Archive for Natural Breeding

The End of the Daughter Proven Sire Era

For almost sixty years dairy cattle breeders have relied on daughter proven sires to drive the industry forward. There was a time when over 70% of the genetic advancement depended on knowing which sires left the best daughters and using them extensively. However that era is fast coming to a close. The Bullvine sees changes in the not too distant future for both breeders and breeding companies, all of whom have built their business and breeding models around the daughter proven sire.

A Quick Look at History

Before the 1950’s unproven sires were the norm. Yes some of them may have had some limited daughter information but it was most often in a single herd and was actually just phenotypic observations (i.e. 12,500 lbs milk, 3.8%F, 5 VG & 10 GP daughters). A.I. was primarily a tool to get cows in calf without having to feed and handle a mature bull. Truth is that genetic progress, at that time, was only slightly above zero.  From the 1970’s onwards considerable progress was made, based on the use of proven sires. During that time breeders and breeding companies were more selective in which young sires were sampled, more herds were milk recorded and type classified, genetic evaluations used B.L.U.P. technologies (i.e. +1100 lbs milk, +0.25%F, PTAT +2.24) and high ranking total merit proven sires got extensive use.

New Technologies Will Turn the Tide

Now let’s deal with how new technologies will change the timing and accuracy of genetic decision making. Simply put ‘time waits for no one’ and ‘the future is in the hands of those that search out the new, decide and apply the best of the new”. That applies to all areas of dairy farming but just now let’s stick to the genetic component. Let’s focus on why daughter proven sires will become a thing of the past

Accurate and More Accurate

To date genomic genetic evaluation has resulted in a doubling of the accuracy of indexes for young animals. It will not stop there. With refined knowledge in the genome we can expect production indexes on young animals to go from 65-70% REL. to as high as 85-90%. in the next five years. As well with more on-farm data being captured and collected in Genetic Evaluation Centers we can expect the REL for productive life, type, health and fertility traits to approach 70-80%. Part of the increase in REL, from their current 50-65%, will come from more accurate field data and part from in-depth study of the genome. The end result will be that if total merit is known with 85% REL for young animals, then daughter proven bulls and older brood cows will not be used as the parents of the next generation. In short the pace of the trend of using younger and younger animals as the parents of the next generation will speed up even more.

Sexing Technology

Dairy cattle breeders are hearing that genomics is the biggest advancement in genetic improvement since the introduction of the proven sire.  Recent information on what’s ahead in sexing technology is on the brink of speeding up the rate of genetic gain. (Read more: Sexed Semen from Cool Technology to Smart Business Decision and SEXED SEMEN – At Your Service!) That does not even factor in epigenomics and nutrigenomics will hold out significant promise. (Read more: Forget Genomics – Epigenomics & Nutrigenomics are the Future) Proactive breeders will need to stay tuned to what’s ahead and be ready to adapt the breeding plans. (Read more: What’s the Plan?)

We know that young bulls do not produce large volumes of sperm per ejaculation as mature bulls do, so we’ll need to collect from extra young bulls but there will come a day when all young bull semen will be sexed. Having more young bulls being used will help to counteract inbreeding.

The changes could well go much further than that.  How much sexed semen will be needed in another fifteen years?  It could be that embryo and embryo transfer technology will advance to the stage that, once identified, the very top genetic ten to twelve month old heifers will have many oocytes collected and fertilized in vitro and then implanted into 99% of the females on a farm.

Of course exactly what will happen has yet to play out but we need to be prepared for major advances in the technologies relative to both genetics and reproduction. Regardless the use of daughter proven sires will be a thing of the past.

Maximum of 50,000 Doses Only

In the past superior proven bulls have remained active and in use well past ten years of age. They have produced, on average, 130,000 – 140,000 doses per year. In some cases they have sold more than one million doses of semen in their lifetime. Although profitable for their owners this extensive use has contributed to inbreeding and narrowing of the genetic base. The question that has always been asked ‘what do we do about too much Blackstar, Valiant or more recently Oman and Planet?’. We will not need to have that concern in the future as genetic progress will be so quick that the maximum a sire will get used in his lifetime is 50,000 doses. That does however change the value that any one sire will have. The industry savings on feed and maintenance costs beyond collecting 50,000, likely sexed, doses is significant considering the thousands of bulls that have been annually sampled around the world in the past.

It could be that 50,000 is far too high a number of doses. Take the case of Kulp-Dale Golden PP Red.  (Read more: $10,000 a dose Polled Semen and The 24 Polled Bulls Every Breeder Should Be Using To Accelerate the Genetic Gain in Their Herd) Five doses and $50,000 may be the numbers that will be attached to his contribution to changing the Holstein breed from horned to polled. Another factor to think about is that high genomically evaluated young sires are often used exclusively by breeding companies before general release and, when released, are priced at $200 to $1000 per dose. However after a few months their semen price is dropped to the $40 – $60 range. By the time they have been on the market for a year they are often down to less than $20. Why? Because their time of demand has passed. If the sire is no longer a list topper for at least one important trait he is history.

Alternatives Exist

A couple of months ago The Bullvine wrote about using all natural sires in a herd. (Read more: Natural Breeding – Could It Work For You?) These sires can quite easily have high genomic indexes. Think about it. A breeder focused on producing milk saving on labor to heat detect and inseminate his cows and heifers. Perhaps 10% of a herd’s labor cost could be saved. With robotic technology advancing quickly it could well be that the safety factor for workers by having yearling and two year old bulls around the farm may be minimized as there will be fewer workers to be exposed to the bulls. Definitely the need for daughter proven A.I. sires would be zero.

Are We Ready?

The pace of change is fast and will become faster. In a few years it could be that the only need for daughter proven sire information will be to check the accuracy of genomic indexes or to develop the formulae for indexing for new traits that breeders wish to include in their breeding programs. It could well be that breeders are more ready for the future than are some breeding co-ops and companies that have built their business model on having the vast majority of their revenue coming from daughter proven bulls. Having said that, progressive breeding companies are taking steps to control their costs and to specialize their product lines, including owning high ranking females. Daughter proven bulls will not be the focal point for those companies.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Having moved to daughter proven sires for accuracy and selection intensity reasons, we can now expect to see a move away from those sires for the reasons of speed of turning of generations and of having very accurate knowledge at the gene level. Anyone doubting these changes needs only to look at male selection in the plant, fish, poultry and pig industries. The downside for bull breeders is that their bulls will have less value. The upside for all other breeders is that they can continue to make rapid progress in breeding profitable healthy cows. Daughter proven sires were a major force in getting us to where we are but they will now be replaced by more advanced technology.


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Natural Breeding – Could It Work For You?

The Bullvine has received the following question from readers – “Why does The Bullvine always talk about using AI and never refer to or talk about using natural sires?” After doing some research on natural use bulls, we decided to share our findings in story format.  We often list statistics and science, but we would like to present something closer to real life in order that other, like minded, producers can evaluate a possible scenario and consider it for their own operations.

Here’s The Scenario

“A couple runs, as they call it, a milk production factory of 400 (2x) milking cows. They have found that, for best results, they should have their four key (human) employees putting their focus on cow care. That means focusing on the close-up and fresh pens, feed mixing, caring for calves that are less than a month old and attending to cows that are sick. The remainder of their staff are mostly part-time and involved in milking, pushing up feed, moving animals, bedding, cleaning up and manure handling. The husband manages the operation and the wife manages the records when they are not skiing or spending time with their family of five very active high school and college students. A few years back they were having trouble catching cows in heat and the fallout from that was that they had too many late lactation cows, had too much non-producing time spent in dry pens and there were heifers calving over conditioned at 27.5 months of age. This meant not enough profit or ROI.  Their milking cow pregnancy rate was 9%, 4.1 pounds of fat plus protein were being shipped per cow per day and the cull rate was 40%. They needed to keep every heifer calf born on the farm for herd replacements. They knew drastic action was needed. So they went to focusing their attention on the most problematic areas and on using natural bulls for breeding both the heifers and the cows.

(CHECK THIS) The husband clearly understood that the system of using herd bulls instead of A.I., is not for every dairy farm, especially not for herds that do not have facilities that are bull strong, bull safe and where only one person is involved when groups are being moved or worked with in their pens.

How to Hire a Working Bull

For several years in the representative scenario, prior to the change to natural bulls, they had used 50% young sire semen. The main selection criteria had been NM$ (>$500) with the added requirement of +1.0 for both UDC and FLC. They wanted a blend price for semen of less than $20. The cattle were registered in the national herdbook so the DHI records could be used in sire proving. Numerous different staff were trained in A.I. but the results were just not there, even though they routinely used an off-sync program. Heat detection and breeding was a drag and it sapped energy from everyone.

The change to natural bulls occurred after the introduction of genomic indexes to the dairy industry. They found there were many high quality genomically tested bulls, that did not make it into A.I., that were available at a reasonable price. They have required that the young bulls, generally purchased at 9-12 months of age, are above average for size and have good feet and legs but cow families have not been considered when purchasing. They are now milking daughters of their first genomically tested bulls and find that they are, on average, quite superior to what their young sire daughters were in the past.

Their current requirements for their bulls are: NM$ >$650; FLC >+1.5; UDC >+1.5; and SCS < 2.90. But from here on they will also be requiring a positive number for DPR and >3.0 for PL.  Additionally under consideration are ways to avoid inbreeding, increasing protein percent, using only polled bulls and, if they could get it, some way of knowing the growth rate and body condition score. Definitely sons of sharp chinned, deep ribbed show cows are avoided. The reason for a higher protein percent is because the milk is shipped to a local specialty cheese factory which pays an incentive for protein content.

Cow Performance under Natural Breeding Scenario

The time formerly spent checking for and breeding cows and heifers in heat is now focused on close-up, calving and just fresh pens. These groups are housed close to the milking parlour and can be easily seen from the staff room and the office. All staff are encouraged to watch and make sure cows in these pens are getting up and eating. Temperatures are taken and recorded, twice a day, for the first three days after calving and before moving into the voluntary waiting pens. There are no bulls in these pens so staff can safely check a cow at any time.

Improvements obtained were in the magnitude of

  • average production 5.3 pounds of fat + protein per cow per day,
  • cow pregnancy rate from 22-24%,
  • cow cull rate 25% and
  • heifers calving at 22-23 months of age

Cows are grouped by staged of lactation or pregnancy. First calf heifers are housed separate from mature cows in close-up, voluntary waiting and breeding stages. Maximum group size, when cows are 150 – 300 days in milk, is 80 cows. Parlour size accommodates twenty and they like cows back to their pen within one hour.  Breeding pens are kept to 40 cows so that only one bull is needed per pen. Herd management software data is used and the movement of cows and bulls in and out of pens is recorded. All cows seen to be in standing heat are recorded but less than 50% of the actual heats are observed by staff. A milk weight is taken every Wednesday morning. Fresh cows are continually added to the fresh pens and stay there 3- 10 days. Otherwise any movement between pens takes place on Thursday after the morning milking. One staff member monitors on Thursdays for any bullying or fighting. The plan is to purchase ultrasound equipment and have two people trained to use it for pregnancy checking.

The Beef Enterprise Revenue Stream

An expanded version of the scenario sees the wife’s family owning and operating a small slaughter and retail beef business, specializing in marketing and selling lean beef that guarantees to its customers that all animals can be traced and for which there are no drug residues.

The dairy farm supplies animals to that beef processing business. As a result all calves are raised on the farm. Males calves are castrated and marketed when 1400 pounds. Heifers with poor feet and legs or not in calf by 14 months are finished for beef. Only about 60% of the heifers are raised for dairy purposes, as it costs more to raise them than they being when sold as a springing heifer or fresh first lactation cow. Young (<50 months) cows that have problem udders or feet and legs or that are not in calf are also marketed through that business. Settlement for their animals is on a weight and rail grade basis. All other animals are sold through an auction mart.

Where the beef side of the farm was once only a by-product, it now forms a significant revenue stream. It has meant that they want Holstein bulls that produce progeny that carry more condition and, therefore, go to slaughter at a relatively young age.

Other Specifics

Most details about the operation are unchanged when the farm converted to using natural bulls.  Bulls upon arrival are kept in isolation at a neighbor’s small barn that they rent. Bulls must be negative for TB, Brucellosis, Anaplasmosis and Johnes. Bulls not in use are housed in individual pens. As mentioned previously any pens with a bull in it must have two people present for movement or entry into the pen. Bulls slipping and injuring themselves during mounting has not been a problem. If and when herd expansion occurs, they are planning to use manure pack barns for the breeding pens. The bulls travel with their pen to, through and back from the milking parlour.

The farm in this scenario definitely benefits financially from less labour spent heat checking and breeding, from a younger age at first calving, from fewer days in the dry pens, and from more production per day. It must be stressed that, without genomics and 65% accuracy for the major indexes, they would not have been able to achieve the high percentage of high quality animals. All changes combined have helped them double their annual net returns from the milk sales side of their business.  This scenario strongly recommends not attempting natural breeding with bulls that only have a parent average index or much worse still have no known parental information.

Although this is a composite scenario, farmers moving to natural sires can expect to find that bull buying and maintenance expenses were balanced by  previous expenses for semen, labor for heat checking and breeding, vet checks and drugs. The higher production per day and the fewer non-productive days for both heifers and cows (without an increase in labor costs) are the profit makers.”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The Bullvine thanks our readers who have drawn our attention to this area of dairy operation management. Using natural bulls instead of A.I. is not for every dairy farm. Definitely it does not assist with sire proving by A.I. companies. However, it can allow for labor to be focused away from reproduction and more on that critical 2-3 weeks before calving and 3-4 weeks after calving.  The Bottom Line? If designed and operated properly natural sire use can return a greater net profit and that’s a scenario we can all relate to!


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