Genetics help quest for improved dairy cows

Technologies such as sexed semen and genetic testing were once an expensive niche for elite cattle, but they are quickly becoming a necessary tool for success, according to a new report by Rabobank.

Rapid advances in breeding technologies and genetics are changing the way dairy producers run their businesses and design their herds, Ben Laine, dairy analyst and author of the report, said.

Sexed semen has become commonplace in the dairy industry, but dairy producers are also using genetics to design their dairy herds, he said.

Genomic testing in dairy began in 2009 on elite animals, costing about $200 per test. But the cost has fallen to a range of $30 to $50. Blood or hair follicle samples are taken shortly after birth, and lab results are available in a matter of days.

“Producers using genetic testing are able to determine a heifer’s genetic potential early in life, before it enters the milking herd,” he said.

Replacement costs are the third-highest cost on a dairy, and genetic testing is shifting the mindset from a tendency to keep every heifer, he said.

“Instead, with the additional data, producers can focus more on maintaining the optimal size of their milking herd and maintaining only the best animals in that herd,” he said.

Dairy producers are also pairing genetic testing with sexed semen, which increases the likelihood of a cow’s offspring being female to over 90%.

“That allows the genetics of the most favorable cows to be maintained in the milking herd,” he said.

Heifers will generally receive sexed semen for their first pregnancy due to their naturally high conception rates. Beef semen is then bred into the portion of the herd with lower genetic potential.

Breeding all first-pregnancy animals with sexed semen could depend on the replacement/milk cow ratio on the farm and herd growth aspirations. But that could start to change among farms that have already made progress on their genetics and aren’t looking to expand, he said.

Embryo transplant is also used to maintain favorable genetics in the milking herd. Newborn heifer calves have about 150,000 ova, but a dairy cow normally only has two to four calves over the course of its life.

By harvesting and fertilizing the ova and transplanting the embryos, the genetics from a single cow can be passed to many more offspring. In addition, embryos can be transferred to either dairy or beef cows to facilitate herd expansions with specific traits, he said.

As the cost of these technologies decreases and word spreads about their effectiveness, more producers will begin using them — and it will become critical to long-term success, he said.

“Producers who are not adopting these technologies will increasingly fall behind and see their efficiency lag compared to their peers,” he said.

While the early focus of genomics has been on traits to optimize milk and component production, the next frontier will likely focus on traits such as feed conversion, heat tolerance, disease resistance or physical traits that would work better in the context of robotic milking, he said.

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