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Category Archives: Dairy Basics

How do genomic proofs hold up?

We’re well into the genomic era. If you’re like most producers, you’re now comfortable incorporating genomic-proven bulls as part of your balanced breeding program.

Yet, you might still have questions about the difference you can expect between a bull’s first genomic proof and his daughter proof. To answer your questions, we’ve done an in-depth proof analysis of all industry bulls. Our goal was to find out how genomic proofs hold up. Do they become more or less accurate with time?

What did we learn?

Graph 1 shows the average change in TPI from initial genomic proofs to April 2017 daughter proofs. The TPI change from genomic to daughter proof is the amount of space that separates the blue and orange lines.

Graph1, which shows the change in TPI the average industry bulls see from their initial genomic release until their April 2017 daughter proof
Graph 1. Change in TPI from genomic release to April 2017 daughter proof

So, even though genomic numbers are still slightly inflated, the gap between genomic and daughter proofs changes less with each passing proof round.

Want more details?

Let’s look at the facts and figures in a different light. We’ll focus in on all 1,078 industry bulls released in 2013. We use this group because all bulls released in 2013 should now have a daughter proof for production, health and conformation traits.

The bell-shaped curve of Graph 3 shows the mean and standard deviation change in TPI on the 1,078 industry bulls released as genomic-proven sires in 2013.

Graph 3, which shows the bell-shaped curve distribution of TPI change from the initial genomic figures of bulls released in 2013 to their April 2017 daughter proof
Graph 3. Histogram of difference in TPI from genomic release in 2013 to April 2017 daughter proof

As you can see, on average, these bulls changed less than 100 points from their initial release in 2013 to their daughter proof in April 2017. One hundred of these bulls have a daughter-proven TPI within just twenty points of their original genomic TPI. Only about 40 bulls from the entire group of 1,078 lost more than 300 TPI points – that’s less than 4%.

We see the same trend for NM$. Graph 4 shows the average NM$ change and standard deviation of the same 1,078 industry bulls released in 2013. These sires changed about -103 NM$ from their initial genomic proof in 2013 to their daughter proof in April 2017.

Ninety-five bulls held steady within the small 20 point swing from genomic to daughter-proven NM$. Less than 20 bulls changed more than 300 NM$.

Graph 4, which shows the bell-shaped curve distribution of NM$ change from the initial genomic figures of bulls released in 2013 to their April 2017 daughter proof
Graph 4. Histogram of difference in NM$ from genomic release in 2013 to April 2017 daughter proof
Click the thumbnails below to find the average change in individual traits from a bull’s genomic release in 2013 to his daughter proof in 2017.
April 2017 Top Dtr-proven bullTPI
11HO11434 | AltaCR2531
11HO11379 | AltaRABO2476
11HO11348 | AltaBGOOD2474
11HO11143 | AltaEMBASSY2462
11HO11380 | AltaROBLE2461
11HO11283 | AltaMERCI2450
11HO11272 | AltaGILCREST2444
11HO11446 | AltaPITA2430
11HO11202 | AltaOAK2425
11HO11405 | AltaKADO2419
AVERAGE2457
April 2017 Top Genomic-proven bullsTPI
11HO11630 | AltaMORENO2742
11HO11778 | AltaROBSON2733
11HO11725 | AltaAMULET2712
11HO11724 | AltaSTEEL2684
11HO11826 | AltaLOBELLO2681
11HO11758 | AltaNIXER2676
11HO11672 | AltaKERMIT2667
11HO11736 | AltaRECOIL2656
11HO11734 | AltaPOLISH2651
11HO11720 | AltaFLYWHEEL2643
AVERAGE2685

Currently, our top daughter-proven sires average a solid 2457 TPI. Yet, the top, available genomic-proven group provides a 228 point TPI advantage!

Some bulls gain points and some bulls lose points. But your odds are nearly zero that every single bull atop the genomic-proven list would drop to rank lower than the current list of daughter-proven sires.

As you make your genetic selection decisions, keep in mind:

  1. Genomic proofs are slightly inflated. Yet, with each proof round, we see less change from genomic to daughter-proven TPI and NM$ because of model adjustments made along the way.
  2. The average TPI and NM$ change from genomic proof to daughter proof for bulls released in 2013 is about -100. Despite that change, you still make much faster genetic progress using a group of genomic-proven sires than a group of daughter-proven sires.
  3. Make sure the genetic progress you make is in the direction of your goals. Select a group of genomic-proven sires based on your customized genetic plan. Emphasize only on the production, health or conformation traits that matter most to you to boost your farm’s future profitability.

Proof analysis and graphs done by Ashley Mikshowsky, PEAK Geneticist

Click to download a printable PDF of this article.

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The proof is in your numbers

Let us show you…

We can show you the proof that genetics are one of the cheapest investments you can make to improve the profitability and efficiency of your herd. Proof sheet numbers may seem unclear or unrealistic. So we break them down to see how they translate within your own herd.

When you use a herd management software program, we can create a genetic assessment of your herd to see if genetics really work on your farm.

Do your 2-year-olds give as many pounds of milk as their sires’ proofs predict? Do these cows become pregnant as quickly as their sires’ DPR numbers suggest? And do daughter stillbirth numbers prove to be accurate indicators of DOAs?

When we do a genetic assessment for your herd, it’s important to realize that we only take into account first-lactation animals in order to minimize environmental effects. Phenotype equals genetics plus environment. So when we eliminate – or at least minimize – environmental influences, the actual performance differences we see are due to genetics.

We want to show you how those proof numbers translate to more pounds of milk, more pregnancies and fewer stillborn calves. So here, we take one of our real DairyComp 305 analyses of a real 1,500-cow herd for answers.

The proof in genetics: PTA Milk (PTAM)

We start with PTAM, which tells us how many more pounds of milk a first-lactation animal will produce compared to herdmates on a 305-day ME basis. We set out to find if higher PTAM values on this farm actually convert to more pounds of milk in the tank.

In this example, we sort all first-lactation animals with a known Holstein sire ID, solely on their sires’ PTAM values. We then compare that to their actual 305-day ME milk records.

As Table 1 shows, based on genetics, we expect the top 25 percent of first-lactation heifers to produce 1,541 more pounds of milk on a 305ME basis than their lower PTAM counterparts. In reality, we see a 2,662-pound difference between the top PTAM animals and the bottom in actual daughter performance.

Table 1: How does selection for PTAM affect actual 305ME performance?
# of cowsAvg. Sire PTAMAvg. 305ME Production
Top 25% high sire PTAM178150844080
Bottom 25% low sire PTAM171-3341418
Difference15412662
This means that for every pound of milk this herd selects for, they actually get an additional 1.69 pounds of milk. So these first-lactation animals are producing well beyond their genetic potential.

Why do they get more than expected?

When we do most on-farm genetic assessments, we find that the 305ME values closely match the predicted difference based on sire PTAM. However, in this example, the production exceeds what’s expected by more than 1,100 pounds.

We often attribute that bonus milk top-level management, where genetics are allowed to express themselves. This particular herd provides a comfortable and consistent environment for all cows. All of these 2-year-olds are fed the same ration, housed in the same barn and given the same routine. At more than a 40,000-pound average 305ME, this is certainly a well-managed herd, which allows the top genetic animals to exceed their genetic production potential.

Perhaps even more importantly, the identification in this herd is more than 95 percent accurate. Without accurate identification, this analysis simply won’t work. That’s because some cows whose real sire information puts them in the bottom quartile will actually appear in the top quartile and vice-versa.

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Polled genetics – examine the pros and cons

The polled gene in dairy cattle is dominant over the horned gene

Polled dairy cattle trace back as far as pedigree records have been kept. The polled gene in dairy cattle is dominant over the horned gene. Yet horned cattle are still much more prevalent in the global dairy population because few producers ever chose to select for polled cattle as part of their breeding program. This is because the real, economic paybacks of selecting for production, health and conformation traits has traditionally trumped the desire for polled genetics.

Genomic selection has allowed polled enthusiasts to focus on high ranking polled animals to propagate the polled population. However, producers stressing genetic improvement in other traits are also advancing their genetics at an equally rapid rate.

You can add polled as a criteria to your genetic plan, but must keep in mind the financial repercussions of that decision in terms of the pounds of milk and components you’ll give up, and the health and fertility you may need to sacrifice, just to avoid dehorning.

The more recent public awareness about dehorning cattle has made it another hot button topic in the industry. The naturally hornless cattle have gained popularity in recent years because of consumer opinion on the dehorning process, and the side effects they feel result from it. This perception has driven producers to create more naturally polled animals than ever in the past.

The pros of polled genetics

Despite the genetic and performance sacrifices made by selecting for polled animals, many producers do see the opportunity to incorporate polled genetics into their breeding program.

  • Avoid dehorning

You can save dollars, time, and labor, and also minimize stress on your calves by foregoing the need for dehorning. The average dehorning cost varies from one farm to the next based on the chosen method of dehorning, and there is a chance of causing additional stress on the calves during a crucial growth time.

However, it’s important to remember that modern dehorning methods done properly, and at an early age, will nearly eliminate stress on the calves, and will minimize your time and costs.

  • Cater to consumer perceptions

It’s a fact that consumer perception directs many aspects of the dairy industry’s reality. Animal rights activists have criticized dehorning for years, but it hasn’t been until recently that the general public has joined the activists’ view on dehorning as a detrimental process. With increased awareness about this common farm chore also comes increased consumer demands on how they feel farmers should handle it on their dairies.

We clearly don’t want animals with horns running around dairies, so the question is whether to dehorn calves or breed for polled genetics. Unless consumers are willing to pay a premium for milk from naturally hornless cattle, you will likely be leaving dollars on the table by selecting exclusively for homozygous polled sires if you want to ensure no animals are born with horns.

  • The polled gene is dominant

The basics of genetics tell us that since the polled gene is dominant over the horned gene, animals with one copy of the polled gene and one copy of the horned gene will not have horns, and a naturally hornless animal can be created in one generation. It also means it is easier to make more polled animals faster than if the polled gene was recessive.

An animal can have one of three combinations for the polled/horned gene:

PP = homozygous polled means this animal has no horns, an all offspring from the animal will be born without horns
Pp = heterozygous polled means this animal does not have horns, but offspring may or may not have horns depending on their mate
pp = born with horns

If you’re starting with only horned animals in your herd, the figures below demonstrate your results mating cows to a polled sire. The table on the left shows that a homozygous polled bull bred to a horned cow will result in 100% hornless offspring. The table on the right illustrates that a heterozygous polled sire bred to a horned cow will result in only 50% polled offspring.

Punnet square to demonstrate the resulting offspring when a homozygous polled sire is mated to a horned dam
A homozygous polled sire mated to a horned dam results in a 100% chance of polled offspring.
Punnet square to demonstrate the possible resulting offspring when mating a heterozygous polled sire with a horned dam
A heterozygous polled sire mated to a horned dam results in a 50% chance of heterozygous polled offspring and a 50% chance of horned offspring.

The downside to polled genetics

Eliminating the need for dehorning may seem like the right choice for your dairy. However, the genetic sacrifices you will make in order to get to that point cannot be overlooked. Whenever you add extra selection criteria to your genetic plan, you will sacrifice in other areas. Here are just a few reasons to think twice about selecting exclusively for polled genetics in your herd.

  • The continuous need for polled sires
    Like mentioned above, the polled gene is dominant, so you can create a polled offspring in just one generation. What many producers tend to forget is that, at this point, maintaining a population of polled cattle in your herd is much more difficult.

As the images above show, using a heterozygous polled bull will not yield 100% polled offspring. To get to the point of a completely polled herd, and to maintain it once you’re there, you continually need to use only homozygous polled sires. This may not seem difficult, but it leads to the next shortcoming of using exclusively polled sires.

  • Limited availability and variation on polled sires
    Since the prevalence of polled animals within the various dairy breeds is still low, it will still take many generations to genetically eradicate horned animals from your herd if you want to maintain reasonable inbreeding levels.

Even though the number of polled bulls in active AI has increased substantially over recent years, the total number of sires providing that polled gene is still limited. AI companies will only bring in bulls at genetic levels high enough to help you make progress in your herd. And since selection for polled animals has only recently gained popularity, many of the polled bulls are closely related – either from a small group of elite polled cow families or with sires in common.

Even with selection standards in place for elite polled animals, their genetic levels don’t yet match up.

  • Genetic sacrifice and compromised future performance
    Most importantly, at this point in time, polled bulls, as a whole, don’t yet live up to the genetic levels of their horned counterparts. With polled as a strict selection criteria, you will miss out on the best sires, regardless if you select from the genomic or daughter-proven lists. When you figure the amount of production, health and conformation that could be lost by limiting your options to only polled sires, dehorning calves becomes even less of an issue.

Review your pros and cons for polled genetics

As you set your genetic plan keep in mind the pros and cons of selecting exclusively for polled genetics. At this point, the overall genetic and performance levels of horned animals still outpace those of polled cattle. Modern dehorning methods minimize stress on calves, so when performed correctly and at the proper time, it should be almost a non-issue.

On the flip side, you could make a case for exclusively polled sire selection if your milk plant is willing to pay more for milk from polled cattle, or if consumer perception drives your decisions.

Regardless of your selection decision, make sure it aligns with the customized genetic plan you put in place so the genetic progress you make on your farm is in the direction of your goals.

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Sire selection vs. mating

“What is the true value of a mating program?”

Many producers around the world have used a mating program within their herd for many years. However, not all producers have put that keen focus on SIRE SELECTION. If you are in that same boat, you may be missing out on the best genetics to drive profitability on your farm.

Selection vs. mating – which is more important?

Before answering this question, it is important to realize what both of these terms mean.

SELECTION – The process of documenting genetic goals to determine which bulls will help you achieve those goals the fastest. In other words, it is identifying which bulls from the available population will be utilized in your herd.

MATING – The process of choosing which individual bull (of those selected for use in your herd) should be used on each individual cow.

Mating programs generally correct problematic type traits of a cow by using a bull whose trait strengths match a cow’s weaknesses. The goal of mating is to breed a consistent herd of cows. There is great merit in consistency, but it’s easy to see that when the right sires are not SELECTED, then MATING has little impact. If you desire to improve the udders in your herd, and only select sires with poor Udder Composite (UDC), you will not improve udders, regardless of whether your cows are mated or not.

Another frequently overlooked point is that even when you SELECT the right bulls, mating also has little impact! For example, if you select only the best UDC sires for your herd, the effect of individual matings will be minimized. Even if there was no mating program in place, you would still be improving udders in your herd simply by using those udder-improving sires.

Are you sacrificing genetic progress?

The value of a mating program is questioned by many dairy farmers. One in particular, who we’ll call Joe, wants to improve the production and health of his herd. With a nice, consistent group of cows, he has determined that the conformation of his herd is already more than adequate. (This is a common thought. You too can test this in your herd by asking yourself or your herdsman how many cows have been culled for conformation reasons in the past month or past year.) For many years, Joe has had his cows mated, but never put much thought into selection.

In Joe’s case, the mating program was run by allowing any bulls from the available lineup who were at least +500 PTAM and >1.0 UDC to be individually mated to each cow. This process meant semen from at least 20 different sires always remained in the tank. Although the topic of this article is not to discuss how many sires should be used at a given time, clearly having that many bulls increases the likelihood of recording errors and reduces efficiency for the breeders.

So, will Joe make more genetic progress for production and health by continuing his current method of mating without selection? Or would he be better off selecting a group of 5-8 bulls that meet his production & health goals, and randomly using those sires within his herd? Hopefully the answer is becoming clear.

Proof in examples

To break it down in the simplest form, if you want to use two different sires on two different cows, you have two options. The first option, shown below in blue, is to mate Cow 1 to Sire A, and Cow 2 to Sire B. The second option, shown in green, is to mate Cow 1 to Sire B and Cow 2 to Sire A.

Sire vs Cow Comparison

Within the table, you can see the resulting offspring’s parent average figures for PTAM and UDC. As you can see, the offspring genetic average for PTAM and UDC are exactly the same, regardless of which cow is mated to which bull. Mating option 1 will give more consistency between daughters, but mating option 2 yields exactly the same genetic average between offspring.

So once you select certain bulls, the average genetic progress of your herd will be the same in the next generation whether the group of bulls are mated to individual cows, or if one bull is randomly selected for use each day of the week.

In one more example, let’s say Joe does an experiment on his farm. He randomly selects half of his herd to breed to Group A sires, and the other half of the herd to Group B sires. Just for the fun of it, we will say that the Group B sires are mated with a traditional program, and the Group A sires are randomly selected, with one bull being used each day of the week.

Group A: 5 sires that average +100 CFP and +4.0 PL

Group B: 5 sires that average +30 CFP and 0.0 PL

The offspring from Group A sires will average 70 lbs more CFP and four extra productive months in the herd than daughters of Group B sires – even though Group A was randomly bred with no mating program. If both groups were individually mated, the difference between the offspring of each group would still be exactly the same. Daughters of Group A sires will still yield 70 lbs more CFP and four more productive months in the herd than daughters of Group B sires!

What is the value in mating programs?

The quick answer from a purely genetic standpoint is that the value in mating is minimal at best. But there are a couple benefits.

First of all, the mating staff is often the same staff with whom you set your genetic goals.  Having people you trust help you design and build your genetic program is extremely important.

The second value of a mating program comes through inbreeding protection.  We do not want daughters of a given bull to be bred to their brother, uncle, nephew, or worse yet their father himself!  Mating programs do a good job of reducing inbreeding within your herd. However, in order to maximize this value from a mating program you must have two things in good order on your dairy:

  1. Your Identification must be accurate – not knowing the real sire of a cow, makes inbreeding protection impossible.
  2. The technicians must closely follow the mating recommendations. There are way too many herds that go through the process of mating the cows, but very few of those mates are actually followed.

 

This article is not written to discourage anyone from mating. Mating can help create a consistent group of cows. And for those interested in breeding a “great” cow, protecting faults is important.

However, if inbreeding prevention is the reason for mating, you must ask yourself if it is still necessary to have someone look at cows to mate them. Both a pen mating, which tells which bulls should be avoided on an individual animal, or pen of animals, and a pedigree mating are effective options to minimize inbreeding.

Drive genetic progress – put a plan in place

There are two important concepts to remember when setting genetic goals, and selecting bulls that fit those goals.

  1. We cannot mate our way out of a bad selection decision
  2. When you select the proper bulls to fit your genetic plan, you will maximize genetic progress, even with no individual matings. However it is good practice to utilize a pedigree or pen mating to ensure inbreeding is managed.

The most important concept to remember is that genetic progress is driven by the goals you set and the bulls you use on your dairy – not the individual cows to which those bulls are mated.

So in order to maximize genetic progress and profitability on your farm, be sure to spend at least as much time setting your genetic goals and defining your selection program as you do on your mating program

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Inbreeding: manage it to maximize profit

Inbreeding is a hot topic…

Are you concerned about whether genomics is creating too much inbreeding in the dairy cattle population? Many producers express their concern that sire options to prevent negative inbreeding effects continues to dwindle. We certainly don’t want to mate an animal to her father or brother, but we do need to ask what the real goal is in terms of inbreeding. Should we aim for zero percent inbreeding or rather manage it to maximize profit?

The linear effect of inbreeding depression

As animals become more related to each other, inbreeding depression, or sub-par productive performance, can occur. Inbreeding depression is not ideal. Yet you should still weigh the negative effects against the added profit you could see from greater genetic gains.

Many producers buy in to the common misconception of a magic level of inbreeding that we should never exceed. In reality, we’ve seen results from numerous studies over time that show the effects of inbreeding depression to be linear.

For every 1% increase in inbreeding for a mating, you will realize $22-24 less profit over the life of the resulting offspring. You will see the same cost, or loss, when going from 9% to 10% inbreeding as you see between 1% and 2%.

Genetic progress

It’s well-documented that inbreeding has risen each year since the mainstream adoption of AI. Despite this increase, dairy cattle have made significant strides in production traits like milk, fat, and protein. It’s safe to say that producers would not trade today’s high producing cows for the less inbred, but also lower producing, cows of the 1960’s.

Inbreeding and milk production graph

Real-herd examples

Let’s look into the records of a random cross-section of 10 upper Midwest dairies averaging 1,500 cows, who implement a mating program on their farm. This analysis shows how cows with superior genetics are more productive than cows with inferior genetics, despite the more highly productive group also being more inbred.

In this analysis, cows born between 2005 and 2010, with at least one lactation on record were included. Each individual herd was first analyzed separately, and cows were split into quartiles based on their individual level of inbreeding.

Total # of cows% InbredNM$Milk Deviation1st Lact 305-Day MilkPTA DPRAvg. 1st Lact Preg RatePTA PL
25% MOST inbred from each herd38107.0158649282580.422.51.4
25% LEAST inbred from each herd37844.5121296278750.422.60.9

Here, you can see the difference in genetics, 1st lactation milk production, and NM$ between the top 25% most inbred from each herd and top 25% least inbred animals from each herd. The most highly inbred quartile of cows was also the most genetically superior group of cows in each of these ten herds.

When we measure actual performance, genetics more than make up for inbreeding depression. The NM$ levels, pounds of milk and milk deviations were all favorable for the more highly inbred, but also more genetically superior group.

This doesn’t mean that a mating resulting in 25% inbreeding is the best option. Rather, when managed properly as part of a program, excellent genetics can outweigh the results of inbreeding depression.

You may not realize that current proof values already account for the bull’s level of predicted future inbreeding. Outcross sires see favorable adjustments. Whereas, PTA’s on sires that are more closely related to the average population are negatively impacted because of these adjustments.

Determining matings

Let’s check out an example to see how managing, rather than avoiding, inbreeding is the best route.

The example below shows three sire options to use for a mating in your herd. Sire 1 and sire 2 both offer high Net Merit $ levels. However, their 8% and 6.5% inbreeding levels would be above the suggested 6.25% industry standard. That alone could eliminate them as potential mating sires in many breeding programs. Sire 3 would be a logical outcross mating in this example, resulting in a mere 1% inbreeding.

Sire OptionSire NM$Inbreeding % with cow being bredEconomic loss due to inbreedingAdjusted NM$ for level of inbreeding
18548.0184693
28456.5150695
36051.023582
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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.

Productive Life Table Chart

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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