Don't be patient with your genetics, because you don't have to be anymore. Gone are the days of waiting generations to see the impact of your genetic decisions. In your breeding programs, there's a long list of ways you can now make quicker decisions and see faster genetic results:
• Why wait for a bull to have milking daughters to know his rank...
• When you have good, quality genomic Predicted Transmitting Abilities (PTAs).
• Why wait for a cow's fourth service to cull...
• When you have a barn full of more productive GenChoice™ heifers.
• Why wait for a heifer to become a profitable cow...
• When you can genomic test her and determine her future.
• Why wait for the calf from your favorite cow to be born... well that one is still like waiting for Christmas!
While you can determine the genetic potential of that baby calf with early genomic testing, we still are unable to select precisely which genes it inherits from the dam or sire. Although you can't control everything, you can determine the odds of those genetics being successful for your dairy operation. The decision surrounding which selection index you use, your choice of genetic level for service sires, if and how you incorporate sexed semen or beef semen into your breeding program, and whether you genomic test your heifers are decisions directly controlled on the farm. When determining which genetics to use, you can proactively breed for genetic change to create greater future profitability and a more sustainable dairy farm.
In order to determine what change will position your business for success, it's useful to examine and understand current trends. The genetic base change that occurred with the December 2014 evaluation provides an opportune moment to reflect on the cumulative result of multiple generations of genetic selection. At this point, I'm going to ask forgiveness from our Jersey readers or those interested in other dairy breeds. The remainder of this article will utilize Holstein data, but I hope there are concepts all readers can find useful in their operations.
Graph 1 summarizes the cumulative genetic change from the past 15 years or last three genetic base updates. All traits are standardized to the same scale to compare the progress made for one trait relative to another.
First, the good news - the productivity gains of the Holstein cow have been exceptional. While increasing the amount of milk, fat and protein a cow has the potential to produce, we have also improved her ability to manage the added udder stress with extremely significant improvement in udder depth and strength of udder attachment.
When looking at Graph 2 showing the genetic trend for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR), we've turned the corner and are positioned for a renewed ability for the Holstein cow to not only maintain, but improve her reproductive efficiency with continued selection for DPR and the incorporation of new fertility related traits, Cow Conception Rate and Heifer conception Rate. Somatic Cell Score and calving traits have also improved greatly in the past five years compared with the prior 10.
Now for the bad news - the increase in average PTA for Stature and Dairy Form should not be considered a favorable change due to the magnitude of change that has occurred over the past 15 years. What's worse is the trend for the years since 2010, evidenced by Graph 3 indicating the average PTA for genomic-tested bulls by artificial insemination (A.I.) sample date. The rapid acceleration of PTA for both traits since 2010 is the effect of rapid genetic progress achieved when the first calves were born from the use of genomic-proven sires. These are now the sires of future cows to come and will most likely set the course for the base change five years from now. Many dairy producers have already voiced alarm regarding these two traits, and without a course of correction we will experience consequences leading to less productive cows and lower profitability.
Understanding the current situation is the first step. Taking action is the second. This fall, Genex introduced the Ideal Commercial Cow (ICC$) index as a more productive way to rank Holstein bulls. With ICC$, a producer has the most effective tool to identify genetics that excel in progressive commercial conditions. The index design has at the forefront, an immediate and targeted focus on concerning genetic trends. It's not enough to just include a trait in a selection index, it's how the index is constructed and the relative weighting on the traits that enable desired genetic progress. There is considerable difference when comparing rankings of Holstein bulls on the various selection indexes. Choosing the selection index that best fits your operations' goals will determine the genetic change your herd experiences between now and the next base change.
To project the outcomes ICC$ will have on your herd and compare it to other selection indexes, we compared bulls in the 90th percentile rank for ICC$, LNM$ and TPI and calculated the expected PTA change over five years. Graph 4 displays the projected five-year genetic change for traits of key interest. Traits are standardized to the same scale for easy comparison.
Use of ICC$ will result in a clear advantage to breed for healthier cows with optimal body condition and greater mastitis resistance. The greater emphasis on fertility in ICC$ compared to TPI and LNM$ is strategic. Milk prices and feed costs will not always be favorable. using ICC$ will result in cows with fewer days open, higher conception rates and greater overall longevity; this leads to more replacement and more options when establishing culling levels and managing feed costs. In this author's opinion, we cannot undo five years of genetic progress for health and fertility by looking within narrow calendar dates of favorable milk to feed price ratio.
Simultaneous to focused improvement on yield, health and udder conformation, use of ICC$ will aggressively reverse the alarming trend for increased stature and angularity and provide the right environment to improve other related traits including calving ability, locomotion and perhaps feed efficiency. Once accomplished, we can again describe dairy form as more than coarseness or frailty and consider stature the intermediate optimum trait it should be.
If we are committed to be the change we desire, results will ensue. Be impatient in your genetic expectations and embrace tools such as ICC$ and genomics that will assist you in reaching your genetic goals.