Archive for Fertility

A Guide to Understanding How to Breed For Feed Efficiency and Fertility

Are your breeding decisions in tune with where you want your herd to be in the future? As I follow the breeder discussions on The Milk House (Read more: Introducing The Milk House – Dairy Breeder Networking on Facebook ), I see three different approaches: 1) Some breeders are asking what to breed a cow or heifer to, in order to get a show winner; 2) Some are saying that Holsteins are not the only breed and that Jerseys can also get the job done at returning a profit; and 3) The majority are saying that they want to stay with Holsteins but neither the show ring nor only filling the milk pail to overflowing suits their breeding plans for the future. This latter group want cows that, on average, stay in the herd into at least their fourth lactation, and that are efficient at converting feed to milk. They must also be fertile.

The good news for the third group of breeders is that there are two interesting new ratings that can assist them when it comes to sire selection for feed efficiency and fertility.

New Indexes for Feed Efficiency & Fertility

With the revisions to the TPI® formula (Read more: US Genetic Evaluation Changes: Are You Keeping Up?) made on December 2nd, Holstein USA added indexes for Feed Efficiency (FE) and Fertility (FI) for breeders to use when they evaluate sires for their daughters’ ability to convert feed to milk and for combining the various indexes that relate to fertility.  The weighting of these indexes in the TPI® formulae are not large – 3% for Feed Efficiency and 13% for Fertility. Breeders wishing to place more emphasis on either or both of these areas in sire selection can eliminate bulls, during their selection process, that are inferior for one or both of FE and FI.

In order to provide information, that may be useful to breeders, The Bullvine has taken the top fifty daughter proven sires on Holstein USA’s Top 100 International Bulls -December 2014 list and selected and analysed the top ten sires for both of these indexes. The top fifty gTPI® proven sires are 2210 gTPI or higher.

Feed Efficiency Index

Table 1 lists the top ten sires for Feed Efficiency (FE) as well as these sires’ indexes for other traits that breeders normally use when evaluating sires to use in their breeding programs.

Table 1 Top 10 Proven Sires for FE (Feed Efficiency) that are in top 50 gTPI

Sire and NAAB CodeFENM$*gTPI*PTATMilkFatProteinFIPLSire Stack
1. Robust177767(1)2504(2)0.99114381491.86.3Socrates x Oman x Manat
2. AltaFairway 11HO10980163643(3)2303(18)0.46145772520.54.7Planet x Oman x Morty
3. Manifold 200HO00402154575(9)2286(20)0.36144069521.93.7Oman x BW Marshall x Emory
4. Facebook 200HO03753150512(33)2366(4)1.51128180472.21.1MOM x Airraid x Shottle
5. AltaGreatest 11HO10928145619(6)2338(11)1.18210454600.55.2Planet x Bolton x BW Marshall
6. AltaPhonic 11HO10997145539(20)2262(25)0.3891469431.52.5MOM x Nifty x Lynch
7. Mogul 7HO11314142728(2)2586(1)2.84114381490.35.1Dorcy x Marsh x Bret
8. Mixer 7HO11313128543(16)2332(12)1.75897604203.6Dorcy x Marsh x Bret
9. Myrle 29HO14828128554(12)2278(21)0.697869361.13.8Lief x Encino x Oman
10. Erdman 1HO09800126631(4)2260(28)-0.5299159323.66.9Planet x Ramos x Amel

* Bracketed number is the rank within NM$ or gTPI

Robust, the #1 NM$ sire and #2 gTPI®, easily comes to the top for FE. In second place is AltaFairway. All bulls on this list are superior for their ability to sire high production daughters with their proofs averaging Milk 1258 lbs, Fat 69 lbs and Protein 46 lbs. Further study of these bulls shows that they have a variety of sire stacks, have high Productive Life (4.3) but are not outstanding for type (PTAT 0.96) or fertility (FI 1.3). The indexes of these ten sires have a better correlation between FE and NM$ than between FE and gTPI®. It should be noted that only Facebook and Erdman, on this list, are over 2.0 for FI. Breeding for feed efficiency will not automatically get improved fertility.

Fertility Index

Table 2 lists the top ten sires for Fertility Index (FI) as well as these sires’ indexes for other traits.

Table 2 Top 10 Proven Sires for FI (Fertility Index) that are in top 50 gTPI

Sire and NAAB CodeFINM$*gTPI*PTATMilkFatProteinFEPLSire Stack
1. Wright 7HO11235.3631(4)2355(8)-0.194012820729.6Freddie x Wizard x Rudolph
2. Sobieski 1HO098535.1501(37)2311(15)0.443634525904.3Freddie x Lynch x Duce
3. Denim 1HO102185615(7)2356(7)-0.738955271147.3Freddie x Wizard x Mtoto
4. Freddie 1HO087844.6533(23)2349(9)0.518663328775.6Oman x Die-Hard x Metro
5. Sapporo 200HO037734.5438(82)2248(29)1.065723211435.9Jeeves x Goldwyn x Outside
6. Army 1HO096594.5338(203)2210(49)1.06-1002721742.2Jet Stream x BW Marshallx Rduolph
7. Gallon 29HO146844489(42)2245(30)0.4213803331744.9Jeeves x Goldwyn x Oman
8. Yano 1HO100854530(24)2210(50)-0.154511523647.6Planet x Bret x Manfred
9. Sherman 7HO111643.9432(93)2230(35)0.67632924823.6MOM x Shottle x Roy
10. Petrone 7HO11693.8549(13)2361(5)1.396243213477.5Super x AltaBaxter x Buckeye

* Bracketed number is the rank within NM$ or gTPI

Wright (Read more: TPI® – Do we have it all wrong?) comes to the top of this list. The first three on the list are all Freddie sons and Freddie himself is #4 on the list.  Knowing that leads to the question – Who says the fertility is not heritable or at least that there are sire lines that have daughters that are superior for fertility? The averages for these ten sires give a very clear indication that selecting for higher production is inversely related to fertility. As well, PTAT and FE are only slightly positively correlated to fertility. And that fertility (FI) has no correlation to NM$ or gTPI® for sires that are in the top 50 gTPI®.

Except for Freddie himself, breeders are not likely to recognize the names of the other nine bulls in Table 2. It is noteworthy to see that the ten sires in Table 2, on average, are high for PL (5.9). Cows that have a high genetic ability to get pregnant stay longer in herds. Commencing to select sires for FI but not at the total expense of production will be a wise decision for breeders that focus on profitability in their breeding programs.

Always Compare to the Top Sires

When making comparisons and selecting sires, it is always useful to know what the profile is for the best in the breed.  Table 3 contains the index averages for the top 10 gTPI® daughter proven and genomic sires. The genomic list is limited to sires born in 2013, as this is the group of sires that breeders are likely to be using currently or in the near future.

Table 3 Index Averages for Top 10 Proven and Genomic Sires – December 2014

Feed Efficiency (FE)104170
Fertility Index (FI)2.81.7
Productive Life (PL)5.86.4

It goes without saying that the averages for these two top 10 sire lists are outstanding. Due to Freddie’s influence, the top 10 proven sires are very high for FI. While for FE the genomic list is far superior due to their milk, fat and protein indexes being almost double those of the proven list.

In studying these lists it did come to our attention that Mogul (#1 gTPI®) is the sire of six of the top 10 genomic sires. As well, Robust is the second sire for six of the genomic sires and Planet is the third sire for six of the genomic sires. Most breeders feel that inbreeding levels should not be ignored. Mogul, Robust and Planet are not closely related but it is always wise to check on the Expected Future Inbreeding level of a sire before purchasing semen (Read more: The Truth about Inbreeding, Twenty Things Every Dairy Breeder Should Know About Inbreeding, 6 Steps to Understanding & Managing Inbreeding in Your Herd and 12 Outcross Sires to Help Control Inbreeding).

By comparing the group average in Tables 1, 2 and 3, it can be seen that the top Fertility sires in Table 2 lag behind the other groups except for FI and PL. Also note that the Feed Efficiency sires in Table 1 are generally equal to the top 10 proven sires in Table 3. And except for fertility (FI) the genomic sires in Table 3 are the highest indexing group.

Sires to Select

The first sort of sires available should be the top fifty sires for NM$ or gTPI®.  A few bulls that may qualify for their total merit and are significant improvers for FE and FI are listed below:

Proven Sires

  • Facebook (2366 gTPI & 512 NM$)
  • Denim (2356 gTPI & 615 NM$)
  • Robust (2504 gTPI & 767 NM$)
  • Manifold (2286 gTPI & 575 NM$)
  • Altaphonic (2262 gTPI & 539 NM$)

Genomic Sires

  • Supershot (2675 gTPI & 848 NM$)
  • Rubicon (2718 gTPI & 864 NM$)
  • Hotshot (2661gTPI & 815 NM$)
  • Delta (2709 gTPI & 873 NM$)
  • Draco (2642 gTPI & 810 NM$)

Polled Sires

  • Powerball-P (2534 gTPI & 653 NM$)
  • Multitude-P (2249 gTPI & 418 NM$)
  • Ewing-P (2229 gTPI & 510 NM$)
  • Yahtzee-P (2408 gTPI & 588 NM$)
  • Ladd Man-P (2201 gTPI & 365 NM$)

Red, RC and high PTAT sires do not rank high for either feed efficiency (FE) or fertility (FI). One exception is Mogul at 2.84 PTAT who received 142 for FE however his FI is only slightly above average at 0.3.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Breeding for feed efficiency is closely related to breeding for increased production. However breeding for increased milk yield is counter-productive to increasing the genetic merit of females for reproductive traits. Based on our study of the new indexes for feed efficiency and fertility, we recommend that breeders select bulls that are over 80 pounds for fat and protein combined and that are over 1.0 for FI.

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


Not sure what all this hype about genomics is all about?

Want to learn what it is and what it means to your breeding program?

Download this free guide.




Who Said You Can’t Breed For Higher Fertility?

If you were to describe the perfect program to achieve top female fertility in your herd, what would it be? Would your program include heifers calving at 22 months of age and every 11-13 months thereafter until lifetime production reaches 275,000 lbs (125,000 kgs) of milk? For decades breeders have heard that they can’t breed for fertility. It’s all management and nutrition. Well that story is changing. Let’s examine how genetics can play a role in improved fertility in a herd.

The Current Scenario

The CDCB (Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding) has summarized the following current reproduction information on the current US dairy cattle.

  • Holstein cows take 2.5 breedings per conception. Jerseys take 2.2.
  • Holstein cows average 80 days in milk before they are bred. Jerseys average 77 days.
  • Average calving interval for Holstein cows that calve back is 13.8 months. Jerseys average 13.0 months.
  • Average conception rate for Holstein cows is 32%. Jerseys average 41%.
  • Average age at first calving in Holsteins is 26 months. Jerseys average 23.5 months.

These stats for Holsteins and Jerseys are provided for breeders to benchmark their herds, not to start a breed war. In five years’ time even if a Holstein herd was able to achieve the current Jersey average it will not be good enough. The three biggest factors that stand out from these stats and that are in need of correction are: 1) days to first breeding; 2) number of breedings before conception; and 3) age at first calving.

As it turns out the reproductive performance of North American dairy cows and herds reached their lowest level in 2007 and since then there has been minor genetic improvement.

Source: CDN – March 2010 – A Look at Fertility from Two perspective

Source: CDN – March 2010 – A Look at Fertility from Two perspective

Breeders Must Address Fertility

An attitude shift is needed. We must move from tolerance of fertility to awareness that genetics plays a role. Not all breeders have accepted the need for change. The Bullvine analysed the sires with the most progeny registered with Holstein US over the past two weeks and found that nine, yes nine, of the top twenty had negative genetic ratings for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR). In fact two sires had significant negative ratings of -2.5 and -3.5. In addition four of the twenty had only slightly positive ratings. In total 13 of the top 20 sires were not breed improvers for DPR. That is significant!

Some breeders have paid attention to the management side of fertility and have increased their pregnancy rate by aggressive heat detection, by using professional A.I. reproduction specialists (Read more: Artificial Insemination – Is Doing It Yourself Really Saving You Money?) by installing heat detection devices or by using hormone level monitors (Read more: Better Decision Making by Using Technology). However from the latest reports from milk recording, half the herds have a pregnancy percent of less than 15%. And only 10% of herds have a pregnancy rate of 21% or more. Clearly more attention needs to be paid to getting cows and heifers pregnant.

Genetic Tools to Aid with Fertility

Daughter Pregnancy Rate (USA) and Daughter Fertility (Canada) are the primary genetic evaluation ratings to use when selecting for improved female fertility. These indexes are created using data from insemination, milk recording and type classification.

However there are eleven other genetic ratings that have some influence on reproduction. Individually they may not be significant but collectively they can contribute to reproductive problems or solutions.

  • Calving Ease – difficult births delay cows coming into heat
  • Maternal Calving Ease – normal delivery benefits – cow, calf and staff
  • SCC – cows with mastitis are less likely to conceive
  • Feet – problem cows are not mobile and do not show heats
  • Rear Legs Rear View – cows that toes out are not as mobile
  • Milk Yield – high milk yield stresses cows. Breed for high fat and protein yields on lower volumes of milk.
  • Body Condition Score – high yielding cows that retain body condition are more fertile
  • Persistency – high lactation yielding cows that have flatter lactation curves put less strain on their bodies
  • Inbreeding – inbreeding negatively affects reproduction
  • Haplotypes – information is now coming available to show that certain haploids hinder reproduction
  • Semen Conception Rate – although not a genetic rating, low fertility semen should be avoided

Those are the tools available today. We can expect that, with the current research into genomics and reproduction, there will be new ratings to assist with breeding more reproductively sound animals in the future.

Selection Matters

The Bullvine recommends that after breeders short list the sires they intend to use that they eliminate sires that do not have a DPR over 1.0  or a DF over 103. Yes, female fertility is included in TPI, NM$ and LPI but the emphasis on fertility in these total merit indexes is not high enough to result in major genetic improvement for fertility. The following lists of bulls are examples of bulls that significantly improve total merit as well as female fertility.

Table 1 Top Ranking US Sires by Daughter Pregnancy Rate

Top Ranking Sires by Daughter Pregnancy Rate

Table 2 Top Ranking CDN Sires by Daughter Fertility

Top Ranking CDN Sires by Daughter Fertility

Action Plan

It is important for both herd viability and sustainability that the following steps be followed.

  1. Do not use bulls that are genetically inferior for reproductive traits.
  2. Genomically test heifer calves. Eliminate reproductively inferior cows and heifers.
  3. Include genomic reproductive information when correctively mating females.
  4. Use heat detection devices, hormone level monitoring equipment or intensive staff heat detection.
  5. Use herd management software and herd protocols to assist with reproductive management.
  6. Ensure that animal housing and animal grouping result in healthy animals
  7. Feed cows and heifers according to their performance and reproductive needs
  8. Employ staff training and education program for reproduction.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The genetic attention starting to be given to female reproduction on dairy farms is long overdue. The first step for breeders is to include reproduction in your herd genetic improvement plan (Read more: What’s the plan?). In as little as five years, by following a progressive proactive plan, breeders will significantly reduce their losses due to reproduction.



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How Healthy Are Your Cows?

There are  some herds where the temperature is checked on fresh cows twice a day for the first couple of days after calving. But for the rest, how many of us know the temperatures and the borderline sicknesses of animals in our herds?  Should we?

Let’s look at this a little closer.

Lost Dollars

“The economics of animal disease are huge and often unrecognized.”

“A goal of every dairy producer is to have healthy cows that breed back quickly.”

“Early detection of disease reduces the cost of disease to the farm and increases the length of animals’ lives.” These are three quotes from Dr Jeffrey Bewley, a University of Kentucky Professor whose research focus is precision economics.

Consider your own farm. If you are not 100% aware of the health status of every animal on your farm, how can you know the dollars disease is costing you?

There are  numbers reported that say  each mastitis case costs us $350-$400 or that each extra day open for our milking herd costs us $4 – $5 in lost profit.  But do we know anything about our heifer herds?  What does a case of calf pneumonia or scours cost? How much of our labor costs are associated with treating sick animals? And then there are costs to subclinical disease that we do not even know exist (Read more: Dollars and Sense: Herd Health and Reproduction).

The Big Unknown

How many disease incidents get missed on our farms?  Let’s admit it, we do not know.  If we could have an army of herd persons, we might come close to knowing but then our bank balance would be a very large negative number.

So let’s step away from dairy farming for a minute.  Let’s go to our local hospital, where sick people are nursed back to health. The patient is hooked up to machines for constant monitoring so that the Doctors and Nurses can use the numbers to make decisions.  Continuous monitoring.

Wouldn’t it be great to make informed decisions by having numbers provided by continuous animal health monitors on dairy farms??

Enter Precision Dairy Farming

The Bullvine has discussed milking robots (Read more: Robotic Milking: More than just automation it’s a new style of herd management and FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Passion with a Purpose) but they are just one of many devices that capture continuous observations on our dairy farms.  Besides milk yields robots have information on milking speed, milk temperature and electrical conductivity by each quarter.  Someday soon they may be able to capture fat % and protein%.

Is it any wonder that robot owners tell us that they have never known as much about their cows and managed them so well?

But robots exist beyond the milking herd.  Calves can now be fed robotically.  And other devices are arriving on the market every year to capture more animal performance information.

Another way to consider precision dairy farming is to think in terms of more data to manage with and  make more profit from.

Like to “Know”

However before going further into what equipment is out there to capture on-farm animal data. it is important to know where you’re starting from. What are the biggest health challenges on your farm?

How would you rank the following?

  • heat detection / timing of breeding / cows not showing heats until over seventy days in milk
  • heifers not detected in heat until after fifteen months of age / heifers not calving until 27 months
  • LDAs / milk fever / ketosis
  • lameness followed by loss in production, hoof trimming, medication and milk being discarded
  • difficult calvings followed by retained placentas, metritis,… resulting in cost and delayed conception
  • animals off feed and off on performance
  • calves or heifers with health challenges
  • not able to detect the onset of sickness prior to it becoming a major problem

We all have problems. First we need to identify our problems. Only after that can we plan to manage to not have them.

Systems Available

State-of-the art milking systems will measure drops in yield. Robots will do it by each quarter of the cow’s udder, and in particular, electrical conductivity of the milk at the quarter level during milking.  Parlor systems measure it at the cow level. There is a good association between electrical conductivity, somatic cell count and mastitis.

Tags will measure rumination, or cud chewing, providing an opportunity to react quickly to, say, the onset of illness or disadvantageous feeding changes, at the single-animal and herd level

Another system uses ear tags to take the surface temperature of the inside of the right ear of each transition and fresh cow every five minutes.

A passive rumen bolus system will monitor animal core temperature, which provides information for early disease detection, ovulation detection, heat stress and timing of parturition.

Another ear tag will monitor ear temperature and  head-ear movement to identify potential peripheral shock (cold extremities), which may be particularly useful for early identification of milk fever or for detecting cows moving their head or ears more when they are in heat.

Another technology will monitor lying behavior and activity. Activity monitoring is a comparatively new technology that is gaining in use for monitoring animal health including estruses.

Yes there are new systems continually becoming available but the question is how accurate are they and do their benefits out-weigh their cost? For example, $25 more profit per cows per year from using a device may not be worth it but $200 more profit per cow definitely requires serious consideration of the technology.

Plan for Profit

It is no longer good enough to not know or ignore health (that includes fertility) details on your cows. Past approaches of ‘not sweating the small health stuff’ are not appropriate as profit on today’s dairy farms depends on taking a total package approach. Remember: you need to continually looking for ways to improve; you need to decide on the limiting factors on your farm; you need to prioritize your technological enhancements; you need to capture the information accurately and economically; and you need to manage for profit.


None of this is new information to people who work with dairy cows. We all breathe a sigh of relief when a cow gets through the transition period disease free and we can look forward to a productive lactation and a confirmed pregnancy ahead. Or when a healthy calf in born that grows quickly and enters the milking herd at a young age. Obviously the first line of defence or attack is always a proactive plan to grow and have healthy, disease free, disease resistant profitable cattle. When it comes to profitable dairy cows, raising health is a good thing!


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