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Have You Done A Genetic Herd Audit?

Jim Dickrell

If you have never done a genetic audit on your herd, you’re missing an important opportunity to evaluate the genetic level of your herd—and the diversity of genetic expression within your herd.

More importantly, in a commodity-driven business like dairy, a genetic audit will give you an idea of whether you are keeping pace.

The use of sexed semen and genomic young sires in top females means some herds are rocketing ahead of their neighbors, breeding more milk, reproductive fitness and better health traits that give them a huge competitive advantage. “If you’re standing still, doing what you’ve always done, you’re actually falling behind,” says Mandy Schmidt, an ABS Global genetic services specialist based in California.

Audits can also have an immediate effect, revealing weak spots in management that might be holding your herd back from expressing all the value you’ve poured into semen over the last decade or more. In other words, cows may have the genetics to perform at a certain level but aren’t doing so in your herd. The problem might be nutrition, milking or breeding protocols, semen handling or other issues. A genetic audit can help identify these bottlenecks.

For the dairy farmer, audits are easy to do. Most of the major A.I. firms offer them, usually at no charge. The farmer simply provides copies of the herd’s management software, be it Dairy Comp 305, DHI Plus, PC DART or so on, and the genetic specialists then run the data through their auditing software.

“The audits are fairly easy to do if your A.I. specialist has some training and experience,” says Lyle Kruse, Vice President of Market Development for Select Sires, based in Minnesota. “For analysis of genetic traits and performance by quartile or ranking individuals, genomic data is much more accurate. But with pedigree information (using parent averages), a predicted transmitting ability estimate can be created for individual traits and indexes.” 

Kruse likes to sort cows by lactation number and then into quartiles based on their genetic rankings and then does a comparison for things like 305-day mature equivalent milk, milk per day, pregnancy rate or conception rate. “One of the biggest differences we find is when we rank cows is by productive life,” he says. “There can be a four-to-one difference for cows leaving the herd from the top to the bottom quartile.”

Once the top animals are identified, they can then be sorted into breeding groups: Those animals you want the most future daughters from receive sexed semen, those in a mid-range group might receive conventional semen and those you don’t want any more offspring from could receive beef semen.

Garrett Luthens, who dairies with his dad Daryl and three brothers, Shane, Brandon and Justin near Hutchinson, Minn., has been doing annual audits since 2016. Initially, the Luthens wanted to establish a baseline of where the genetic level of their 1,400-cow, 1,500- replacement herd stood. They also wanted to know how their herd compared to breed average and other large, progressive herds, and what progress they were making generation to generation. “We also wanted to see what selecting for specific traits look like in real-time cow performance,” Garrett Luthens says. 

He says it shouldn’t come as a surprise as to what impact genetics plays in herd performance. But the numbers still were stunning. “In our milking herd, when comparing our worst PTA Milk cows to our best, we saw a 13 lb/cow/day difference!” Luthens says.

Chris Terra, who has been a manager with RedTop Jerseys in Chowchilla, Calif., since 2006, also saw differences. RedTop has 6,700 cows and more than 7,000 replacements. He has been doing semi-annual genetic audits for about a decade.

“[When we started,] I was surprised at how the repro and health traits correlated to the dairies’ actual numbers, preg rate, somatic cell count and so on. For example, analyzing the impact that Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) has on pregnancy rate is incredible,” he says.

Terra now uses DPR and other traits in his breeding and culling decisions. “My preg rates have gone from the mid 20s to the upper 30s,” he says. He also seeing a nine percentage point difference in conception rate, based on 12,000 services. The group that is -1 on DPR or worse has a 46% conception rate; the group that is +1 on DPR has a conception rate of 55%.

“It’s amazing to compare preg rates to DPR or milk production to Cheese Merit $ or Jersey Performance Index. Having the large numbers we have, performance and genetics ride the same line on the graph,” says Terra.

Both herds are now using this information to select which cows they want to be dams of their next generation of milk cows.

“We are using this program to help manage inventory, and rather than create quantity, we want to create quality,” Luthens says. “Starting in March 2018, cows and heifers are either bred to elite sexed dairy semen (genetic merit and high fertility) or beef semen. We no longer use any dairy conventional semen.

“We are getting more replacements out of our heifers, [but] we also recognize that not all heifers are as high as some cows so we do use some beef semen on low-end heifers,” he says. “We use a combination of sexed and beef semen on the lactating herd, again based on genetic index value and how many replacements we need to create that month.”

Terra says his heifer breeding program hasn’t changed, though sire selection for the semen used on heifers is now based on the results of audits. “The milking herd program has changed a lot. I’ve gone from 100% conventional semen on everything in the cow herd to the top 40% receiving sex-sorted semen, the middle 20% receive conventional semen and the bottom 40% to beef.”

RedTop is a 100% registered herd, also producing high-end cattle for sale. So it also samples some of its own genomic young sires. “The middle 20% of our cow herd is there solely to have a population to breed to our genomic young sires,” says Terra.

Kruse points out both herds are examples of progressive herds maximizing genetic progress. “They are pin-pointing genetics on the right animals,” he says. That’s a huge driver of genetic progress and competitive advantage for herds that do it right—take replacements out of the right animals and using the best semen or even embryos to create the next generation.

The key to making all of this work is a sound reproductive program. “There was a point in time when it took as many as six or seven units of semen to get a pregnancy,” Kruse says. As a result, dairy farmers looked at semen as a commodity product and weren’t willing to spend much per straw.

“Now, the purchase of a straw of semen has a greater chance of getting cows bred. With double OvSynch programs, some farms are getting 50% pregnancies on first service,” he says.

“With that kind of reproductive success, farmers can strategically breed—picking the right animals to get replacements from,” says Kruse. Those that do build permanent comparative advantage, generation upon generation.

Have a Plan

Genetic audits are a very good tool in identifying where a herd is genetically. But they are only one piece of the puzzle. To make rapid genetic progress, you need goals.

“Early in the game, you have to have goals firmly stated,” says Dan Cerretani, Director of Strategic Accounts for Genex based in New York. “Then you can look at genetic values and trends and where are the strengths and weaknesses.”

Those strengths and weaknesses will help determine the genetics you need to bring into your herd, says Mandy Schmidt, an ABS Global genetic services specialist.

The first step is dictated by the milk market you are operating in. “What does high value milk look like in your local market?” she asks. “Today’s consumers are eating their dairy products more than drinking them and it is reflected in market shifts.”

In many areas of the U.S., there is a move toward cheese or other component-focused markets. Local conditions might mean your milk is going to a fluid milk plant, being used in yogurt or being dried as milk powder.

And where is your local market headed over the next decade? Will it be toward higher component milk, A2 milk, low somatic cell counts? Will your facilities change in the next few years? Are you planning to add technology, such as robotic milkers?

Your management also has to be in place to support the genetic plan. You may have cows with high genetic indexes, but if rations aren’t balanced properly, TMRs aren’t mixed correctly or bunks are empty for hours at a time, cows won’t perform to their genetic ability. Genetic audits can also identify holes in reproductive protocols and programs. When are heifers and cows being bred for the first time? What are pregnancy rates? What are cull rates?

“If you have more cows in the hospital, it really doesn’t matter how high their milk is in components since it doesn’t make it into the tank ,” Schmidt says. Doing a genetic audit can help tell where management bottlenecks are.

The next step is to determine which females in your herd deserve to pass on their genes. Then, it’s a matter of deciding which sires best fit your goals, how intensively to use high-genomic young sires or even embryos flushed from your elite cows, how much to use sexed semen and whether to use beef semen on low-end cattle.

Genetic audits are like pedigrees on a herd basis. They track the history of genetic selection, says Cerretani. For example, a herd’s PTA Protein might be increasing each of several years, but then suddenly levels off.

“That tells a story of what happened three lactations ago. Maybe the farm got a new herd manager or changed with a new partner coming in,” he says. That might be okay as goals change. But it can be telling in a herd’s genetic profile and will have an impact on genetic progress for a trait and profitability, he says.

The thing to remember is that genetic progress in the national herd is relentless. Net Merit $ increases by about $25 each and every sire summary. “By looking at your audit, you can see if your herd is keeping pace,” he says. 

“When we do these audits, we’re sometimes seeing what impact a downturn in the market can have,” says Schmidt. In fact, she says, the downturn in milk prices in 2009 is still showing up in genetic trends, and ultimately cow performance, a decade later. “Using cheap semen then is still being felt today,” she says.

Simple Steps for a Solid Genetic Program

Here are seven simple steps to build a solid genetic program for your herd, which includes audits done on an annual or semi-annual basis:

1. Set solid goals

2. Evaluate current genetic level of the herd

3. Access genetic trends in the herd over time (strengths and weaknesses)

4. Evaluate herd inventory needs

5.Select a genetic selection tool

6. Create a strategic breeding plan, including protocols

7. Stay focused. Monitor results.



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