Creating the Perfect Cow of the Future
The next time you walk through your two-year-old pen, grab a pen and a sheet of paper and jot down the animals you think you’ll still be milking in the next few years. What do these animals look like? What traits do you like about them? Chances are they’re healthy, breed back and perform well in the parlor. But how do you make your entire herd look like this? How do you breed the perfect cow?
During the 2021 Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Business Conference, three dairy genetic professionals spoke on how technology, consumer demands and personal preferences will affect breeding decisions today as well as in the years to come.
Over the years, dairy cattle genetics have been driven by milk production goals and breed-association classification standards. In turn, this has led us to the cow we currently milk today. However, the cow of today may not be the cow you want to milk in the future. As standards change and technology improves, your ideal cow could look very different overtime – and she may not look the same as your neighbor’s.
“The perfect cow is something that is very subjective,” says Juan Tricarico, vice president for sustainability research at Dairy Management Inc. “Everybody has a different perspective that needs to be respected because it obviously has value from their viewpoint. However, there are elements about the perfect cow that are common among many of us.”
Some of these elements include milk production, health traits and fertility traits. However, a dairy producer utilizing robots may make very different breeding decisions compared to a producer using a rotary system.
“Genetic selection is extremely important because it is the process by which we as dairy farmers create the next generation of cattle that we will be milking in the future,” Tricarico says. “Each producer needs to ask himself or herself, ‘What are the specific traits I’d like to see? What does my perfect cow look like?’ Because this varies from herd to herd.”
Narrow It Down
When evaluating different breeding possibilities, it can feel overwhelming as you work to figure out what the certain traits you need to improve on. Steve Berland, Co-Founder of GenElite LLC., suggests narrowing the traits down to the basics and figuring out which characteristics benefit your operation the most.
“The perfrect cow has to produce product, have sufficient mobility and have a strongly attached udder with desirable teat placement and length,” Bergland says. “She needs to be healthy with a strong immune system, have good feet and she needs to breed back efficiently, have a quiet disposition and milk out easily and fast.”
While all of these factors depend on good herd management, there are factors producers can’t control, he notes.
“The way cows are managed has an impact,” Berland says. “We used to use production and type traits for a long time, that was pretty much all we had. We didn’t have all the information on health traits that we do now. Because we’ve figured out ways to measure those traits, we now know those traits are important to the profitability on a dairy farm. We keep coming up with information we can use to make progress towards creating the perfect cow.”
While the perfect cow of the future may look different than the cow you’re milking today, it’s likely producers will lean towards milking an even more efficient cow in years to come.
John Schefers, Femlae-Program Lead for PEAK Genetics says that a lot of people look at efficiency in terms of a cow that efficiently converts feed into milk. “My perfect cow of the future is going to have high production and high components, doesn’t need antibiotics or treatments and enters the milking herd early on.”
According to Tricarico, placing some emphasis on traits that concern processors, marketers and consumers is needed.
“Our customers are asking for more attributes in the milk they buy, therefore we need to have that conversation with them and listen to their concerns,” he adds. “Our customers are asking for more attributes in the milk they buy, therefore we need to have that conversation with them and listen to their concerns.”
Some examples of this include polled genetics.
“Trends show a big market for homozygous-polled genetics in Germany, which will likely lead to more emphasis on polled genetics in the United States,” Berland says. “[Dairy producers in Europe] have had environmental regulations with phosphorus and quotas for how much manure they can produce. I think we’ll start seeing an exodus from places such as Holland and even California to more dairy-friendly areas.”
Schafer agrees with this statement, adding that producers may begin to relocate in the future as environmental requirements become stricter.
“Look at South Dakota. They’re growing rapidly because of environmental regulations and permitting. In the future I think we’ll see a shift not just in the cow of tomorrow, but also where she’s going to live,” he says.
Making Your Decision
When it comes down to it, breeding the perfect cow of tomorrow begins today. It is important to have a plan in place that incorporates future trends, current research as well as your personal preferences. Additionally, it’s important to consider other factors that may impact you in the future.
“Think about how you get paid for your milk and think about why cows leave the herd,” Schafer adds. “I think if you use those two things as a foundation, you’ll set yourself up for success down the road and have a herd of cows that you’ll really love."