Providing the excellent care and environment our animals need to thrive raises the ceiling of how well they can perform. The baseline potential you’re starting from, though, can vary widely depending on the genetics of your herd. Farmers have long used thoughtful selection to elevate that genetic capacity and can now make even more informed decisions with genomic data.

California dairyman Tony Lopes called genomic testing “the best tool we have for future performance” during a webinar put on by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association. Having an idea of an animal’s potential is invaluable when it could be less expensive to buy replacements compared to raising them. If you spend the money and effort to raise your own calves, you must know you can get more return out of those animals in the long run.

His farm began genomic testing in 2016 when they were overrun with heifers. “At that point, it made a lot of sense for us to use genomic testing as a culling tool,” Lopes said.

In what he called their “discovery phase” with genomics, they found that the traits they had thought their herd may be high or low in were sometimes the opposite. Most surprising, though, was how frequently calf identifications were incorrect — the wrong semen was being used at breedings or the wrong dam was recorded with the calf. “That was eye opening for us to tighten up our management,” Lopes explained. Correct identification is the first step in determining an animal’s potential.

Another California dairy farmer, Tim Baumgertner, agreed. Since his farm does extensive Jersey genetic marketing, having accurate pedigrees on those animals is necessary. “That’s really one of the reasons why we genomic test — parentage perfection,” he described. They began genomic testing when it first became available in 2009 so they could immediately begin capitalizing on that precision in their marketing efforts and make improvements in their breeding and maternity protocols. It forced them to be better dairymen, he said.

Find what’s working

Having genomic data makes it possible to find both high-value animals and areas for improvement earlier. “Genomics, for us, is a tremendous management tool,” Baumgertner added. “It allows us to look at our herd as a whole and see where there may be low spots. Then we can select bulls to build that up.” Being able to test calves allows them to evaluate their progress on certain breeding goals right away, he noted. Then, they know if they need to continue that focus or shift gears.

After a couple of years, Lopes explained that he felt the genomic data was accurate and valuable enough that it helped them develop a streamlined beef-on-dairy approach. If you’re only going to breed part of your dairy herd to dairy semen, you want to be confident that you’re choosing the right genetics to perpetuate.

“To have access to those data points and monitor cow performance alongside predicted transmitting ability (PTA) values changed our genetic strategy and sire selection,” he said. “What gave me a lot of confidence in getting more aggressive, and by 2018, completely eliminating conventional semen, was the fact that we had so many data points on our animals.” Now, those dairy-beef animals are a valuable part of their business as they background 12,000 animals that come from their 5,000-cow dairy herd and other farms.

That’s what genomic testing is all about, believes Lopes: putting more profit potential in your animals. Using genomic information precisely creates a significant competitive advantage as you raise the performance and progress of your herd.

Baumgertner also looks forward to continuing their genomic journey. “The results speak for themselves,” he said. Plus, there is so much still to learn about what makes a cow profitable, he added. “I think we have just barely scratched the surface of what we can learn via DNA.”

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 2, 2024
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