Kristi Fiedler, Associate Vice President of U.S. Technical Services, Genex
Precision agriculture is a term often used to describe crop management, but in a recent Progressive Dairyman article Robert Fourdraine (CRI Vice President of Research and Development) described dairy management as precision agriculture. New and improving technologies such as robotic milking systems, robotic calf feeders, reproduction programs, activity and rumination monitoring systems, feed trackers and genomics have given dairy farmers a never ending array of options for precision management.
It's hard to believe that timed artificial insemination (TAI) programs were published 20 years ago already! In 1995 Pursley, Mee and Wiltbank published the original Ovsynch model. Since then, TAI has transformed to 56 hour Presynch (2001), Double Ovsynch (2008) and several variations of Resynch. In addition to improved reproduction efficiency through synchronization programs, farms have introduced best practices in animal handling, facility design, pen management, milking procedures and much more. All these advancements have led to a desirable, but potentially burdening situation for some dairy farms: pregnancy rates no longer hover in the mid-teens, but instead the mid-20s. Dairies are faced with more replacements than necessary to maintain their herd size.
What are the options for a producer in this situation?
1. Cull from the milking herd. This was a more viable option when farms had a lot of cull-worthy cows. Since cull cow prices have been high for the last few years many dairies have already exhausted this option to the point of reduced marginal returns. Also replacing older milk cows with young heifers isn't always the most profitable because older cows have already paid back their raising cost and are now the "icing on the cake" after maintenance costs are covered.
2. Cull heifers. This may be a feasible option, especially for herds with low health issues and death loss in their heifer rearing program. Those heifers will be sought after by farms who trust the calves are raised well. Today's market for top springing heifers can provide an economic benefit for the seller if prices stay around $2200.
3. Produce less heifer calves. This option incorporates a breeding strategy using several types of semen: conventional, sexed and beef. Beef x dairy calves are selling at all-time highs. During a recent trip to the Southeast, one dairyman shared he was receiving $500 for Limousin x Holstein cross claves, both bulls and heifers.
Options 1 and 2 are likely still going to cause strain on heifer management if the bottleneck is overcrowding in the heifer rearing facilities. Although any of the options may work depending on the individual farm situation, the best solution for some farms may be a combination of all three.
A New Tool for Precision Agriculture
Universities and private dairy companies have developed several tools to help producers benchmark their current performance, monitor progress towards goals and develop breeding strategies to obtain those goals. Most recently Genex added a precision dairy tool, Sort-Gate™.
Sort-Gate is a customized female sorting tool for use within individual herds. The program incorporates genomic data, pedigree information and on-farm performance data. Bringing the industry new technology, Sort-Gate enables all animals to be combined into one sort no matter which genetic or performance data is used. Previous tools could only sort animals based off pedigree or genomic data lone.
Sorting animals based on genomic information is the most accurate at 84% accuracy while pedigree data is 62%. A big advantage to genomic data is that genomic testing allows for parentage mistakes to be corrected. Remember, pedigree sorting is only as good as the data recorded. And finally performance data is valuable, but keep in mind it is only one cow's performance compared to her herd mates. Also her performance can be affected by events such as illness. While there is not a perfect predictor for genetic opportunity, understanding the risks of each choice is essential to making sound business decisions. In short, genomic data for all cows and heifers would be the ideal because of data accuracy and 100% parent identification.
Offering additional flexibility, dairy producers can choose to sort females based on a current industry index (LNM$ or ICC$) or customize their own index. With the custom index, producers choose the genetic parameters that are most valuable to the herd based on their milk market, product demand, herd demographics, etc. and weight those parameters accordingly. For example, a dairy in Florida may put more emphasis on milk production and somatic cell count because they are located in a heavy fluid milk market compared to a counterpart in New York where the desire is high protein content for Greek yogurt.
Improving genetics is not just a sire-based strategy anymore. With precision management, the door has been opened for genetic improvement through females too. Use high genetic merit sires (in sexed and conventional semen) on the top females and use beef on the lower genetic merit females. This strategy eliminates bottom-end genetics in the herd and produces replacements from the herd's best animals.
What is Sort-Gate?
Think of Sort-Gate as a career assessment for dairy females.
Perhaps back in high school, or during a time when you considered a career change, you took a career assessment test to discover what career was ideal for you. Those career assessments often begin with a skills aptitude test to determine what skills you excel at. Taking those skills into consideration you receive your career assessment, listing those careers that best match your skills – maybe a mechanic, people manager or dairy farmer.
Sort-Gate is similar. For your cows and heifers, the skills aptitude test is based on genomic data, pedigree information or on-farm performance data. Taking that "skills" information into Sort-Gate and applying it to a genetic index (LNM$, ICC$ or a custom index) enables you to sort the females and choose the "career path" for each one. That career path may mean producing beef x dairy cross calves for a secondary profit stream. Or, it may mean the female will be bred with the highest genetic merit GenChoice semen in an effort to produce a profitable dairy replacement animal.
For more information on Sort-Gate or to have your herd sorted with Sort-Gate, contact your local Genex representative or call customer service at 888-333-1783.