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What’s in a healthy cow?

Think about the healthiest cows in your herd. What defines them as your healthiest?

Is it their older age? Is it the fact they’ve never had mastitis? Or are they the ones that leave the fresh pen quickly after calving because they don’t have the lingering effects that come with milk fever, metritis, a retained placenta, ketosis or a DA?

We’re willing to bet that your healthiest cows are the ones you don’t even notice. They’re not on your radar because they simply go about their business, producing high-quality milk with no troubles to you or your team of employees.

We call those unnoticed cows, the four-event cows. If you look at a cow card on your herd management software program, you’ll recognize a four-event cow by the lack of items on her list. Throughout her lactation, she experiences only four events: 1-fresh; 2-bred; 3-confirmed pregnant; and 4-dry.

When those are the only four events in a cow’s lactation, chances are she’s profitable and healthy.

A healthy cow is the resulting sum of many parts: a solid nutrition program, exceptional transition and fresh cow care, proper milking procedures, comfortable housing – and the right genetics!

While genetics makes up only a small part of the full equation, it’s a real and measurable aspect of what’s in a healthy cow.

Healthy genetics?

In April of 2018, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) released a new set of health traits. These traits are based on the database of recorded cases of common, costly health problems in dairy cattle. These six new traits measure the resistance that animals will have to each respective health and metabolic issue and are in place to help dairy producers breed a next generation of healthier cows.

They include mastitis, labeled as MAST, ketosis (KETO), retained placenta (RETP), metritis (METR), displaced abomasum (DA), and milk fever (MFEV).

Taking advantage of the new health traits in your genetic plan offers a great opportunity to create healthier cows. Most of these new traits are also correlated with Productive Life, so if you want the simplest approach to healthier genetics, Productive Life has you covered.

 Healthier genetics, plain and simple

For more than two decades, PL has told us how many more, or fewer, months a cow is expected to produce within any given herd. While cows are most often culled because of low production or poor fertility, those reasons typically trace back to more specific health issues in the cow’s life.

Selecting for PL or the new health traits within your genetic plan will help you address any specific health issues in your herd.

We know this from the DairyComp analyses we’ve done on many large, progressive herds. In the following example, we analyzed the a well-managed, 2400-cow dairy that does a great job at accurately recording health events. We compared the animals whose sires had the highest average PL against the animals whose sires had the lowest PL values.

No animals are given preferential treatment – they are all cared for with the same, high level management practices. With no other differences separating these animals except their sires’ PL values, we compared how many health events each group had. We looked specifically at cases of mastitis, ketosis, retained placentas, metritis, displaced abomasum, and milk fever.

As expected, Table 1 shows that the cows in the High PL group had far fewer cases for each health event.

Table 1# of cowsAvg. Sire PLMastitisKetosisRetained PlacentaMetritisDisplaced Abomasum
Low PL cows6071.325822323329
High PL cows6006.279316167
Difference4.917919161722

The economics of healthy genetics

We know these health events have a cost attached to each case, and CDCB has calculated those figures. The dollar value put on each case is modest – not accounting for lost production or decreased fertility. Their calculated values only measure the direct costs associated with each trait.

Let’s take those costs and apply them to our example herd. To do this, we multiplied the dollar value per health event by the difference in number of events between the low PL group and the high PL group. Table 2 shows the economic impact of Productive Life within a 2100-cow dairy.

Table 2MastitisKetosisRetained PlacentaMetritisDisplaced AbomasumMilk Fever
CDCB-calculated cost per health event$75 $28 $68 $112 $197 $34
Difference in health events based on sire PL1791916172212
Total cost in this herd$13,425 $532 $1,088 $1,904 $4,334 $408
=$21,691

This farm saves a total of $21,691 just because of the genetics in its healthy cows!

Want healthier cows? Genetics will help.

If you include Productive Life, or any of the six new health traits, within your customized genetic plan, you will create a next generation of unnoticed cows – the type that produce well and go about their business with few health troubles.

Environment, cow comfort and management practices all play a leading role in the health of your herd. Now you also see how genetics can positively impact both cow health and the economic health of your dairy.

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Jersey generation counts and breed purity

Breed purity is a hot topic for Jerseys.

Many elite Jersey sires have Holstein heritage somewhere in their pedigree. The Jersey Genetic Recovery and Jersey Expansion programs have allowed those bulls to upgrade to registered status.

These programs allow breeders to enroll animals that appear as Jerseys, or are sired by a Jersey bull, into the herd registry. While the programs are beneficial in growing the registered Jersey population, many producers are now confused as to just what qualifies an AI bull as a Jersey.

The American Jersey Cattle Association (AJCA) board of directors developed some visual cues within an animal’s registered name to eliminate confusion on Jersey breed purity.

Generation Count and a JX prefix have been added to full names to signify a hole in the pedigree or unknown dairy ancestry. Breed Base Representation (BBR) is now displayed on all animals recorded with the ACJA to represent the amount of Jersey blood within the pedigree.

Generation Count (GC)

Generation Count shows breed purity by telling how many generations an animal is removed from other breed ancestry. An animal’s name will include a suffix enclosed in brackets {  }. The number within the brackets tells us the number of AJCA-recoded ancestry, from 1-6.

A GC of 1 means the animal is one generation removed from an unknown or non-Jersey in the pedigree. A GC of 6 means the animal is six generations removed from an unknown or non-Jersey animal. The brackets telling the generation count are dropped when seven or more generations of ancestors are recorded by the AJCA.

Offspring of a mating will be one generation count higher than the lowest parent.

JX Prefix

In addition to the number within the brackets, a JX prefix is also found on the majority of the pedigrees that contain a generation count. The JX prefix indicates that there is unknown dairy (most commonly Holstein) parentage in the pedigree. The GC then tells us how far back in the pedigree the unknown dairy breed can be found.

If you see a bull with a GC but no JX prefix, that means that the missing part in the pedigree is an unidentified Jersey.

Breed Base Representation (BBR)

BBR is a genomic trait that compares the DNA of a genotyped animal to a Jersey reference group and all other breeds. The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) policy is to report BBR values of 94 or greater as 100 due to standard deviations. Bulls below BBR 94 will be noted on their pedigree. The AJCA will publish a BBR value for all recorded animals.

Males will be published on one of two reports.

Males on the main list include those who:

  • are Herd Registered
    • more than 6 generations of identified Jersey parentage
  • have a Generation Count of 4-6 and a BBR of 100

Males on the secondary list include those with a:

  • Generation Count of 3 (regardless of BBR)
  • Generation Count of 4-6, if their BBR is less than 94

The examples below show the bull pages for three bulls with different breed purity. It explains where to find generation count, the JX prefix and breed base representation.

Bull page image of AltaBAYNES

AltaBAYNES {3}

A. The 3 in brackets shows that AltaBAYNES is 3 generations removed from non-Jersey ancestry.
B. The JX prefix in his full, registered name, means that the missing link in his pedigree, 3 generations back, is not a Jersey.
C. Shows AltaBAYNES’ BBR to be 98, meaning he has 98% of his genes in common with the reference Jersey population.

Offspring of AltaBAYNES will be Generation Count 4 and Non-HR.

Bull page image of AltaMONTRA

AltaMONTRA {6}

A. The 6 in brackets shows that AltaMONTRA is 6 generations removed from non-Jersey ancestry.
B. The JX prefix in his full, registered name, means that the missing link in his pedigree, 6 generations back, is not a Jersey.
C. Shows AltaMONTRA’s BBR to be 100, meaning his genes are all in common with the reference Jersey population.

Offspring will be Generation Count 6 if he is mated to a GC 5 female. Offspring will be HR (herd registered) if he is mated to a GC 6 or HR female

Bull page image of AltaCHIVE

AltaCHIVE

A. Because there is not a bracketed number with AltaCHIVE’s name, that means he is herd registered, with either with no ancestry that is non-Jersey, or any non-Jersey ancestry is further back than 6 generations.
B. Because there is no non-Jersey ancestry within the first 6 generations of AltaCHIVE’s pedigree, he also does not have a JX prefix in his full, registered name.
C. Shows AltaCHIVE’s BBR to be 100. As expected, that means his genes are all in common with the reference Jersey population.

Offspring will be HR with no generation count if he is mated to a GC 6 or HR female.

At Alta, we are committed to providing you with the most reliable genetics available. In order to fulfill this promise, we offer a diversified Jersey product lineup focusing on the traits that are most profitable to your bottom line.

We have the highest level of confidence in the genetic and genomic predictions of BBR 100 bulls. We recognize that clients have choices, so we will always market with full transparency.

To learn more about the Rules for the Registration and Transfer of Jersey Cattle, click HERE.

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Haplotypes vs. genetic mutations

With August proofs, we saw a new and unique situation with two Alta sires: newly released sexed-only 11HO12240 AltaMILESTONE and G-STAR sire, 11HO11740 AltaFACET.

AltaMILESTONE’s initial genomic test told us he was free from the HH5 haplotype. However, the more extensive gene test for the causative mutation told us he is, in fact, an HH5-carrier. Similarly, AltaFACET was initially coded as free from the HH3 haplotype, but a later gene test revealed he is an HH3-carrier.

Traditionally, haplotypes are identified when animals have the same extended sequence of about 100 SNPs. Because we know there is more to this than the currently identified haplotypes, researchers are working to identify the exact causative mutations that cause early embryonic death1,2. This causative mutation is located in between two of the 100 SNPs used in the haplotype identification, but prior to finding the true causative mutation the exact location was unknown.

Over time, crossover events that occur in the DNA during sperm and egg creation can breakup and reassemble parts of an animal’s genome. That’s why we often see so much diversity in the progeny from a single mating pair.

These crossover events can also breakup that sequence of the 100 SNPs that we traditionally use to identify the haplotypes. If this happens, an animal could still have the causative mutation, but only have 40 of the 100 SNPs that would identify them as a haplotype carrier.

As researchers continue to identify the causative mutations for negative haplotypes, the specific gene tests will eventually replace the current haplotype tests used by the CDCB.

Although crossover events frequently happen in gamete formation, this process rarely occurs within the lethal haplotypes. In fact, these are the first instances of inconsistent haplotype results for Alta marketed sires.

For full disclosure, it’s important to remember that AltaMILESTONE (HH5) and AltaFACET (HH3) both have the causative mutation for their respective haplotypes and will therefore be labeled as carriers on Alta’s proof materials and website.

 

1Shutz et al. 2016. The Holstein Friesian Lethal Haplotype 5 (HH5) Results from a Complete Deletion of TBF1M and Cholesterol Deficiency (CDH) from an ERV-(LTR) Insertion into the Coding Region of APOB. PLoS ONE 11:e0154602.

2McClure et al. 2014. Bovine Exome Sequence Analysis and Targeted SNP Genotyping of Recessive Fertility Defects BH1, HH2, and HH3 Reveal a Putative Causative Mutation in SMC2 for HH3. PLoS One 9(3):e92769.

 

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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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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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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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