disciplines, the purpose for this article is to challenge our thinking and see if there are in fact ways that genetics can be complimentary to nutrition, reproduction and management. It takes all disciplines working collaboratively to enhance on-farm profits thereby providing consumers with the dairy products they wish to consume.

If a stranger walked into your facilities and told you that you are wasting 20% of the feedstuffs you produce or that 20% of your daily labor could be eliminated would you throw them off the farm? Or would you stop and listen and consider taking action? If that stranger was your genetic supplier would you continue to consider their advice or would you scoff at them saying that “the genetics you use can not reduce your costs or increase your revenue”.

The following are areas that have a genetic component to them that deserve consideration:


Heifers not calving before 24 months or cows with an extra month or two in the dry pens each lactation take feed and labor at the rate of $2 to $4 (avg $3) per day. A heifer that does not calve until 27 months and takes an extra 45 days per lactation in the dry pen has costs an unnecessary $675 by the time she starts her fourth lactation at 69 months of age. By that time that heifer should be half way thru her fourth lactation. She not only costs an extra $675 but has lost $3000 in milk and progeny revenue by 69 months of age. The dollars lost add up quickly.

Genetically consider using only sires that are well above average for DPR  +1.0 / DF 105, cull heifers and cows with below average fertility ratings either their genetic rating or actual performance, and do not use bulls or retain females that are below 100 for Body Conditioning Score. If you are buying embryos or replacement females be sure to look at the genetic fertility ratings. Making excuses for buying below average animals or embryos is false economy. Another factor that is not a genetic rating, but has a direct bearing on reproduction is Sire Conception Rating. Remember that for each 21 days (one cycle) a female is open it costs $63 and that does not consider increased semen and insemination costs.

Productive Life / Herd Life

Improving just one year of herd life, from a herd average of three to four lactations, can markedly improve the revenue a cow will generate in her lifetime. An extra 26,000 pound or 12,000 kgs per cow per lifetime also reduces the number of heifers that need to be raised or purchased.  In a 300 milking cow herd the total of added revenue and reduced heifer costs can be as much as $300 net per cow per year. As heifer rearing is no longer a major profit centre, like it once was, why incur the feed and labor costs of extra heifers?

Using sires that are at least PL +4.5 or HL 110 is strongly recommended. Females should not be retained for breeding or replacement or purchased as embryos where the cow family members do not make it to third lactation.


The volume of fat and protein produced by each cow each day is a key factor for revenue generation (Read more: Is too much water milking your profits? and 5 things you must consider when breeding for milk production). When that can be done with a lesser volume of water it means less strain on the cow and less water to transport to the milk processor. High output of components means fewer cows needing to be fed and milked to produce a given quantity of fat and protein.  If daily yields are only moderate then feed is wasted feeding too many cows. At the processor more concentrated milk means less water needs to be removed and disposed of. It is a win–win for both the producer and the processor.

To achieve high fat plus protein yields requires that the sires used need to be ranked high genetically for total solids yield. In sire proofs that equates to bulls with 90 kgs fat + protein in Canada and 75 lbs in the USA. Cows should be culled for low total fat + protein yields per day not on volume of milk produced. When purchasing embryos make sure that the genetic merit for fat + protein yield is high.

Udder Health

On a continual basis the requirement for the maximum number of somatic cells in milk is lowered. It is estimated that each case of mastitis costs at least $300 in lost production and drugs. Add to that the extra labor required and the total cost, to all dairy farmers, associated with mastitis is huge.  Sometimes we forgive cows and bulls with poor SCS rating because they have a high rating for a single other trait. That is false economy when you factor in the cost of feed, labour and lost milk revenue. We need to be paying more attention to milk quality in the future than we have in the past.

Animals above 3.00 for SCS should not be used in your breeding program. Better still would be to aim for using bulls that are 2.80 and lower for SCS.  Of note is the fact that as of December 2013 CDN will be producing sire indexes for Mastitis Resistance (Read more: Official Genetic Evaluation for Mastitis Resistance).

Calving Ease

Producers have placed emphasis on calving ease over the past decade. It is now at the point where concern relative to calving difficulty is only mentioned for first calving heifers. Labor is saved with unassisted calvings. As well the dam and calf both get off to better starts. Less drug usage and quicker breeding back of the dam add up to major dollars saved no matter what the herd size.

Bulls receive indexes for both the ease with which their calves are born and for the ease with which their daughters give birth. It is advised to not use bulls that are rated below average for both direct and maternal calving ease.

Other Factors

  • Feet and Legs: Cows without mobility problems save on labor, lost feed and lost revenue.  Use sires that are average or above average for both heel depth and rear legs rear view. Calves and heifers with feet and leg problems seldom get better with age. (Read more: Cow Mobility: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?)
  • Feed Conversion: In all livestock there are genetic differences in the ability to convert feed to end product. As yet we do not know those genetic differences in dairy cattle but we will know them in time. (Read more: Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver and 30 Sires that will produce Feed Efficient Cows) In is a fact that big cows, producing similar volumes to a medium sized cow, can not be as efficient as they must eat feed to maintain their larger body mass. Some (New Zealand, Ireland, NMS formula,…) already have a negative weighting for body size in their total index formula In the future breeders need to be prepared to select for feed efficiency and likely re-think the ideal cow size. Stay tuned. Research is already underway on feed conversion in dairy cattle.
  • Milking Speed: Slow milking cows were once tolerated in tie stall barns even though they required more labor. Now with parlour, rotary and even robotic systems, cows that slow down the parlour process or that mean fewer cows per robot are not tolerated. Sire indexes for milking speed are available on all bulls in Canada and are often available from bull studs in other countries. Avoid using bulls that leave slow milkers.
  • Polled: Labor required and animal set backs after dehorning are negatives at the farm level. For consumers animal treatment/care is often a concern that may affect milk product consumption. Polled is not just trendy it will be the norm in the future. (Read more: Why Is Everyone So Horny For Polled?, From the Sidelines to the Headlines, Polled is Going Mainline! and Polled Genetics: Way of the Future or Passing Fad?),  Genetic tests are now available that accurate identify animals as homozygous or heterozygous for polled. With each passing month the genetic merit for top polled animals for total merit (TPI, LPI NM$,..) is increasing. Producers need to decide when they will start to breed for polled.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Every discipline is important to improving on-farm profits. Research at CDN showed that improved genetics accounted for, at least, 40% of the increase in on-farm profitability. Genetics can help reduce the two biggest on-farm cost – feed and labor.  As well it can help drive up revenue per cow. Conclusion: Genetics can save on feed and labor costs. And Genetics can help generate more profit.

Get original “Bullvine” content sent straight to your email inbox for free.


Keep Your Mind Open But Not Your Cows

For generations dairy cattle breeders have had reasons to explain why their cows did not quickly conceive or why the show cows needed to stay open and then calve at a particular time of the year in order to look their best for the show season. Well those are not reasons. They are excuses. We buy equipment, use drug therapy, manage groups, ask the vets to perform miracles and yes even lose sleep in attempts to raise our herd’s conception and pregnancy rates and lower our day’s open and extra days in the dry pen. But then we tell ourselves and fellow breeders that at only 5% heritability there is nothing we can do about genetically improving fertility in our dairy cattle.

If it was anything else, like a broken tractor, we’d go about getting it repaired even though it was a costly undertaking. Enhancing the genetics of dairy cattle fertility however falls into that ineffective area where –  we keep doing things the same old way but expect different results. The truth is we must do things differently. Until we revamp the genetics of the dairy cows, we can not expect to reduce the costs and lost revenue associated with infertility.

What Oman Has Shown Us

Mention the name Oman to a Holstein breeder and you can expect a reaction.  He is categorized as either the best sire to come along in years or he has ruined the breed.  This icon does not inspire fence sitters. On the like side both Don Bennick (Read More – North Florida Holsteins: Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable!) and Chris Buchner (who I recently visited with at Elmwold Farms) extol Oman’s virtues. Don’s favourite cow is an Oman daughter.  Chris put it this way – “We just loved our Omans. Sure they would not win a show but the Omans did it for us as we are in the business of efficient profitable production measured by maximizing fat and protein in the tank per cow per day of course at reasonable input costs’.  This raises the question “Does function follow form or does form follow function?”.  For Don and Chris, it is form that follows function

Oman did many things right when it comes to fertility. Calves are born easily, able to be productive cows before two years of age, able to breed back quickly while yielding a high volume of solids and able to do it year after year. And they do it in any environment. Oman showed us that calving ease, reproduction and longevity can all fit into a package and that cows do not have to be tall, dairy, flat boned or angular. In fact what Oman did was to show that there are genetic differences between sires when it comes to female fertility and it stimulated breeders to measure all traits independently instead of trying to define the model perfect cow.  One size does not fit all.

Female Fertility

Both phenotypic and genetic trends for female fertility have spiralled downwards as production increased in the past forty years. We put our focus on milk production and picture perfect conformation, using what is often called a combined production and type index. But the amount and quality of data captured and stored relating to female reproduction has been sadly lacking. For the milking herd that situation has been reversed in the past half decade due in part to the great expansion in herd management software programs with the data uploaded to central data bases where genetic analysis and evaluations are performed. But the same can not be said for heifer information.  Any data that does exist for heifers remains on farm so, except in education or research herds, we can not correlate, on a population basis, the heifer stage of development with lifetime performance.

Where once we relied on what we called “cow sense” we now have genetic evaluations, for cows and bulls, for the following traits that correlate well with female fertility:

Calving Ease
For years breeders felt that calves had to be large at birth to develop into large framed cows. Today commercially oriented breeders want live calves that are born unassisted and cows, especially first calvers, that deliver a live calf without assistance. Two genetic indexes are published – one for the birth of the calf (Calving Ease / Calving Ability) and one for the mother’s ability to deliver ( Maternal Calving Ease / Daughter Calving Ability). Sires rated above 7 in the USA or below approximately 97 in Canada for either calving ease index should be avoided unless breeders are prepared to attend and assist the birth. The cost of a difficult calving is significant when you consider the risk of death of calf and mother, vet and drug costs, an anestrous period, a longer time in the dry pen and less yield for both the lactation and lifetime.

Pregnancy Rate – No pregnancy, no calf, no lactation!
That says it all. Getting a pregnancy when a cow is lactating at a high level is no mean feat but is the reality of dairy cattle farming. Sires that rate below +1.0 for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (USA) and 105 for Daughter Fertility (Canada) will not improve the genetic merit of a herd for pregnancy rate.  Correlated positively with sire ratings for Daughter Fertility in Canada is Body Condition Score (BCS). Correlated negatively is Dairy Form (USA) and Angularity (Canada). Bulls that have a rating above 105 for BCS have daughters that get pregnant whereas bulls above average for Dairy Form and Angularity are more difficult to get in calf. Using all these indexes assists breeders to get the overall picture so wise decisions can be made when selecting sires to use.

Length of Life
Some breeders prefer to select only for Productive Life (USA) or Herd Life (Canada) instead of selecting for the fertility traits. Additional factors beyond fertility go into calculating the length of herd life including SCS and udder depth. Therefore selecting for longevity may not get the boost in female fertility a breeder may be looking for. Again, as with the other indexes sires will need to have high ratings for Productive Life (over +3) and Herd Life (over 105) to positively impact the genetic merit of a herd.

Genomic evaluations
have been a major step forward in ranking bulls for female fertility traits.  Accuracies of genomic indexes are more than double what they were with Parent Averages alone. The general recommendations on using genomic sires applies when addressing daughter fertility – use many sires not just one or two.

So what is improved female fertility worth?

A definitive answer may not be available, but considering that for the average cow it starts when she is bred as a heifer and finishes when she has completed about three lactations. This, on average, covers about 54 months, and the total can mount up to a considerable amount from loss of revenue and added expense. If improving the genetics for female fertility in a herd could give you an added profit in a cow’s lifetime equivalent to the value of milk for half a lactation would it be worth putting more selection pressure of female fertility? I think it would.

Male Fertility

A.I organizations go to considerable effort to package the semen from each sire so the optimum conception rates can be achieved from that bull. High semen fertility is not a genetic measurement for male fertility but it has a very positive effect on herd profit. Dr Bob Welper of Alta Genetics estimates that in a 500 cow herd using somewhat below average bulls for Sire Conception Rate (SCR) compared to using bulls that are above average for SCR costs the breeder a minimum of $35,000 per year. Having six more pregnancies every twenty-one days, higher herd average production, less semen cost, less labor required and more calves in a year are where the added profits come from.

Perhaps a breeder’s semen tank should have a warning label that reads – “Warning- Semen put in this tank must be above average for conception rate and able to produce fertile female offspring”.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Female fertility can no longer be ignored when selecting sires to use or cows that are to be the mothers of heifer calves. Many tools exist that assist with female reproduction on a farm however the use of genetically inferior animals for female fertility as the parents of the next generation is costing much more than we care to admit. In time there will no doubt be additional female genetic fertility index. The time to start using the current indexes is now. Big dividends await breeders who make the effort to use the current genetic tools for female fertility.

Get original “Bullvine” content sent straight to your email inbox for free.


Send this to a friend