Genetic data improve heifers
Heavy focus on milking best cows increases production by 3 to 5 percent
By LISA LIEBERMAN
For the Capital Press
Jamie Bledsoe, a well known face in the California dairy industry, got his start when he bought his first heifer and began selling milk when he was only 16 years old.
"I knew when I was 16 I wanted to be a farmer and wanted to be a livestock producer," said Bledsoe, who now owns Golden Genes in Riverdale, Calif., and runs a 1,300-cow dairy. "I always loved cows and always had so much respect for dairymen I knew when I went to college (Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo). I just thought dairymen were noble people with a noble cause. And it's something I still believe."
As a teenager and young man, Bledsoe also got into breeding hogs, rabbits and chickens. He also made money growing oats on vacant lots where people were trying to keep their weeds down due to fire ordinances. Then, he would make small bales of hay and sell them.
As he grew up, Bledsoe thought he would move to the Midwest and become a hog breeder, but instead, he ended up marrying into the dairy business. Now, he and wife, Liz, and son, Josh, run the dairy.
Last year, he increased his herd size from 1,000 to 1,300 so he could use sexed semen on virgin heifers to grow the business and have a bigger selection of young cattle.
In terms of feed, Bledsoe, who's had a strong presence in Western United Dairyman for the past several years, grows most of his own wheat and corn silage. Overall, he buys half of his feed and grows the other half.
"The old model was to put up your dairy, buy your feed, and put up wastewater in a lagoon, but that model's not working anymore," Bledsoe said.
More dairymen are growing as much of their own feed as possible due to rising outside feed prices. But with land and water becoming scarcer and more expensive -- partially due to the more permanent plantings of nut and grape crops, it's hard for dairymen to find the land to grow feed.
As an example, in 2003 Bledsoe contracted his corn for $96 a ton. Last year he paid $325 a ton -- triple the cost.
"The price of milk then was $9.25. Right now, it's $17, so it's not quite double," he said.
Despite all the obstacles dairy farmers face, one big asset Bledsoe has going for him is that he's always seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing which heifers are going to grow up and become good producers.
Recently, Bledsoe has begun relying more on genomics, which is the science of measuring the genetics of an animal and predicting future productivity. Until recently, genomics were mostly used on bulls.
"But now we can use genomics on the female side, on the daughters of the cows to see which ones might be the most productive," Bledsoe said.
Until last year, Bledsoe had also made a good business out of buying heifers, raising and calving them, and then selling them as fresh cows. But since so many dairymen are downsizing or getting out of the business, Bledsoe has reversed that and is now keeping his best heifers and milking them.
By concentrating on milking fresh cows who are daughters that come from the top 1 percent elite bulls with the best genomics, Bledsoe finds that he's getting 3 to 5 percent more milk production.
"We use a lot of fresh cows, so we always have a lot of extra cattle to sell, whether I sell them for beef or replacements for another dairyman. It's another income stream for us," Bledsoe said.
Golden Genes Farms
Location: Riverdale, Calif.
Farmers: Jamie Bledsoe, wife, Liz, and son, Josh
Number of years farming: 30
Number of Cows: 1,300.