For the first time in over a decade, the genetics industry gathered to discuss its long-term vision. Robust turnout for the Phoenix, Ariz., meeting dubbed "Advancing Dairy Cattle Genetics: Genomics and Beyond" coincided with roughly the five-year anniversary of genomic tests being available to dairy producers.
"In our herd, the most profitable cow is the one I don't know because she is care-free," explained Dana Allen Tully of Eyota, Minn., who milks 1,600 head averaging 33,000 pounds of milk. "She breeds back, milks a lot, has great health and a low somatic cell count," said the dairy farmer who serves on the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy's Cow of the Future Committee. Tully shared those comments as a member of the "Traits of the Future" panel along with three other dairy producers.
"The cow I like most is the one that milks a lot and doesn't make trips to the hospital pen," added Alan Chittenden of Schodack Landing, N.Y.
As for future improvements on genetic selection, "The trait I'd like to see an index for and more research on is foot health," said Jonathan Lamb, Oakfield N.Y. "I think it's a real black eye for the industry and we can always do better on our farm," said the chairman of the Holstein Association USA's Genetic Advancement Committee. "I don't think we measure foot health adequately from a phenotypic standpoint right now."
From Tully's perspective, more work needs to be done in the area of reproduction. "The big reason our farm pursued crossbreeding was our concern about reproduction and the long-term availability of reproductive hormones as the general public looks into synchronization programs," she said. "We place a lot of selection emphasis on daughter pregnancy rate (DPR). As a result, the pregnancy rates (PR) in our farm's first-lactation crossbreds are 31 percent and 25 percent in our Holsteins."
"Daughter pregnancy rate is a great success story in the Holstein breed," expressed Lamb. "Just a few years ago, we stopped the longtime decline in fertility. Eight years ago, we had preg rates hovering in the 19 to 20 percent range. Now, we easily reach 25 to 28 percent.
"In my herd, if you divide the cows into four quartiles based on genetic merit for reproduction, you can see a big difference between the highest quartile and the lowest quartile group," said the dairyman who milks 6,000 cows.
Turning the discussion back to traits for the future, "Our crossbred dairy cattle have been able to carry more condition and that allows them to better withstand a health event," said Tully. "Given that observation, maybe we should look at the ability to carry body condition."
During the panel, a great deal of discussion took place over body size. Producers concluded it was a two-part issue involving stature and width (dairy strength). Panelists focused more on the growing stature component.
"We better do something drastic on stature. And real soon, or Holsteins will lose their clout," explained Alan Anderson of American Falls, Idaho. "You can make big cows more comfortable by redoing stall size. However, you cannot make those cows more athletic," said the lifelong dairyman who milks Holsteins and three-way crossbred dairy cattle.
With an eye to the future, Lamb spoke of both the present and things yet to come. "After many discussions over the past few days, I am more convinced than ever that protein is more important than fat," said Lamb. "We need to keep selection pressure on protein production because it's in demand and it drives our milk checks."
The feed efficiency quandary
One large multistate project is looking to tackle the feed efficiency question by matching daily feed intake to actual production, type evaluation and genomic predictions. While the research is ongoing, Mike VandeHaar of Michigan State University gave a preliminary look into the early findings.
"Our basic premise is this we want cows that give us more milk for the feed they eat," said VandeHaar. "We can improve feed efficiency by selecting for more milk solids and for smaller cows; however, adding milk will return more profit than will reducing size," he said. "Even so, we need to quit selecting for bigger cows just because we like them."
When asked by the audience whether Holsteins or Jerseys were better feed converters, VandeHaar added, "From a pure feed efficiency standpoint, Holsteins and Jerseys are probably equal."
Despite all the debate about the future of genetic selection, we have definitely made genetic progress.
"If we took the best haplotypes (genes) from all the genomic-tested cows to date, we would have a cow at $7,515 Net Merit," said Paul Van Raden with USDA's Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory.
Later in his talk, Van Raden further detailed the impact of haplotypes affecting fertility, which have been unearthed due to genomic testing. He reminded the audience that it is important to discover these haplotypes, but we must keep them in perspective.
"HH1 traces back to Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief," he said, noting he was a tremendous production bull that still influences the Holstein breed decades later. "While the HH1 trait has cost us $0.4 billion due to midterm abortions, the collective traits of Chief improved milk production by $25 billion."
Inbreeding also garnered attention as it appears animals are becoming more closely related to one another after the trend had slowed in recent years. "While there has been a 40 percent increase in the sire of sons and a 40 percent reduction in sons per sire in recent years, that hasn't completely slowed inbreeding," said Filippo Miglior, Canadian Dairy Network, in part because those bulls are all more related to one another. As a result, inbreeding has gone up 0.1 annually in Holsteins since genomic evaluations and the pace is quickening.
Outlook on genomics
"Inbreeding may be an issue, but you must remember that everyone wants to use the best bulls and acquire the best genes. That is the main cause of inbreeding in the first place," said Wisconsin dairyman Dan Siemers.
"The mating that takes the longest is the one to minimize inbreeding," added Iowa dairyman Tom Schmitt when discussing the fact that inbreeding should still be limited.
As far as genetic progress is concerned, "The whole genetic paradigm has brought us back to generation intervals and pushed us to look at the younger generation," said Siemers, who maintains a 34,000 pound herd average on 2,400 head. "Also, the genomic test profile allows us to correctively mate heifers much better."
"The benefits far outweigh the negatives on genomics," said John Andersen of Jerome, Idaho. "If there is a downside, we are moving quite fast, and there are a number of bulls with two and some with even three generations without actual progeny or production information."