Building a Better Herd: Enacting a Genomic Game Plan
Growth can be defined by different measurements. With dairy farming, there is no cookie-cutter formula. Producers can add cows, improve efficiencies and qualities to show progress. California dairy producer, Simon Vander Woude, has grown his herd both ways, but the latter is what he is now focused on. With the help of a dialed-in, strategic game plan over the last decade, his herd of Holsteins have seen tremendous growth.
Beginning with 150 cows purchased from his father 28 years ago on a ‘pay-it-back-when-you-can’ basis, Vander Woude now owns and operates Vander Woude Dairy, a 3,200-cow herd in Merced, Calif. Additionally Vander Woude owns Dutch Door and Grand View Dairies, for a total count of 6,000 cows across the three dairies.
The farm has been in constant growth mode since its evolution, but now with barns full, Vander Woude isn’t adding cows. Instead, his focus is to maximize efficiencies and produce the best genetics he can.
“I got to a point where I had like 1.1 heifers for every cow, and I knew that that was not where I needed to be,” he says.
Future-minded and wired for progress, Vander Woude leaned into learning more about genomics more than a decade ago. Key family members, along with Genex and Zoetis, sat around a table to discuss not only what genomics could do for their herd, but also address how genomics could return on its upfront investment cost.
Dave Erf, dairy technical services geneticist with Zoetis, encourages producers to ask the tough questions upfront to learn how genomics can work best for their farm. He offers three suggested points to consider before getting started with genomics.
How are you going to use the results? Erf says having a game plan set so you can employ action once you get the data back is crucial.
Lay out a herd roadmap. Ask yourself where are we going, where are we strong, and what do we need to improve with our herd? This conversation will need to be revisited from time to time.
Do not pick and choose who you test. “Don’t just test the best ones to see how they come out,” Erf shares. “If you just test just your best ones, you can't make a culling decision, because you don't know. And if you just test your worst ones, then all you can do is make a culling decision.”
For Vander Woude, the initial goal was two folded—to downsize their heifer population and speed up genetic progress for the herd. Results from genomic testing would help them identify the bottom-end heifers to sell off. They began by genomic testing all animals under 12 months of age.
Vander Woude Dariy began pulling samples every three to four months and eventually got an automatic system in place. Today, their entire milking herd is tested with CLARIFIDE® Plus.
For Vander Woude, the main goal today is to produce between 220-230 heifer calves a month to fill the future pipeline.
“Our main initial objective was to get our heifer inventory in line with our cow inventory,” he says.
The health trait they initially focused on was Dairy Pregnancy Rating (DPR), which Vander Woude says in hindsight wasn’t the best, as they needed to look at the whole animal, not just one factor.
“We focused on DPR pretty heavily and kind of forgot about milk for a while,” he says. “We’ve stubbed our toes plenty along this path.”
While Vander Woude was able to see calves coming in with great DPR ratings, they didn’t follow suit with milk and components, and they had to reevaluate their genomic strategy. Today they are looking at several genomic indexes such as Net Merit and Dairy Wellness Profit Index® (DWP$®), and traits like combined fat and protein, and milk.
“I’ve seen a lot of animals come through that have great numbers, but they’re minus 500 on milk. And I ended up culling them because they don’t produce enough milk,” he shares. “I’m still in the milk business.”
To have cows that don’t need a lot of attention is what producers, like Vander Woude, strive for. He says he aims to produce the invisible cow.
“We’re all looking for that invisible cow,” he says. “The cow that just comes in, gets bred once or twice, produces well, and doesn’t get sick.”
Vander Woude says over time, there are a lot of these ‘invisible’ cows in his herd.
“You don’t find them until the fifth or sixth lactation and then they may have a foot problem. I look back and they've never come up with any problems until now,” he shares. “Then I see they’re at 120,000 pounds of milk and I never even knew they were there.”
The California producer shares two points that helped him on his genomic testing journey.
Have a plan. There's not a right or wrong one. Just have a strategy. Are you looking to make bulls, manage heifer inventory, or other?
Build a team and learn from others. “There are really smart people out there that can help,” he says. “They’ve seen a lot of different things in different facilities. Sometimes we get so focused on our own farms, we forget to learn from others.”
Vander Woude Dairy looks at its entire network of eligible animals to secure enough dairy animals to fill the pipeline. They have 40-60 embryo calves born a month, along with targeting a varying number of pregnancies that get bred to sexed Holstein. Everything else gets bred to Angus.
“It's really that simple,” he says. “Some months we have 300 Angus calves born and some months we have 600 Angus calves born.”
“We are constantly trying to get better and make better animals,” Vander Woude says. “That's why we started an IVF program.”
At nine months of age, Vander Woude takes some of those top animals and simply duplicates to make more of them.
“By the time that heifer calves, she can have 5-10 offsprings on the ground already,” he says.
In addition to improving DPR ratings, teat length has also improved.
“We started paying attention to this about three years ago and we noticed we were minus on teat length, and I started noticing it showing up on the herd, especially with heifers freshening, and I knew this wasn’t going to work well.”
While his cows are milked in one of two double-30 parallel parlors, Vander Woude looks for the robot-ready cows that are less prone to mastitis because of her environment.
“It still falls on us as the producer to make sure that they have the best environment and care,” he shares. “Genomics is only as good as the environment that they’re placed into.”
Vander Woude says if he had set an end genetic goal a decade ago, he would not have surpassed it like he has today.
“I think we have to constantly evolve and consistently try to get better every day,” he says.
Erf says he has never seen a genetic audit perform as well as Vander Woude’s herd has.
“I stood there with my mouth wide open. I’ve never seen such a good reproduction performing herd,” Erf says. “I know they're meticulous about it, and a lot of the credit goes to Simon and their team for the program they put together, but I think genetics helped them get there, too.”
Progress is forward motion and Vander Woude says he would not have kept genomic testing for as long as he has if he didn’t believe it paid for itself.
“It really hard to quantify how it pays for itself,” he says. “But I have a much better herd of cows.”
By KAREN BOHNERT
June 15, 2022