At the end of the 90s, we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle. Years of selection for increased yield were very successful, but without realizing it, we were also selecting for poorer reproductive efficiency in our cows. Productive Life came along about the time I started my A.I. career; at last we had one tool that let us identify some bulls that indirectly improved fertility. However, culling information came in slow and you had to rely on instinct, knowledge or speculation of cow families and grandsire breeding patterns. Our sire procurement team made plenty of mating decision meeting our members' and customers' goals of high yield from strong udders with good longevity.
During this same time period, one or two comments from producers about longer days open grew into a rumble, and we started seeking ways to interpret farm breeding records to aid in sire selection decisions. In February 2003 USDA began publishing PTAs for daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) and it was time for a gut-check at Genex. Not only did our bulls average the lowest in the industry for DPR, we were fast developing the GENESIS Cooperative Herd as a consistent source of bulls for our members and too many of our better ET donors were low for DPR. Admittedly, we got what we picked for because of our emphasis on yield. As the cliché says, if you ever find yourself in a hole, you better stop digging!
Immediately, we implemented a new selection index for our dairy genetic activities with a high emphasis on DPR. With "narrow your focus" as our mantra and member profitability our mission, we set out to reverse the concerning genetic trend and make high female fertility the norm on the farm.
Over the years, we've constantly evaluated genetic progress for DPR and production traits to keep both moving forward, modifying our selection index as needed. At times, we felt as if we were trying to bring others along kicking and screaming, but ultimately almost all value the importance of emphasizing good fertility. Table 1 details the timeline of changing emphasis on DPR within the Genex internal sire procurement index as well as Lifetime Net Merit $ (LNM$) and TPI℠.
Now in 2014, a decade after the introduction of DPR, we can report a complete turn-around in the genetic ability of our cows to become pregnant and stay pregnant. Table 2 depicts progress made for DPR among Co-op prefix females during the last decade. Graph 1 demonstrates genetic trend for Holstein bulls and how Genex has outpaced others moving to a position of industry dominance. the rest of the industry has made gains as well in improving fertility.
I say this with caution, as it is not the time to be complacent. New traits like Cow Conception Rate (CCR), Heifer Conception Rate (HCR) and the various fertility haplotypes are available to more completely describe and select for improved fertility throughout the life of a female. I also believe fertility will not reduce in relative importance in the daily aspects of farm profitability.
To use another cliché, the past has a way of repeating itself. Despite many years of promoting balanced cows, we have spent much of the last decade focused on udder improvement in the Holstein breed. Rarely do you see two year olds with terrible udders, attributed mostly to focused selection for improved udder depth and a strong fore udder attachment. In general, producers have desired to improve overall cow conformation and also placed emphasis on PTA Type when choosing bulls for their herd.
Not unlike the milk/fertility relationship, selection for PTAT and improved udder depth forces genetic trend for taller cows, and we once again got what we picked for. Rumblings from those that say "my cows are getting too big" now exceed a dull roar. Genetic trend is alarming with the upcoming base change scheduled for December 2014 indicating +1.5 standard deviations gained in stature in the last 10 years, and this trend is getting faster in pace. This translates into greater feed requirements, greater stall space needs, greater risk of injury, reduced mobility and reduced profitability.
Our experience with DPR demonstrates the achievable. We all have more work to do.