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Category Archives: Dairy Basics

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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How do genomic proofs hold up?

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

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

What did we learn?

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

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

Want more details?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proof analysis and graphs done by Ashley Mikshowsky, PEAK Geneticist

Click to download a printable PDF of this article.

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The proof is in your numbers

Let us show you…

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

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

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

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

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

The proof in genetics: PTA Milk (PTAM)

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

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

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

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

Why do they get more than expected?

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

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

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

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Polled genetics – examine the pros and cons

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

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

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

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

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

The pros of polled genetics

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

  • Avoid dehorning

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

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

  • Cater to consumer perceptions

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

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

  • The polled gene is dominant

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

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

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

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

FutureStar with SubText Logo

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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Cow livability added to the NM$ formula

Starting in April 2017, the CDCB will include Cow livability into the Net Merit $ formula.

Cow livability (LIV) was introduced as a new trait in August 2016. It measures a cow’s ability to stay alive on the farm, and has a high (0.70) correlation with Productive Life (PL). The difference between LIV and PL is that PL measures a cow’s ability to be productive on the farm. It does not distinguish between death and culling as the reason for leaving the herd.

Cows that die on the farm are a great expense. In fact, based on cull prices, farmers could earn $1,200 less profit for each cow that dies on farm and cannot be sold for beef.

LIV is also correlated to DPR by 0.45 and to SCS by -0.25.

Net Merit changes

Net Merit (NM$) is an estimate of a cow’s lifetime profit to the farm. CDCB updated the formula for April 2017 proofs. It now includes new traits and revisions of traits using current incomes and expenses.

New changes include:

  • LIV is now part of the NM$ formula
  • Economic values are updated and current
  • Body weight composite (BWC) will replace Body size composite (BSC)

Relative values for most other traits included in the formula decreased slightly. The 2017 NM$ formula correlates by 0.989 to the previous NM$ from 2014. The table below shows the differences in the relative value of trait weights between the NM$ formula in 2014 and 2017.

TRAIT2014 NM$ TRAIT WEIGHT2017 NM$ TRAIT WEIGHT
Fat2223.7
Protein2018.3
Milk-1-0.7
Productive life1913.4
Cow livability7.4
Somatic cell score-7-6.5
Daughter pregnancy rate76.7
Calving ability $54.8
Cow conception rate11.6
Heifer conception rate21.4
Udder87.4
Feet & legs32.7
Body size composite-5
Body weight composite-5.9

The relative value of weight on PL decreases now that LIV is part of the NM$ formula. This adjustment will not hinder genetic progress for PL. Instead, it will increase the progress for LIV.

Body weight replaces body size

Since BWC is more closely related to the actual body weight of the cow than BSC, this change results in less selection against stature, body depth, and dairy form.

Finally, to account for updated milk component prices, the new NM$ formula increases emphasis on fat while decreasing emphasis on protein slightly.

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