Breeding a better cowBreeding a better cow

How cutting-edge technology has helped DFA members and others in the industry increase production, improve herd health and produce quality milk
January 1, 2013

Data has always been a staple in agriculture. Even the early farmers kept track of the weather, how much milk their cows gave and the health of their herd. Over the centuries, data’s role in dairying has increased exponentially, with the collection of data employing the latest technology.

Today, the importance of data and technology is most evident in the field of dairy cattle genetics. From the establishment of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) in the early 1900s to the recent use of genomics, the advancement in technology has profoundly impacted the nation’s dairy herd.

“Cows are much more productive than 20 years ago, averaging 203 pounds more protein per lactation, with 114 pounds, or 55 percent, of that improvement due to genetic selection,” says Paul VanRaden, a research geneticist with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory.

As any dairy farmer knows, a good breeding program is key to a profitable farm. Breeding decisions are based on knowledge of a bull’s or cow’s health traits, milk production, reproductive health and more. Since the early 1900s, this data has been available through DHIA, which created a national database for production information. While this information still plays an important role in producers’ breeding programs, new technology has allowed dairy farmers to get more information faster.

“Genomics uses thousands of genetic markers distributed across all chromosomes to predict the traits of each animal by examining the actual DNA that it inherited,” VanRaden says. “Breeders previously used two sources of information: measured traits and animal pedigrees. Genomics provides a third source of information, allowing more accurate selection earlier in life. This increases the value of younger animals relative to older animals.”

The Steiner family, owners of Dairy Farmers of America member dairy Pine Tree Dairy in Rittman, Ohio, are already seeing the benefits of the relatively new technology.

“We send samples from approximately 20-plus heifers and 20-plus bulls each month for genomic testing,” says Ethan Steiner, one of seven Steiner brothers and four sisters who operate the dairy with their father, Matthew. “In today’s market, it’s the only way to market high-end genetics. Our calves are tested in their first month of life, so it really lets us get information fast.”

The Steiners use the genomic evaluations when selling their bulls for stud or developing embryos for sale throughout the world. Since the 1980s, the Steiners have been building their genetics business, expanding to embryo transfers in the early 2000s.

“As the technology gets more cost effective, you get better cows and more offspring,” Ethan says. “That increases the quality of our herd and gives us more opportunities.”

In 2006, the Steiners decided to expand their market by becoming European Union certified, which allows them to export their dairy’s embryos.

“Europe and Japan are large players,” Luke Steiner says. “We decided to ship overseas because it opens up a bigger market to us, which allows us to be more profitable.”

The certification process includes routine inspections of their facilities and following specific protocols.

In addition, the dairy has become a satellite facility for a large breeding company to perform in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryo transfer.

“IVF allows cows to make more embryos and is less invasive to the cow,” Ethan says.

The study of genomics in dairy cattle breeding began five years ago with researchers working in collaboration with breeding companies to find practical applications of the new genomic technology.

“The human genome project had developed the technology to look at large-scale genetic material fairly cheaply,” says Curt Van Tassell, a research geneticist with USDA. “My role was two-fold. It was to be a cheerleader to keep the project moving and to help design the DNA chip and pick the markers we were looking for. The larger project took that information and integrated it with performance data in the DHIA pipeline and genetic evaluation. The result has really altered the paradigm of genetic improvement in livestock.”

To date, more than 1 million cows have been genotyped, with the number of genotyped animals doubling every year. The rapid influx of data from genotyped cows means more bulls have entered the system as genetically superior and at younger ages. For the past four years, any bull used for artificial insemination (AI) from a major AI company has gone through genomic testing, according to Van Tassell.

The ability to evaluate bull calves at younger ages means not only will bulls be able to produce more progeny over their lifetimes, but it also equals a cost savings for breeders.

“It used to be that you had to wait a few years to really know a cow or bull’s genetic worth by evaluating progeny,” says Kent Weigel, University of Wisconsin extension dairy geneticist. “If you raise a cow for two years, then test and find out it’s no good, that’s two years’ worth of feed wasted. With feed costs the way they are today, that’s significant.”

The availability of genomic testing has been relatively limited to AI companies or professional breeders. In March, the technology will become widely available to all dairy producers. That widespread availability could open up the technology to new applications.

“Producers who are using this successfully are doing widespread testing of their herd and using it to group them in their reproductive program,” Weigel says. “Let’s say I test 100 cows. The top 10 percent will become donors for embryo transfer. Cows that fall in the 60th to 90th percentile, I breed them with sexed semen. That 30th to 60th percent, I breed with conventional semen, and the bottom become the recipients for the embryos from the top. That could be one strategy.”

Longer term, genomics could also be used to target more precise herd management, Weigel says.

“Similar to targeted medicine in humans,” he says. “When doctors know your genetic disposition, they are able to provide better, more tailored care. Obviously, that’s not so feasible in larger herds, but you could use it in grouping your herd into animals that are more prone to specific health problems and manage their health that way.”

With the advantages to genomics technology, there are also some drawbacks.

“A potential negative is inbreeding,” Van Tassell says. “In actuality though, the technology gives us the tools to evaluate that in real time and proactively maintain diversity. AI companies are certainly competitively pressured to use the highest-rated bull, so that would require some collaboration among competitors, but it’s been done in the past, and I’m optimistic that they can continue.”

Something else producers utilizing genomics in breeding decisions need to keep in mind is that the rapid genetic improvement in bulls and heifers will also mean frequently changing rankings.

“The rate of genetic improvement is skyrocketing,” Van Tassell says. “An animal won’t stay at the top of the list for very long. Another animal, maybe its own progeny, will eclipse it fairly quickly.”

Using pedigrees to predict a calf’s genetic traits can be 30 to 50 percent accurate since it’s impossible to predict which set of genes a calf will receive from its parents. Genomics can be up to 70 percent accurate, and get information much sooner.

“It works best in combination with other techniques,” Weigel says. “Whether that’s sexed semen or just good management practices, producers shouldn’t rely on genomic testing alone.”

DFA member Cory Gillins and his father, Steve, who own Canyon Breeze Holsteins in Minersville, Utah, say they are utiziling genomics with cautious optimism.

“Myself, I’m a little hesitant about it,” Cory says. “It’s definitely the way the industry is moving, but it’s still a fairly new process. I think a lot of good will come out of it, but as an industry, we tend to jump right into things. We don’t ever just dip our toes in the water, we just dive right in. With new technology like this, I think it’s better to use it as just another tool.”

The Gillinses raise bulls for stud or lease to AI companies. Cory says they’ve used genomic testing on some of their cows, and they utilize the results in conjunction with pedigrees and other information.

“We don’t cull or anything based purely on genomics,” he says. “I’ve tested some heifers I think are going to be good, and the genomics come back and they’re not. It’s one factor we use to make decisions, but definitely not the only one.

“Long term, I think genomics will be good for the industry, but there are a lot of other factors producers should look at.”