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Monthly Archives: December 2016

A genetic approach to improved fertility

We’ve all heard the statement, “genetics can’t make an impact without first creating a pregnancy.”

Realizing this truth, if improved fertility is one of your ultimate goals, genetics can help get you there – both now and into the future.

Get more pregnancies now

If you’re looking for a fertility advantage on inseminations today, sire fertility rankings are where you’ll want to focus. Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation ranks each sire on his ability to get cows pregnant. Sires with the high fertility ConceptPlus status will give you a 2%-5% conception rate advantage over the average service sire.

Why should you trust Alta’s ConceptPlus rankings? They are based on real pregnancy check results from herds in the US, Canada and Germany. The evaluation also maintains accuracy by accounting for factors like number of times bred, month/season, technician and breeding code effects.

If you’re more familiar with sire conception rate (SCR), keep in mind that Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation served as a basis for SCR, and the table below compares what’s included in Alta’s ConceptPlus evaluation and SCR.

Comparing sire fertility informationSCRConceptPlus
Based on real pregnancy check dataXX
Accounts for various factors affecting fertility, including age, month, herd, service number and lactationXX
COMPLETE
Accounts for additional factors affecting fertility, such as technician and breeding code effectsX
Data is collected from herds in the US and Canada and is not restricted to US herds on official testX
CURRENT
Ongoing data is collected from herd management software through our partnership with VASX
CONSISTENT
Data is only from progressive, large herd environmentsX

You can see that both fertility evaluations include a great deal of factors and information, but ConceptPlus takes it a few steps further for greater accuracy. If improved fertility is your current goal, ConceptPlus sires will provide that boost to improve your herd’s conception rates. But it doesn’t stop there.

Create more fertile cows for the future

While sire fertility selection can get you more pregnancies now, it takes genetic selection for female fertility to ensure your herd’s reproduction continues to improve.

Daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), heifer conception rate (HCR) and cow conception rate (CCR) all provide a genetic basis for creating more fertile females. Emphasizing one, or any combination, of these traits within your customized genetic plan means you are breeding a next generation of cows with a greater ability to conceive.

Daughter pregnancy rate is defined as the number of non-pregnant cows that become pregnant within each 21-day period. When a sire has a DPR of 1.0, it means that his daughters are 1% more likely than the average herdmate to become pregnant in a given 21-day window. And each added point of DPR equates to 4 fewer days open.

When referring to HCR and CCR, these traits are defined respectively as a virgin heifer or lactating cow’s ability to conceive. For each of these traits, when a sire has a value of 1.0, it means that his daughters are 1% more likely to conceive than daughters of a sire with an HCR or CCR of 0.0.

While DPR is a slightly different calculation than HCR or CCR, all three are a way to measure the fertility of the female herself.

Improve fertility results – now and into the future

So if you’re looking to improve fertility and reproduction in your herd, take these steps for best results:

1. Improve conception rates now by using sires with the high fertility CONCEPT PLUS ranking to get a 2%-5% boost on current breedings.

2. Improve fertility for the future of your herd by including DPR and/or HCR and CCR in your customized genetic plan to create a next generation of more fertile females.

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The top three ways to make genetic progress

Progress is a good thing…

And that rings true as much with genetics as in any area on your dairy operation.

In the simplest of terms, genetic progress is making better cows, faster. Before we can share tips on how to make genetic progress in your herd, it’s important to understand the actual equation for genetic progress. It depends solely on four factors.

Genetics Progress Equastion

Selection intensity:  the proportion of the population selected to become parents.

Do you use artificial insemination rather than a herd bull? Do you code cows with poor production, udders, or feet and legs as Do Not Breeds? Do you flush your best females and use your low end animals as embryo transfer recipients?

A yes to any of these questions means you are increasing selection intensity on your dairy by simply being more selective on which males and females you choose to be parents of your next generation of cattle.

Accuracy of selection: the average reliability of genetic evaluations used to make decisions about parents of the next generation of animals.

In the world of genetics, accuracy is primarily measured in terms of reliability. And in terms of genomics, accuracy is a function of the size of the reference population that is used to compare against a genomic-tested animal. Currently, the genomic reliabilities for production traits are often 70% or greater in North American Holsteins, which is twice the level of reliability that we used to achieve with traditional parent averages computed based on pedigrees.

Genetic variation: the degree of difference that exists between the best animals for a given trait and the worst animals for that trait.

If all animals were clones of one another, the variation among animals would be zero, and the opportunity to make genetic progress in any and all traits would cease to exist. Different genetic makeups and pedigrees lend way to variation among animals.

Genetic variation can be quite different from one herd to another. A herd that has used a focused genetic plan to select AI service sires for many years will have much less variation than a herd that has purchased animals with unknown pedigrees.

In comparison with other factors in the equation for genetic progress, little can be done to increase the amount of genetic variation within a given population. However, since inbreeding decreases the effective population size, by avoiding overly excessive inbreeding levels we can prevent a decrease in genetic variation.

Generation interval: measured as the average age of the parents when an offspring is born.

As the prevalence of genomic sires has increased over the past five years, the generation interval has been on the decline. Now, instead of waiting a minimum of 4.5 years to use traditional progeny-tested bulls, both farms and AI companies can more confidently make use of genomic-tested bulls in their on-farm AI programs or as sires of sons by the time an elite sire is roughly one year of age, decreasing the generation interval on the paternal side by more than three years.

So to put these factors of the genetic progress equation into play on your farm, what management strategies can you implement to make the most genetic progress possible?

1. Set your own genetic plan

You can make genetic progress in a variety of ways. First and foremost, you want to ensure you’re making progress in the right direction. To do this, set your own customized genetic plan, placing your selection emphasis only on the traits that matter to you – whether that’s production, health or conformation, and any specific traits within those categories. This way, you’ll not only make progress, but it will be in the direction of your goals in order to maximize progress and profit on your dairy.

2. Use the best bulls to suit your genetic plan

Once you’ve set your genetic plan, select the best bulls to fit that plan. You can take advantage of the amplified selection intensity put into place by your AI company, knowing that from the thousands of bulls they are genomic testing each year, they select only the best of the best to be parents of the next generation.

If you also select only the elite sires that fit your genetic plan from your AI company you maximize your on-farm selection intensity as compared to using just any cheaper bull off the proof list.

3. Utilize a group of genomic proven sires as part of your genetic program   

There is no need to fear genomic-proven sires. By making use of the best and brightest genomic-proven sires available, you make strides in all areas of the genetic progress equation. You decrease the generation interval as compared to waiting to use daughter-proven sires. You also step up the genetic selection intensity on your farm.

The accuracy gained from an ever-growing reference population of genomic-tested males and females is another benefit of selecting from a group of genomic-proven sires. And by utilizing a group of these sires, rather than one individual, you can maximize the genetic variation when pedigrees differ among them.

You can take these tips one step further using a strategic approach with the females in your herd. However, these are the top three, simple ways to make genetic progress on your dairy.

If you implement these steps, you will increase selection intensity, accuracy and variation, while decreasing generation interval. The progress you make will be in the direction of the goals you’ve set for your farm, so you can capitalize on the genetic profit and progress potential.

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Genetic thresholds versus genetic plans

“Give me a bull that’s over 1,000 pounds of milk and positive for DPR.”

Does this sound like you describing sire selection criteria for your dairy? If so, you are among the many other dairy producers who are leaving extra pounds of milk and additional pregnancies on the table.

The traditional threshold method can be a risky approach to selecting bulls when you are aiming to maximize genetic progress.  Setting a minimum level for any given trait and completely eliminating sires that fall short of those minimums means you could be missing out on a number of bulls that could actually help propel your genetic level to new heights.

A genetic threshold versus a genetic plan

Take for example, the old-fashioned threshold method for choosing the bulls you pick. If you direct your AI rep to drop off five bulls that are over 1000 pounds of milk and over 0.0 for DPR, he may leave you with a group of sires like those in Table 1 below.

Since your AI rep did his/her job and followed your wishes, you can see the averages for milk and DPR are pretty good – even above your set thresholds. But is that really the best group of bulls you can get?

If you reset your thought process for sire selection, you can choose to set a genetic plan that aligns with your goals. The previously mentioned thresholds would equate to a genetic plan with about 50% emphasis on production traits, 50% emphasis on health traits, and 0% emphasis on conformation or type traits.

By using this 50-50-0 genetic plan for selecting your bulls rather than limiting yourself by thresholds, you could end up with a genetic package like the five bulls shown in Table 2.

Table 1. SirePTA MilkDPR
Al11810.6
Bob11430.1
Carl11400.6
Doug10270.1
Ed10230.1
Average11030.3
Table 2. SirePTA MilkDPR
George2207-0.1
Henry2171-0.1
Ivan1986-0.1
Jack9725.2
Kurt9004.6
Average16471.9

Not even one of the five bulls selected based on the genetic plan fit both the criteria of being over 1,000 pounds of milk and being positive for DPR, but you can see they just barely miss the mark on one trait or the other.

Looking at Jack, you can notice that by sacrificing a few pounds of milk below your 1000 pound threshold, you gain an extra 5.2 points for DPR. And even though George and Henry both fall 0.1 short on their DPR values, they provide well over double the pounds of milk that your thresholds would have dictated.

So if you look at the average genetics of this group, they are above and beyond what you achieve with the group of sires that meets both criteria. In this case, by setting a genetic plan to select your bulls, you will gain almost 550 additional pounds of milk and see nearly a two percent higher pregnancy rate than by stating clear-cut threshold limits.

The tables above illustrate that setting a genetic plan to put emphasis on the traits that matter to you can boost your genetic levels well beyond what you achieve with restrictive thresholds.

Genetic plans – not just for sire selection

When setting a genetic plan, the most common focus is on sire selection. However, with genomic testing and various reproductive technologies readily available, many dairy farmers also rank females to determine which cows or heifers should receive sexed semen versus convention semen, or to know which animals are the best candidates to flush, versus which should serve as recipients.

If you rank your heifers and cows, it is important to remember to use the same genetic plan on the female side as you use for selecting your sires. Otherwise you will lose the full effect of the genetic progress you could make with the sires you select.

If you select your sires based on a genetic plan of 50% production, 50% health and 0% type, but then you rank females by TPI, NM$, or a completely different index your overall genetic progress toward your goals will suffer. A mixed approach will slow your progress and lessen your results.

In a nutshell

Maximize genetic progress in your herd by setting your own customized genetic plan to emphasize the traits that matter to you, rather than limiting your options with strict trait thresholds. To drive your genetic progress even further, make sure the genetic plan you put in place for sire selection matches the one you also use to rank your females.

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The genetic guide to healthier cows

Industry buzz has been booming about new genetic programs that promise to create healthier cows.

That means it’s the perfect time to revisit the impact that selection for Productive Life within your genetic plan can have on the overall health and longevity of your cows.

 

The Productive Life (PL) number that appears for any given sire on your proof sheet is defined as the number of months longer (or shorter) that his daughters will be productive in your herd as compared to herdmates. If a bull is 7.0 for PL, his daughters within a given herd are predicted to live seven months longer than the average cow in that herd. If a bull is -2.0 for PL, his daughters are predicted to live about two months less than the average cow in that given herd.

PL is often associated with old cows. However, if you think about which cows live longest in your herd, it would be those that have no troubles calving, fewer incidences of mastitis, no respiratory issues, fewer hoof problems, and so on.

Four-event cows

In reality, genetic selection for PL doesn’t just mean more old cows; it predicts which cows are toughest, healthiest and easiest to manage. We call those the four-event cows. If you look at a cow card on your herd management software program, a four-event cow has only four events listed throughout her lactation: 1-fresh; 2-bred; 3-confirmed pregnant; and 4-dry.

If those four events are the only major things a cow experiences throughout her lactation, chances are she’s trouble-free, making you money, and will stick around for several lactations.

Any time an event takes place, such as milk fever, a displaced abomasum, retained placenta, mastitis, pneumonia, or any other disruption to the normal progression of a cow’s lactation, milk is lost. In addition to lost milk production, vet and treatment costs add to the dollars lost.

The proof is in the numbers

Selection for Productive Life propels you toward the goal of a herd full of four-event cows. Since the actual measure of PL is not calculated until after a cow leaves the herd, we can use other ways to see if higher PL bulls actually create healthier and more trouble-free cows.

# of cowsSire PLAborts‘Do Not Breed’SoldDiedMastitisRPDAKetosisPneumoniaMetritisInjuryLame
Top 50%: High PL478>3.515121136331155118
Bottom 50%: Low PL502<3.6709024152309612153762930

Table 1 breaks down the events within a real 2,400-cow Holstein herd on all first lactation animals with known sire ID’s. Based only on the animal’s parent average or Productive Life, this shows the extreme difference in health events between cows with a high PL pedigree versus those with a low PL pedigree

These are real numbers, recorded on this farm’s herd management software program. Keep in mind, management is consistent throughout the herd, and no preferential treatment is provided for any given cows.

As the table clearly illustrates, far fewer of the high PL cows had issues after calving and throughout their lactation. Fewer cows from high PL group were coded as ‘do not breeds’ (DNB) and therefore, fewer of the high PL cows died or were sold. This means more cows from within that high PL group claimed the title of trouble-free, four-event cows.

On your dairy, how much does a displaced abomasum decrease a cow’s profitability over her lactation? How much of your milk check is sacrificed with every case of mastitis? How many dollars are lost for every lame cow or case of pneumonia? If you put a dollar value to the lost production and treatment cost associated with each extra health event experienced by the group of low PL cows it adds up significantly.

Want healthier cows? Let Productive Life get you there

While environment, cow comfort and overall management practices all play an integral role in the health of any given herd, genetic selection can also aid your quest for a herd of healthy, trouble-free cows. To do that, keep these points in mind.

  1. Genetic selection for PL will help you create longer living cows.
  2. Despite new genetic programs promising added immunity or greater health during a cow’s transition period, PL remains the standard for breeding tougher, healthier cows with fewer issues throughout their lactations.
  3. Include selection for PL as part of your customized genetic plan in order to build your herd of the profitable, four-event cows.
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