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Using Genetics to Improve Your Dairy Herd and Your Bottom Line

Like most producers, Lloyd Holterman Jr. and his father, Lloyd Sr., used the USDA’s first genetic-economic index called Predicted Difference Dollars, which combined milk and fat yield, on their registered dairy herd just south of Watertown, Wisconsin. The herd was productive, and a higher fat percentage added a bit more to the milk check. 

A discussion with University of Wisconsin dairy geneticist Denny Funk in the early 1990s would change how the younger Holterman viewed their operation’s dairy cattle genetics. “We were looking at things such as type, fat, and protein,” he says. “What we weren’t looking at was the productive life of the cow.” 

Specifically, the conversation focused on which traits are necessary to improve the number of lactations and the health of that cow throughout her life, and the milk components you want that cow to produce. 

“That’s when a lightbulb went off,” Holterman says, and they began focusing on genetics that would give them the cows they wanted in their herd.

all milk is not the same 

With the milk from Rosy-Lane Holsteins going for cheese production, Holterman knew that improving the quality of the milk through genetics could ultimately garner a better price; a milk tailored to cheese production would be more in demand from cheese plants. The main component that determines quality milk for cheese production is protein content, also called kappa casein. 

“The B allele is superior to the A allele, and you can breed for this,” he says. “There is also an E allele, but we try to avoid this one since it is very poor.” 

Over the past 12 years, the operation, which today includes Holterman, wife Daphne, Tim Strobel, and Jordan Matthews, has improved its protein test from 2.98% to 3.2%.

“We really focused on looking for genetics that would boost casein levels in the milk,” Holterman says. “I believe improved levels will bring a better return, and increased demand – for our milk and genetics.”

The possibility of newer traits, such as milk that targets consumers with lactose intolerance, could also be a way to give a bump to the milk check. “It’s one way to get fluid milk consumption up, and it all has to do with choosing the right genetics for your market,” he says.

healthy cows = profitable cows  

Lloyd Holterman
Lloyd Holterman
How healthy a cow remains through her production cycle is a critical component that can be the difference between profit and loss. “Our goal is to breed for cows that rarely get sick and calve regularly,” Holterman says. “This area has evolved to where we can now select specific genetic traits that deal with the health of the animal.”

The lifetime net merit index now includes genetic evaluations for six new health traits recorded by producers: clinical mastitis, ketosis, retained placenta, metritis, displaced abomasum, and milk fever.

“A healthy cow simply costs less. Not only in vet bills but also in reduced need for antibiotics, reduced labor, higher milk production. Ultimately, that cow will be producing longer,” Holterman says.

The farm’s laser focus on herd health has a direct benefit to the bottom line. Total veterinary costs at Rosy-Lane average 34¢ per hundredweight. Ten years ago, that number was averaging about $1 per hundredweight. 

“We have to make our margins by improving productivity and by reducing costs,” Holterman says. “In the past four years, reducing the operating costs of each cow has made a huge difference to our operation.”

An older herd is a more productive herd. Reducing the culling rate improves both the production and the profitability of the cow. “Our involuntary cull rate is 23%, which means our cows average a bit more than four lactations,” Holterman says. “Keeping the cull rate as low as possible is where the profit lies.”

The farm’s cows average 24,578 pounds of milk during the first lactation. That increases to 31,830 pounds of milk during the third lactation. 

“The longer we can keep a healthy cow productive, the more profit she generates,” he says.

Cows that are healthier during the first and second lactations are typically trouble-free during the fifth, sixth, and seventh lactations. Holterman says the average production of a cow at the end of the first lactation is 23.29 pounds per day of her entire life. Bringing a cow to the fifth lactation boosts that average to 58.4 pounds. 

“If you aren’t replacing that cow until her sixth lactation, you are getting nearly three times more milk per day of life,” he says. “And that is just milk production.”

not a quick – but a profitable – change 

Today, the change at Rosy-Lane is readily evident. However, Holterman cautions that getting better genetics in any dairy herd is not a quick fix, which may scare off some producers. 

“It’s not like selecting corn genetics where an immediate change occurs every growing season. For a dairy, it can take up to three generations to get where you want to be,” he says. 

At 2½ years per generation, the process can stretch a decade or more. However, it’s a process that is necessary to get the most out of each cow, keep a healthy herd, and ensure long-term sustainability. 

“For so many years, our focus was on total milk production,” Holterman says. “Going forward, we have to change that way of thinking.”

While milk prices remain severely depressed, Holterman says the focus on ensuring each cow remains productive and profitable has benefitted Rosy-Lane Holsteins. 

“We work to breed cows that are productive, healthy, and produce milk that brings us a higher price. So far, it’s working,” he says.

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