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Improving Dairy Genetics to Boost Productivity, Efficiency

For decades, producers used conformation scores as a benchmark in selecting the genetics used in their dairy herds. Frame, dairy strength, rear feet and legs, and udder may be ingrained into the dairy industry psyche, but producers are now looking at new benchmarks to determine what makes the best dairy cow. It’s starting from the inside out.

With the current malaise in the U.S. dairy industry, producers have shifted their attention from cows that look good and produce the most milk, to metrics that look at overall efficiency and longevity in the milking herd.

“We breed for cows that remain healthy and stay in the herd,” says John Vosters, cofounder of MilkSource, Inc., which operates several dairies throughout the Midwest. “We quit looking at body type, and we focus more on breeding performance, health, and productive life of the cow.”

It’s a slow change due, in part, to the time a genetic change in the herd may take.

“Producers are focusing on making more money per cow, and that doesn’t just mean producing more milk,” says Evan Schnadt, genetic services specialist at ABS. “When I work with customers on genetic selection, we develop customized indexes vs. industry standard numbers like net merit dollars and total performance index. For many, 60% of genetic selection may be based on health and 40% on production. Little to no weight is given to traditional conformation scores.”

driven by data

Data, and lots of it, is driving and improving  genetic selection. As the industry unlocks the genomics of the dairy animal, it is developing tools that allow producers to select the genetics they find most important.

“A major focus is to collect quality data that looks at these specific traits, to evaluate that data, and to provide information to producers who can use that data to select the best genetics for their operation,” says George Wiggans, a consultant with the Council of Dairy Cattle Breeding. “Producers can use this data and select what is most important to them.”

Genetic selection can be a long-term process, taking two to three generations to fully evaluate the cow. Genomics is helping here, speeding the evaluation process using genetic markers to identify specific traits. It’s not perfect, but the reliability is improving and is expected to get even better as the science improves.

linking traits to feed efficiency

While still in the research phase, experts are also looking at specific genetic traits tied to feed efficiency.

“Selecting cows based on how much they eat per pound of milk is an extremely promising area in genetic selection,” says Kent Weigel, professor of breeding and genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We will get there. It’s simply a matter of evaluating a lot of data, but it will become an extremely valuable tool for producers.”

“We are working to hone the key genetic traits we can identify, select, and incorporate into a herd based on the producer’s needs,” says Chuck Sattler, vice president of genetic programs for Select Sires. “It’s not just milk volume anymore.”

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