By Jenny Hanson, Communications Manager, CRI
When genomic proofs were officially published in January 2009, stories of its use focused on genetic improvement for males and the gains that could be made through use of genomic sires. Few articles mentioned the benefits in using genomics to identify elite females on the farm. Today, however, producers are taking genomic action to enhance female selection. This is the entry into the era of full genomic integration.
In 2010, males comprised a high percentage, 61%, of all the animals receiving genomic evaluations. Then the introduction of lower cost genomic tests caused a shift in the animals being tested. Mid-year 2012 data shows females now represent 83% of the cattle genomic tested. This totals nearly 10,000 new female genomic results each month. A large fraction of these females are being evaluated with the low density test while the remainder are genomic tested with the 50k or high density test.
These female genomic test results can be used to drive more rapid genetic improvement on the farm. Dairy producers are finding the more they know about young stock at an earlier age is helpful in identifying genetic outliers - this being genetically superior calves or those well below average.
"Genomic testing is being used to identify the best animals to breed to generate the future replacements," explains Kristi Fiedler, Genex National Account Specialist Manager, who works with herds across the United States.
At the same time, producers are also using genomics to identify the less genetically gifted animals. "Due to excellent reproduction programs and use of sexed semen many farms have an adequate number replacements. Therefore genomic testing is a tool to identify the bottom percentile of calves for culling, thus reducing raising costs and accelerating the better genetics in the herd."
Genomic testing of females at a young age is growing as part of many herd's total breeding strategy. Genomic testing provides producers with more data - more insight into their herds.
Vander Woude Farms
Vander Woude Farms, in Merced, California, has grown over the past 17 years. Today, the commercial dairy is at capacity with 3,200 heifers and 3,200 cows in lactation.
Simon Vander Woude explains his vision for the dairy and how genomic testing is being used to achieve that vision. "Moving into the future I don't want to feed more than 2,200-2,400 heifers. Yet I want to maintain our good reproductive program and maintain milk flow. Therefore, we decided to genomic test so we could breed our best animals with sexed semen, the second tier to conventional semen and the balance to Angus."
As Simon explains, the dairy previously used a heifer's parent average Lifetime Net Merit (LNM) to determine which semen product was used, "But we wanted to be more specific."
Vander Woude Farms stands to continue at a high rate of genetic progress with this aggressive breeding program. They had already used genomic sires almost exclusively since 2009 and also utilize very high genetic merit sires for both GenChoiceTM and conventional semen. In the last 90 days Holstein service sires averaged +$768 LNM, weighted by usage.
So far about 1,800-head of Vander Woude Farms' young heifers have been genomic tested when they return to the dairy from the calf ranch. The genomic information, in addition to being used for genetic advancement through the selective breeding program, is also used for targeted culling - to cull any heifers they don't want to put more money into.
"The greatest benefit is the information available to us to make decisions about our animals," notes Simon. "When feeding heifers costs $2.00-plus a day we need to focus our resources where they will be the most beneficial to us in the future."
The impact of this plan is key for Simon, "It will be very interesting in about a year when the genomic-tested animals start coming into the milking herd, when we can validate whether or not this was a good move."
Spring Hope Holsteins
Barb Nedrow of Clifton Springs, New York, makes decisions based on genomic test results in her 350-cow registered Holstein herd. As Barb explains, they merchandise so some of the herd's high index cows and their offspring were among the first in the herd to be genomic tested. Since she decided to begin genomic testing all heifers, 200 have been tested.
Barb turns genomic insight into action by basing breeding decisions off the test results. "Basically," explains Barb, "we want to know where we are starting with all of our animals so our breeding program can be targeted to the high-end ones."
Females with higher genomic test results become the focus of the breeding program. They build off the high genetic merit heifers through embryo transfer and A.I. Then, animals with "middle of the road" genomic results are bred via A.I., though not worked with as extensively as the high-end heifers. The lower end of the herd is used as embryo recipients.
While a few of the herd's genomic-tested heifers are just entering their first lactation, some of those cows tested early on have both genomic and performance results. "It's pretty close," remarks Barb. "There is variation [between the genomic test results and the actual performance], but the averages come out pretty close to the genomic prediction."
As Barb mentions, the more information, the better decisions one can make. "Genomic data is one more piece of information to help figure out what's best for you. As time goes by, I think it will be more beneficial for the average dairyman to incorporate genomic data into his decisions - which to keep and which to sell. Target your dollars where you get the most return."
Paul Schmidt of Schmidt's Ponderosa near Bonduel, Wisconsin, has incorporated female genomic testing into his 1,100-cow herd too.
"We decided to begin genomic testing so that we would know which animals to raise and which to sell," describes Paul. "The top animals are kept and bred with high LNM sires. At this point, we sell our low-end calves to reduce raising costs."
Basically, by genomic testing Paul is able to target his breeding program to those heifers that will provide the largest return. The strategy includes genomic testing all newborn heifer calves. To date, approximately 240 animals have been genomic tested.