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Category Archives: Dairy Basics

A2: genetic fad or future?

Since its 2015 US debut, A2 milk has been a hot topic among dairy producers. Now, the latest A2 buzz comes from consumers. This follows the launch of the A2 Milk Company’s national television advertising campaign, and increased local availability of A2 milk in many grocery stores.

While the curiosity around A2 milk grows, it’s important to evaluate whether this is just another fad in genetic selection, or a real future of the industry.

What is A2 milk?

A2 milk comes from cows with two copies of the A2 gene for beta casein.

Cows’ milk is about 87 percent water and 13 percent solids. Those solids include lactose, fat, protein, and minerals.

To find the A2 gene, we look to the protein in milk. Casein is what makes up the majority of milk protein, and about 30% of that casein is called beta casein. The two most common variants of the beta casein gene are A1 and A2, so any given bovine will be either A1A1, A1A2 or A2A2 for beta casein.

Milk from US cows has traditionally contained a combination of both A1 and A2 beta casein.

Isn’t A2 milk for people with lactose intolerance?

Not necessarily. A2 milk contains the same amount of lactose as non-A2 milk. So a person who has been clinically diagnosed with lactose intolerance will see no benefits from drinking A2 milk.

Some studies have shown the A2 beta casein in milk to be more easily digestible than the A1 beta casein. This means that the discomfort some people experience after drinking milk could actually be linked to an A1 aversion rather than to lactose intolerance.

Since the majority of lactose intolerance cases are self-diagnosed, for those people, A2 milk could be the answer.

How do you get cows that produce A2 milk?

The only way to have a herd that produces A2 milk is through genetic selection.

For a cow to produce true A2 milk, she must have two copies of the A2 gene in her DNA. Each animal receives one copy of the beta casein gene from its sire and one copy from its dam. So for a 100% chance at an A2A2 animal, you must breed an A2A2 bull to an A2A2 cow.

How do you know if your animals are A2?

The only way to know for sure, is a genomic test. Some companies offer A2 genetic testing as an add-on to a full genomic test. Others offer testing for A2 on its own, for as little as $15.

How long will it take to convert your herd to only A2?

This entirely depends on how aggressive your approach is. If your goal is to immediately become 100% A2A2, you can make that happen. To do that, you’d need to genomic test each of your animals, keep only those verified as A2A2, and sell the rest.

A less extreme option for large, multi-site dairies is to genomic test all females, and sort any animals verified as A2A2 all to one site.

But since those aren’t realistic options for most farms, another approach is to limit your sire selection to only bulls confirmed as A2A2. Most AI companies publish this information on their proof sheets and/or websites.

A rough approximation of active AI sires shows about 13% are A1A1, 46% are A1A2 and 41% are A2A2. If you figure that same proportion within your own herd, it would take seven generations of breeding your untested females strictly to A2A2 bulls before you’d reach 99% of A2A2 females.

Pie graph showing that about 41% of bulls in active AI are A2A2. 46% of bulls are A1A2 and 13% of bulls are A1A1.
More than 40% of active AI sires are A2A2.

What do you have to lose by selecting A2A2 sires?

With 40%, or more, of active AI sires verified as A2A2, you have a good number of sire options to use in your breeding program. This also means that less than half of the bulls out there are A2A2, so you will miss out on some sire choices by implementing this as part of your breeding program.

Every time you add a filter to your genetic selection criteria, you limit the amount of genetic progress you can make in your herd.

Should you select for A2 in your breeding program?

If you are offered milk premiums for producing A2 milk, or see that option in your future, then selection for A2A2 sires is a wise decision. However, chasing that bonus, if it isn’t guaranteed will mean you limit your genetic options.

No one can predict the future. So it’s hard to tell yet, whether A2 is just a fad, or the future of the industry.

Regardless of your selection decision around A2 sires, make sure it aligns with your dairy’s customized genetic plan. Emphasize the production, health and conformation traits that match your farm’s current situation and future goals. This will help maximize future profitability and genetic progress in the direction of your goals.

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Create more pregnancies with precision fertility management

Big data is sweeping into agribusiness with precision agriculture. Now, with more information, growing crops and livestock has become more accurate and efficient, allowing you to do more for less.

We’re taking precision agriculture one step further. With precision fertility management, we are helping you turn data into dollars by creating more pregnancies.

Backed by the CONCEPT PLUS gold standard fertility designation, we’ve raised 20 years of fertility experience to a higher standard. We’ve compiled millions of pregnancy check data and delivered it through innovate tools to accurately and efficiently create pregnant cows.

Bullseye icon to stand for precision fertility management

What’s new with CONCEPT PLUS?

If you’ve used sexed semen on your dairy, you already know what millions of pregnancy check results confirm. Sexed semen fertility is not the same as conventional semen fertility.

The data also shows that the same bull may perform well with conventional semen fertility, but not as sexed semen, and vice versa. With that in mind, we now give you access to two separate fertility evaluations, so you can take a precision approach to fertility management.

Full-size version of the new 511 CONCEPT PLUS logo

Know which bulls will give you highest fertility using Alta511 SexedULTRA semen by finding this 511 CONCEPT PLUS designation on a bull’s individual page on Alta Bull Search.

The industry’s most accurate sire fertility evaluation, CONCEPT PLUS designates whether a bull offers elite fertility on conventional breedings.

Can a bull be CONCEPT PLUS and 511 CONCEPT PLUS?

Yes. Since we know that conventional semen fertility and sexed semen fertility are two different traits with low correlations, we now identify them as such. An orange CONCEPT PLUS icon or logo designates the bulls with the best fertility on conventional semen. The purple 511 CONCEPT PLUS logo shows you which sires offer the best fertility on breedings to Alta511 SexedULTRA.

Why would I want to use sexed semen with average or unknown fertility?

As with any decision you make, there are trade-offs. With Alta’s sexed semen options, it comes down to what you value most in a genetic plan: the most rapid genetic progress or known high fertility.

Let’s say the main goal in your genetic plan is to make the fastest genetic progress possible. In that case you may choose to use bulls that don’t yet have fertility data, or else are proven as average for sexed semen sire fertility. If these bulls best fit your goal of rapid genetic progress, they may not have the CONCEPT PLUS or 511 CONCEPT PLUS designations.

However, if your main focus is to create a pregnancy, the purple 511 CONCEPT PLUS designation will give you confidence you’re boosting your odds at creating pregnancy with sexed semen. The orange CONCEPT PLUS designation will continue to help you recognize which bulls create the most conventional semen pregnancies.

How often does Alta evaluate sire fertility?

We want to help you create more pregnancies. To do that, accurate fertility information is key. To be accurate, the data must be timely. We run a complete evaluate for sire fertility every other month.

We know differences exist in sire fertility, even over shorter periods of time, so to take advantage of the most accurate and current information, we now release new CONCEPT PLUS and 511 CONCEPT PLUS ratings six times per year.

Why should I trust the fertility of Alta 511 CONCEPT PLUS sires?

Alta 511 CONCEPT PLUS sexed sires will give you the confidence to create more heifers and more pregnancies. We provide the utmost care for our bulls, we follow strict lab SOPs, and ensure careful semen distribution procedures. And more importantly, we make firm culling decisions on bulls with sub-par fertility performance.

You can have confidence in the CONCEPT PLUS and 511 CONCEPT PLUS evaluations because:

  • CONCEPT PLUS is COMPLETE
    • It accounts for the effect a technician or breeding code can play on a sire’s fertility within a given herd.
    • Data is collected from US and Canadian herds, and not limited to US herds on official test.
  • CONCEPT PLUS is CURRENT
    • Our team is always collecting data DairyComp in our partner herds.
  • CONCEPT PLUS is CONSISTENT
    • Data is only gathered from progressive, large-herd environments, where management is consistent, contemporary group sizes are large, and repro programs are aggressive.

 

When you want to create more pregnancies, take a precision approach to maximizing your herd’s fertility by using the right tools for the job. Work with your trusted Alta advisor to define your dairy’s customized genetic plan and create pregnancies with a precision approach to fertility management.

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Explore the new health traits

The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) will release these six new direct health traits during April proofs. Click on each individual trait to learn more details about its benefits, reliability and heritability, directly from CDCB.

For a quick, one-page overview on all six health traits, please Click HERE.

The traits will be presented as disease resistance. A higher positive value is best – it means an animal is more resistant to the disease. A lower negative value will mean an animal is more susceptible, less resistant to the disease.

For example, let’s take a herd with an average mastitis incidence of 10%. If that herd uses a bull with a PTA of +3.0 for mastitis, we would expect the daughters of this bull to average 7% incidence rate for mastitis. That’s 3% less than the herd average.

Disease incidence rates range from 1.3% for milk fever to 10.2% for mastitis. Economic impact per case of each health event was also estimated, and ranged from $28 cost for ketosis to $197 for a displaced abomasum.

The heritability of these traits is still relatively low, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot make progress by selecting for these traits (read more about the high value of low heritability traits)

Mastitis resistance is also very favorably correlated with somatic cell score. Furthermore, the new health traits show no significant correlations to yield traits, meaning selection for fat or protein yield will not necessarily cause a decrease in health.

As the newly developed health traits are correlated to previously available traits, we have already been making progress in these traits, which you can learn about by reading the genetic guide to healthier cows. The data showed correlations up to 0.39 with productive life, correlations up to 0.47 with livability, and correlations up to 0.59 with DPR.

The data used to evaluate the health traits was collected from producer reported data in US herds, and underwent rigorous data testing to ensure accuracy.

With all this new information, it’s important to maintain focus on your customized genetic plan to make sure you keep making progress in the direction of your goals.

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Genetic indexes: can one size fit all?

Indexes are important genetic selection tools. They combine all significant genetic traits into one package – and get producers away from setting minimum criteria for specific traits. That allows you to focus on creating a next generation of cows that are the right fit for your environment.

A global industry standard index like TPI has certainly helped dairy producers improve their herds. The one-size-fits all TPI index places 46% of the total weight on production traits, 28% on health and fertility traits and 26% on conformation traits.

However, an index like this assumes all farms face the same challenges within their herd. It assumes everyone has the same farm goals and milk markets. It simply serves as a general overview for a one-size-fits-all genetic plan.

Consider your goals

When you set your own, customized genetic plan, you can divide the weights as you see fit. To decide which production, health or conformation traits to include, consider your farm’s situation and future goals. How are you paid for milk? In a fluid milk market, you’ll likely put more emphasis on pounds of milk as compared to those who ship milk to a cheese plant. Are you expanding or at a stable herd size? If you’re looking to grow from within to expand your herd, you’ll want to put more emphasis on Productive Life and high fertility sires than the producers who are at a static herd size and able to cull voluntarily.

Your farm’s scenario is unique. With different goals, environments and situations, it’s evident there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all index.

Make progress where it matters

Just 42 TPI points separate the 100th and 200th ranked genomic bulls on Holstein USA’s December 2017 Top 200 TPI list. Does a separation that small mean these bulls offer similar genetic benefits? Of course not!

To illustrate why, let’s compare three different genetic plan scenarios. One focuses on high production, one on high health, the other on high conformation. The tables below show the sires, traits and genetic averages for the top five Alta sires that meet each customized genetic plan. Notice the extreme amount of progress, and also the opportunity cost for using each particular index.

When high production is the goal, your genetic plan may be set with weights of 70% on production, 15% on health, and 15% on conformation. A team of bulls fitting that plan averages 2400 pounds PTAM and 171 pounds of combined fat and protein.

High Production: 70-15-15MilkProteinFatPLDPRSCSPTATUDCFLCTPI
AltaMONTOYA2089791058.02.22.792.091.840.932864
AltaAKUZAKI264078798.10.72.992.072.520.752747
AltaSPRITE253984884.2-0.83.032.332.131.532684
AltaEMBOSS260777974.5-0.53.071.311.470.812589
AltaWILLIE212375916.82.22.911.972.100.632766
240079926.30.82.961.952.010.932730

When health is the focus, a 30% production, 60% health, 10% conformation genetic plan might make sense for you. That team of bulls delivers averages of +9.5 PL, +5.0 DPR and 2.75 SCS. That’s more than four points higher for DPR than the high production group! However, you give up nearly 1100 pounds of milk and 41 pounds of components to get those high health numbers.

High Health: 30-60-10MilkProteinFatPLDPRSCSPTATUDCFLCTPI
AltaDEPOT910376311.47.02.480.680.801.002693
AltaKALISPELL1727527710.04.22.751.371.571.362734
AltaROBSON83555898.64.72.861.521.351.422802
AltaNITRO129554938.34.42.732.081.991.492871
Alta49ER181061709.04.62.931.071.441.032702
13155278.49.55.02.751.341.431.262760

Lastly, if your genetic goal is to improve conformation, the team below provides an average 2.47 for PTA Type, 2.86 Udder Composite, and nearly two points for Foot & Leg Composite. With that much emphasis on the conformation traits, you’ll sacrifice on pounds of milk, fat and protein, and give up some productive life and fertility.

High Conformation: 25-25-50MilkProteinFatPLDPRSCSPTATUDCFLCTPI
AltaSCION109848798.72.42.762.803.332.112786
AltaDRAGO162156857.22.43.052.962.792.562799
AltaPACKARD77048699.93.82.402.742.391.762839
AltaCR53137867.02.32.941.692.772.042669
AltaDPORT173558697.73.02.962.163.031.162749
115149788.12.82.822.472.861.932768

Now, compare those different genetic plan averages side-by-side. You can see that a mere 38 points separate these groups on TPI average. However, the genetic values for the production, health and conformation traits are extremely different.

MilkProFatPLDPRSCSPTATUDCFLCTPI
High Production: 70-15-15240079926.30.82.961.952.010.932730
High Health: 30-60-10131552789.552.751.341.431.262760
High type: 25-25-50115149788.12.82.822.472.861.932768

15 bulls in the Top 5

Most of the bulls above rank similarly for TPI. But not one bull appears in more than one of the customized genetic plan top-5 lists. With 15 bulls in the top five, it’s clear to see there’s no such thing as a perfect bull. There is, however a perfect genetic plan. It’s the one you customize for your farm to match your current situation and future goals.

Think back to the examples above. Think about TPI (46% production, 28% health, 26% conformation). If your main goal is to increase milk production in your herd, emphasizing too much on the health and conformation traits will mean you sacrifice pounds of milk and total components in the next generation of your herd.

Alternatively, maybe you really want to improve the longevity and fertility of your herd. In that case, an index that focuses on conformation will cost you 1.4 months of productive longevity and more than two points of pregnancy rate in the next generation!

Bringing it together

Sticking to an industry standard index like TPI could get you the best ranking bulls for that index only. But that index doesn’t necessarily match your needs. If you’re looking for a more focused approach, keep these points in mind to make the most progress toward your farm’s goals:

  1. There’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” genetic index.
  2. Work with your trusted Alta advisor to set your own, unique, customized genetic plan. Consider your farm’s goals, future plans and milk market as you decide how much emphasis to place on the production, health and conformation traits.
  3. Maximize progress toward your genetic goals by using a group of the best sires to match your unique genetic plan.
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The high value of low heritability

Most of us misunderstand heritability. In simple terms, for any given trait, heritability tells us how much of the difference in actual performance is due to genetics, as opposed to management or the environment.

To better understand, think about two cows in two different herds. How much of the difference in their milk production is due to genetics? How much is due to management or environment? It turns out about 30% of the milk production difference is due to genetics, while 70% is due to management and environment. Therefore, milk has a heritability of 0.30.

What about pregnancy rates? Management and environment account for the 96% majority of variation between daughters. So the influence of genetics is minor, at just 4%. Thus, Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) has a heritability of 0.04.

We commonly refer to the health traits like Productive Life (PL), DPR and Somatic Cell Score (SCS) as the lower heritability traits. Many producers believe that low heritability equates to less, or slower, genetic progress. However, in spite of lower heritability, it would be wrong to conclude that DPR, PL or SCS are insignificant as a result.

Perspective is important

In genetics, accuracy shows through when we evaluate results within one herd. In that herd, if we evaluate within a specific lactation group, and then within a specific time of freshening, we find a contemporary group. By evaluating within one contemporary group, we reduce the impact of management and environmental differences.

The overall heritability for health traits like DPR and PL is low. When we break our evaluations down into contemporary groups, that’s when we find the true genetic differences.

The proof is in the numbers

Take this real-life example from a 1,500-cow dairy with very good reproductive performance. We’ve separated out first lactation cows into four groups, based on their sire’s DPR. It’s clear to see that the high DPR sires create daughters that become pregnant more quickly than the daughters of low DPR sires.

Table 1# of cowsAverage Sire DPRActual preg rate
Top 25% - High DPR1742.327%
Bottom 25% - Low DPR137-1.120%
difference3.47%

The same goes for Productive Life. Despite the low heritability at less than 9%, PL can make a real, noticeable difference in your herd.

This table compares how long the daughters of the industry’s best ten PL bulls and daughters of the industry’s bottom ten PL sires will last in a given herd. You can see that a higher percentage of high PL daughters, represented by the dark blue bars, remain in a herd than their low PL counterparts.

Graph showing the real effect that Productive Life plays on how long cows last in a herd

When you select for the lowly heritable PL, you will certainly create healthier, longer-living cows in your herd.

Focus on the economics

As a progressive dairy producer, don’t let confusion about heritability prevent you from using the right genetic tools to improve your herd. Health traits are economically important, and making improvement in these areas can have a huge impact on your bottom line.

Many traits have a high heritability, but no economic importance. In other words, we can make a lot of progress for these traits very quickly, but it will not make a more profitable cow.

A couple examples of high heritability traits are coat color and polled. Both of these traits have a heritability of 100 percent because they are completely controlled by genetics. However, even if we can make cows red or polled in one generation, what is the economic value of that?

By comparison, the economic value of more fertile cows that last longer because of fewer metabolic problems, fewer cases of mastitis, and less calving difficulty is clear to see. These genetic features make a more profitable production unit for each and every farm.

Selection secrets for healthier cows

When you set or reevaluate your genetic plan, take the following tips into account to maximize progress in the direction of your goals.

1. Define your goals

To set the right goals, first identify the most common reasons for culling in your herd. Is it reproduction, milk production, mastitis? This information gives you the basis for the genetic decisions you make going forward.

2. Choose your tools

Health traits offer dairy producers some powerful tools to help correct for low reproduction, metabolic problems, etc. Identify how important each of these trouble areas are to you. Place a proportionate emphasis on these traits when choosing the group of sires to use on your dairy.

3. Customize the solution

Industry standard selection indexes put different and continually changing weights on health traits. So don’t assume they reflect your individual goals and needs. Work with your trusted Alta advisor to make sure your genetic plan is customized to match your current situation and future goals.

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Artificial insemination tutorial

You’ve found the spot for a starter course in all aspects of artificial insemination in dairy cattle. This video will begin to teach you the basics on the reproductive anatomy of a cow, heat detection, equipment and semen handling, breeding technique and evaluating key performance indicators.

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Predict future production using average daily gain

Genomic testing is a popular way to rank heifers as part of a strategic breeding plan. But it’s not the only way. If you’re looking to not only maximize genetic progress, but also future profit, there might be alternative methods to decide which heifers to cull and which to keep.

ADG as a female selection tool?

References to average daily gain (ADG) typically come from the beef industry and more recently, dairy nutritionists and researchers. Dairy-focused studies have proven that individual dairy farms can see the impact of ADG on future milk production potential. In fact, a study from Cornell University showed that for every one kilogram of pre-weaning ADG, calves produced 1,113 kilograms more milk during their first lactation1.

Weighing individual animals at set points early in life to determine their average daily gain can be an effective means to predict which animals will produce the most throughout their first and later lactations.

Take the example below. On this 2,850-cow Holstein farm in Wisconsin, weights are taken on each individual calf at birth and weaning, and calculated within their herd management software to figure out the ADG of each animal.

Table 1Number of cowsADGAvg. 1st Lactation 305-day ME milk
Group 1: Top 25% for highest ADG3322.1833105 lb
Group 2: Bottom 25% for lowest ADG3081.6731838 lb
Difference0.511267 lb

Here, we’ve broken down all first lactation animals into quartiles based on their initial average daily gain. The top animals for ADG gained nearly 2.2 pounds per day from birth to weaning, while the bottom 25% of animals for ADG gained 1.67 pounds per day during that time.

Fast forward two years to when these calves have entered the milking herd, and that difference in average daily gain equates to a real and noticeable 1267 pound per animal difference in first lactation 305-day ME milk production. This is on par with the results from 2012 Cornell University study mentioned above.

 

Genetics still matter

If we take this analysis one step further, we can see that genetics are able to express themselves to a fuller advantage in healthier calves that grow more each day.

When we split the groups from the same analysis shown above in Table 1 to do two separate genetic assessments we can see how animals in each group perform in relation to their genetic predictions. This shows us whether ADG affects whether an animal can produce to their genetic potential.

Table 2 takes only the first lactation cows that were among the top 25% of heifers for highest birth to weaning ADG. Within this high ADG group of animals, we compare 305ME milk production based on parent average for PTA Milk within that group.

Table 2: Highest ADG animalsNumber of cowsADGParent Average PTA MilkAvg. 1st Lact 305ME Milk
Top 50%: Highest Parent Avg PTAM1662.1958634503 lb
Bottom 50%: Lowest Parent Avg PTAM1662.1710531725 lb
Difference4812778

Here, it shows that among only the calves with the highest average daily gain, those animals with the higher parent average for PTA Milk calved in to produce nearly 2800 pounds more milk than the animals with a lower parent average for PTA Milk.

Table 3 looks at this the same way, but only splits out just the first lactation cows that were in the bottom 25% for lowest birth to weaning ADG. When we compare milk production within that isolated low ADG group, we see that a higher parent average for PTAM equated to just over 1800 additional pounds of milk in the first lactation compared to the animals with the lowest parent averages for PTAM.

Table 3: Lowest ADG animalsNumber of cowsADGParent Average PTA MilkAvg. 1st Lact 305ME Milk
Top 50%: Highest Parent Avg PTAM1521.6856932768 lb
Bottom 50%: Lowest Parent Avg PTAM1521.675530958 lb
Difference5141810

Within both groups of animals a higher parent average for PTAM meant even more milk than predicted by genetics. However, when you compare the difference in 1st lactation 305MEs you can see that the high ADG group outpaces the low ADG group by nearly an additional 1000 pounds of milk in the first lactation.

This means that when calves are given the best nutrition and care, and achieve higher average daily gains, their genetics are better able to express themselves beyond what’s even predicted.

Strategic management decisions

With this proof in mind, if your farm’s situation dictates culling extra heifers, it’s best to do that in a strategic way. While genomic testing certainly has its merits for this purpose, the power of monitoring and measuring ADGs can serve as an effective alternative.

If the animals that perform well early in life go on to perform better than herdmates later in life, it’s an easy decision to keep the fastest growing animals in your herd. If you cull those calves that perform at a sub-par level from the start, you can avoid the feed costs for animals that will produce less than herdmates in the future, and avoid housing for animals that you may not have room for on your farm.

Knowing that those healthy calves will put extra pounds in the tank down the road also enforces the power of proper and progressive calf nutrition and a sharp focus on overall calf health. Even when times are tight, the future of your milking herd should not be put on the back burner.

 

Points to ponder

  • When implementing a strategic plan to cull heifers, consider weighing each individual calf at various milestones in her life to determine average daily gains. A ranking based on ADG to sort which heifers to keep and which to cull can have a big impact on overall future costs of production.

  • Don’t let the genetics you select go to waste. An animal’s genetics are expressed best when she receives the best nutrition and care from day one. The amount each calf gains per day, even in those first few months, will make a major impact on future production potential.

 

References:

Soberon F, Raffrenato E, Everett RW and Van Amburgh ME. 2012. Preweaning milk replacer intake and effects on long-term productivity of dairy calves. J Dairy Sci. 2012 Feb;95(2):783-93. doi: 10.3168/jds.2011-4391.
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Genetics and A2 milk: what you need to know

As consumers continuously look for new ways to eat healthy, A2 milk is a trend that emerges on their radar. A2 milk has been a common brand in Australia and New Zealand for several years. It only made its entry to the US marketplace in 2015.

It’s a new concept for many people, so before you join in on the A2 hype, here are a few answers to questions you may have.

What is A2 milk?

A2 milk is produced only from cows having two copies of the A2 gene for beta casein.

To explain further, cows’ milk is about 87 percent water. The remaining 13 percent is a combination of lactose, fat, protein, and minerals that make up the solids in milk.

If we focus on the protein within milk, the major component of that protein is called casein. About 30% of the casein within milk is called beta casein. The two most common variants of the beta casein gene are A1 and A2, so any given bovine will be either A1A1, A1A2 or A2A2 for beta casein.

In the United States nearly 100% of the milk contains a combination of both A1 and A2 beta casein.

What is the benefit of A2 milk?

Researchers believe that A2 is the more natural variant of beta casein, and A1 was the result of a natural genetic mutation that occurred when cattle were first domesticated. With that in mind, studies have been done to see if people digest or react to true A2 milk differently than regular milk.

Some of those studies have found that people drinking milk exclusively from cows producing A2 milk were less susceptible to bloating and indigestion – leading some to conclude that A2 milk is a healthier option than regular milk. The exact science behind the difference in A1 versus A2 milk is complicated, but research has shown that digestive enzymes interact with A1 and A2 beta-casein proteins in different ways. Because of that, A1 and A2 milk are processed differently within the body.

Can you breed for A2 milk?

Yes, in fact the only way to have cows that produce A2 milk is to breed for it.

True A2 milk can only be produced from cattle possessing two copies of the A2 gene in their DNA. Each animal receives one copy of the gene from its sire and one copy from its dam. So for a chance to get an animal with the A2A2 makeup, you must breed a bull with at least one copy of the A2 allele to a cow with at least one copy of the A2 allele.

To ensure with 100% certainty that a female will produce A2 milk once she freshens, she must be the result of mating a cow with two copies of the A2 gene to a sire that also has two copies of the A2 gene.

Does A2 milk only come from colored breeds of dairy cattle?

Traditionally, colored breeds of dairy cattle, such as Jerseys and Guernseys have been the poster children for the A2 gene. Those two breeds still have a higher proportion of A2A2 animals. However, some of the popular Holstein sires of recent years have increased the prevalence of A2A2 sires in the black and white breed as well.

You may be surprised that about 40% of the Holstein sires in active AI lineups, including numerous household names, have two copies of the A2 gene. In addition, over 80% of Holstein sires have at least one copy of the A2 gene.

Is A2 milk the answer for people with lactose intolerance?

A2 milk contains the same amount of lactose as non-A2 milk. So in clinically-diagnosed cases of lactose intolerance, A2 milk will not provide the benefits that lactose-free milk would offer.

Since most cases of lactose intolerance are self-diagnosed, some doctors believe the cause of indigestion in those cases is actually linked to an A1 aversion rather than lactose intolerance. In those cases, drinking A2 milk may help prevent the side-effects otherwise experienced from drinking regular milk.

Should you select for A2 in your breeding program?

With this new information at hand, it may seem compelling to produce only true A2 milk. Many A2A2 sires are available, but you still have an opportunity cost by selecting only A2A2 sires.

When A2A2 is a limiting factor in your genetic selection, you’ll eliminate about half of all bulls available. That means you will likely miss out on pounds of milk, extra health and improved fertility traits.

Regardless of your selection decision around A2 sires, make sure it aligns with the customized genetic plan you put in place on your farm so you can maximize profitability and genetic progress in the direction of your goals.

 

Click HERE to view a list of Alta’s current A2A2 sires.

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Proof terminology explained

The letters, numbers and acronyms on a proof sheet can be complicated. Here, we break down the meaning and explanation of the proof indexes, traits and terminology.
Selection indexes

Genetic selection indexes are set by national organizations or breed associations. Genetic indexes help dairy producers focus on a total approach to genetic improvement, rather than limiting progress by single trait selection.

However, each farm is unique, with different situations and future plans. With that in mind, it’s important to understand what traits are included in each industry standard index. When you know what’s included, you can more effectively evaluate if the index truly matches your farm’s goals.

TPI = Total Performance Index
TPI is calculated by the Holstein Association USA (HA-USA) and includes the following trait weightings.

Image to show the weights on production, health and type for the TPI Index

PRODUCTION TRAITS = 46%

21% Pounds of protein
17% Pounds of fat
8% Feed efficiency

HEALTH TRAITS = 28%

13% Fertility index
-5% Somatic cell score
4% Productive life
3% Cow livability
2% Daughter calving ease
1% Daughter stillbirth

TYPE TRAITS = 26%

11% Udder composite
8% PTA type
6% Foot & leg composite
-1% Dairy form

NM$ = Net Merit Dollars

NM$ is a genetic index value calculated by the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB). It describes the expected lifetime profit per cow as compared to the base of the population born in 2010. Trait weightings are generally updated approximately every five years and include emphasis on the following traits. The current trait breakdown is in place as of August 2018. Please note that trait weights are rounded to the nearest percentage.

A bar showing the breakdown weights of Net Merit $ as 45% on Production traits, 40% on health traits and 15% on type traits

PRODUCTION TRAITS = 45%

26.8% Pounds of fat
16.9% Pounds of protein
-0.7%  Pounds of milk

HEALTH TRAITS = 40%

12.1%   Productive life
7.3%     Cow livability
6.7%     Daughter pregnancy rate
-4.0%     Somatic cell score
4.8%     Calving ability
2.3%     HLTH%
1.6%     Cow conception rate
1.4%     Heifer conception rate

TYPE TRAITS = 15%

7.4%  Udder composite
-5.3%  Body weight composite
2.7%  Foot & leg composite

CM$ = Cheese Merit Dollars

CM$ is an index calculated to account for milk sold to be made into cheese or other dairy products. The current CM$ index was adjusted in April 2017 and the following trait weights are considered. Please take note that trait weights shown have been rounded to the nearest percentage.

Image showing the trait breakdowns for production, health and type within the Cheese Merit dollars formula

PRODUCTION = 50%

22% Pounds of protein
20% Pounds of fat
-8% Pounds of milk

HEALTH = 37%

12% Productive life
-7% Somatic cell score
6% Cow livability
6% Daughter pregnancy rate
4% Calving ability
1% Cow conception rate
1% Heifer conception rate

TYPE TRAITS = 13%

6% Udder
-5% Body weight composite
2% Foot & leg

GENERAL PROOF TERMS

CDCB: Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding
Calculates production and health trait information for all breeds

MACE: Multiple-trait across country evaluation
Denotes that a bull’s proof evaluation includes daughter information from multiple countries

PTA: Predicted transmitting ability
The estimate of genetic superiority or inferiority for a given trait that an animal is predicted to transmit to its offspring. This value is based on the animal’s own records and the records of known relatives.

EFI: Effective future inbreeding
An estimate, based on pedigree, of the level of inbreeding that the progeny of a given animal will contribute in the population if mated at random

GFI: Genomic future inbreeding
Similar to EFI, an animal’s GFI als predicts the level of inbreeding he/she will contribute in the population if mated at random. Yet, GFI provides a more accurate prediction. It takes into account genomic test results and the actual genes an animal has.

aAa: an independent method for making mating decisions

DMS: a separate, independent method for making mating decisions

 

PRODUCTION TRAITS

PTAM: Predicted transmitting ability for milk

PTAP: Predicted transmitting ability for protein

PTAF: Predicted transmitting ability for fat

PRel: the percent reliability of a sire’s production proof

 

HEALTH & FERTILITY TRAITS

PL: Productive Life
Measured as the total number of additional or fewer productive months that you can expect from a bull’s daughters over their lifetime. Cows receive credit for each month of lactation, with more credit given to the first months around peak production, and less credit given for months further out in lactation. More credit is also given for older cows than for younger animals.  

LIV: Cow livability
Measure of a cow’s ability to remain alive while in the milking herd.

SCS: Somatic cell score
The log score of somatic cells per milliliter.

DPR: Daughter pregnancy rate
Daughter Pregnancy Rate is defined as the percentage of non-pregnant cows that become pregnant during each 21-day period. A DPR of ‘1.0’ implies that daughters from this bull are 1% more likely to become pregnant during that estrus cycle than a bull with an evaluation of zero. Each increase of 1% in PTA DPR equals a decrease of 4 days in PTA days open.

HCR: Heifer conception rate
A virgin heifer’s ability to conceive – defined as the percentage of inseminated heifers that become pregnant at each service. An HCR of 1.0 implies that daughters of this bull are 1% more likely to become pregnant as a heifer than daughters of a bull with an evaluation of 0.0

CCR: Cow conception rate
A lactating cow’s ability to conceive – defined as the percentage of inseminated cows that become pregnant at each service. A bull’s CCR of 1.0 implies that daughters of this bull are 1% more likely to become pregnant during that lactation than daughters of a bull with an evaluation of 0.0.

MAST: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to clinical mastitis
Daughters of a bull with a MAST value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer cases of mastitis than the average herdmate.

METR: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to metritis
Daughters of a bull with a METR value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer recorded cases of metritis than the average herdmate.

KET: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to ketosis
Daughters of a bull with a KET value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer recorded cases of ketosis than the average herdmate.

DA: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to displaced abomasum
Daughters of a bull with a DA value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer recorded cases of displaced abomasum than the average herdmate.

MFEV: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to milk fever (hypocalcemia)
Daughters of a bull with a MFEV value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer recorded cases of milk fever than the average herdmate.

RP: expected resistance of an animal’s offspring to retained placenta
Daughters of a bull with a RP value of +1.0 are expected to have 1% fewer recorded cases of retained placenta than the average herdmate.

HRel: the reliability percentage for a sire’s health traits

 

CALVING TRAITS

SCE: Sire calving ease
The percentage of bull’s calves born that are considered difficult in first lactation animals. Difficult births include those coded as a score of 3, 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5.

DCE: Daughter calving ease
The percentage of a bull’s daughters who have difficult births during their first calving. Difficult calvings are those coded as a 3, 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5.

SSB: Sire stillbirth
The percentage of a bull’s offspring that are born dead to first lactation animals.

DSB: Daughter stillbirth
The percentage of a bull’s daughters who give birth to a dead calf in their first lactation.

 

TYPE / CONFORMATION TRAITS

PTAT, UDC and FLC are all calculated by the Holstein Association USA.

PTAT: Predicted transmitting for type – referring to the total conformation of an animal

UDC: Udder composite index; comprised of the following linear trait weights:
19% Rear udder height
17% Udder depth
-17% Stature
6% Rear udder width
13% Fore udder attachment
7% Udder Cleft
4% Rear teat optimum
4% Teat length optimum
3% Front teat placement

FLC: Foot and leg composite index; comprised of the following trait weights:
58% foot and leg classification score
18% rear legs rear view
-17% stature
8% foot angle

TRel = the percent reliability for a sire’s conformation/type proof

 

GENETIC CODES

POLLED
PO: observed polled
PC: genomic tested as heterozygous polled; means 50% of offspring are expected to be observed as polled
PP: genomic tested as homozygous polled; means that 100% of offspring are expected to be observed as polled

COAT COLOR
RC: carries the recessive gene for red coat color
DR: carries a dominant gene for red coat color

RECESSIVES & HAPLOTYPES

These codes, or symbols representing the code, will only show up on a proof sheet if an animal is a carrier or test positive for one of the following. The acronyms denoting that an animal is tested free of a recessive will only show up on its pedigree.

BY: Brachyspina
TY: Tested free of brachyspina

BL: BLADS, or Bovine leukocyte adhesion deficiency
TL: Tested free of BLADS

CV: CVM or Complex vertebral malformation
TV: Tested free of CVM

DP: DUMPS, or Deficiency of the uridine monophosphate synthase
TD: Tested free of DUMPS

MF: Mulefoot
TM: Tested free of mulefoot

HH1, HH2, HH3, HH4, HH5: Holstein haplotypes that negatively affect fertility
HCD: Holstein haplotype for cholesterol deficiency

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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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Two questions that will transform the way you breed your herd

There’s no other dairy farm in the world exactly like yours. So it’s important to ask yourself a couple questions to determine your ideal breeding goals.

You could use one of the US industry standard indexes to select the genetics for your herd. Their split weights on production, health and conformation will certainly help you make genetic gains in your herd. But will that progress actually match your farm’s current situation and future plans?

As a reminder, the following charts show the weights for the two most common US genetic indexes.

TPI:
Image to show the weights on production, health and type for the TPI Index
NM:
Image to show trait weights for production, health and conformation within Net Merit $.

Since your farm is unique, your best option is to create your own customized genetic plan to get the right genetics to match your goals.

Ask yourself these two important questions to decide which traits to emphasize in your genetic plan.

1. How do you get paid for your milk?

The majority of dairy producers make their main profit from the sale of milk. How that milk is priced varies greatly from one part of the country to another. Most milk produced in Florida is sold for fluid consumption, while much of Wisconsin’s milk goes into making cheese. The milk from some farms goes strictly into butter. Others’ is made into ice cream. Many cooperatives also pay premiums for low somatic cell counts.

Regardless where you ship your milk, the simple way to maximize your milk check is to select the right genetics to match your situation. To explain this, we focus in on the production traits of your genetic plan, which include milk, fat and protein.

If your farm’s milk is made into cheese, you’re likely paid on components, rather than total fluid volume. In that case, selection emphasis on protein will garner your greatest return on genetic investment.

If you farm in a fluid milk market, strict selection for NM$ could actually hinder your progress since NM$ includes a negative weighting on total pounds of milk.

Management practices play the largest role in the performance you see, but the right genetic choices will aid your future profit potential. For example, it takes top-level management practices to achieve ideal somatic cell counts. Yet, if your milk company offers milk quality premiums, genetic selection for low Somatic Cell Score is a logical choice to boost the benefits of your management even further.

Don’t leave dollars on the table. Within your genetic plan, make sure you emphasize the production traits to match how you get paid for your milk.

2. Why do your cows leave the herd?

Regardless if you are in expansion mode or maintaining steady numbers, some animals will leave your herd for one reason or another.

If you’re gradually growing to prepare for a future expansion project, you’ll benefit from heavier genetic selection emphasis on traits like Productive Life. This will keep your cattle numbers on the rise by creating healthier, longer-living cows.

Selection for CONCEPT PLUS high sire fertility will help you create more pregnancies now. Selection for fertility traits like Daughter Pregnancy Rate will help you create a next generation of more fertile females. If you focus on both male and female fertility you will end up with the additional replacements you’ll need.

On the flip side, if your farm is at max capacity with more replacements than you can accommodate, different traits will make a more profitable impact. If your farm sells extra springing heifers or fresh two-year-olds for dairy purposes, you know that buyers choose the stronger, well-grown animals with ideal feet and legs and favorable udders. In that case, a heavier selection emphasis on Udder Composite and Foot & Leg Composite can provide profitable returns on your genetic investment.

However, when your herd size is steady and you don’t sell extra heifers for dairy purposes, it’s important to question your selection for conformation traits. How many cows have you culled in the past year for poor udders or feet and legs?

If the answer is none, you could be limiting your future profitability.

AI companies already provide you with a high level of selection intensity for conformation. Their sire criteria often uses those industry standard indexes with 26% or 16% emphasis on conformation.

If you emphasize conformation traits, but you don’t cull any animals for poor udders or feet and legs, you are missing out on future profits. When you put your weight on conformation, your sacrifice extra selection for production, improved health and additional pregnancies.

Consider your genetic plan

There’s no other dairy in the world identical to yours.

Keep that in mind as you choose the genetics to create your next generation. While industry standard selection indexes can improve your genetics, they don’t necessarily align with your farm’s situation and goals.

Think about how you get paid for milk and the main reasons that cows leave your herd. When you customize your genetic plan to fit your farm’s needs, you will maximize your future milk checks and minimize your involuntary culls.

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A Q&A on DWP$ and WT$ – Dairy Wellness Profit $ / Wellness Trait $

Dairy Wellness Profit $ and Wellness Trait $ indexes

The Dairy Wellness Profit $ and Wellness Trait $ indexes may have you wondering whether you should adjust your genetic plan to include this information. We want to help you decide what’s best for your dairy. So we answer a few questions about DWP$ and WT$ to help you better understand these indexes.

What is Dairy Wellness Profit $ (DWP$)?

Dairy Wellness Profit $ (DWP$) is a genetic selection index. It equates to a genetic plan of 34% production–56% health–10% conformation. This differs from TPI (46-28-26) and the overall NM$ index (43-41-16).

The breakdown of the weight on health is different as well. DWP$ puts 30% of the health trait weight on WT$. This leaves 26% for the CDCB evaluated health traits of PL, DPR, SCS, DSB, DCE, CCR, HCR.

What is Wellness Trait $ (WT$?)

WT$ is a combination of the Wellness Traits (ketosis, displaced abomasum, retained placenta, metritis, mastitis and lameness). This means it is an index analogous to a 0-100-0 index, with 100% weight on health traits. However, those weights are divided between the various Wellness traits that Zoetis calculates.

Do each of the Wellness Traits get their own evaluation?

Yes. They are then combined into a Wellness Trait $ index to combine the expected impact.

Does Alta test all bulls for DWP$ and WT$?

No, but we test the sires that we predict will do well on the respective indexes. We test our bulls that have favorable health trait values and rank well on a 34% Production-56% Health-10% Conformation index. We list the top ten DWP$ sires and top five WT$ bulls in each of three categories: G-STARS, FUTURE STARS and daughter-proven sires.

What is Alta’s testing plan going forward?

This will be dependent on the feedback from the customers and the demand for this information. In the short-term we will continue to test those sires that rank well on a traditional 34-56-10 index.

How can we predict which sires will do well on these indexes?

Because the correlation between DWP$ and a traditional 34% production – 56% health – 10% conformation index is very high, we can predict quite well which sires will rank well on the DWP$ index.

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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.

# 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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