What genetic progress has been made?

Genetic selection has resulted in impressive gains in milk yield, along with improvements in other traits for UK dairy farmers, in the last few decades.

Back to: Breeding indexes and traits

What genetic progress has been made?

Farmers have been selecting for increased milk production for many decades, and genetic improvements have increased milk yields across the UK.

Average Holstein production has risen by 4,500 kg since the 1980s, to 9,500 kg in milk-recorded herds today. Although much of this increase is down to better management, better genetics have also played an important part.

At the same time, cow conformation has improved, with many functional traits, including Feet and Legs and Udder, now vastly better than they were in the past. For many producers, the focus has now moved to include health and fitness traits, as well as production and type. This has been monitored closely for at least 30 years.

Genetic improvement highlights

  • Lifespan declined throughout the 1990s, when the industry selected heavily for production. However, genetic selection in the past two decades has led to considerable improvement in lifespan
  • Fertility has similarly improved, having also declined through selection for production in the 1990s. Since being included in £PLI (2007), it’s started to recover rapidly. We predict that by 2024, the UK’s average calving interval will be back to mid-1990s levels
  • SCC has similarly improved since it was included in £PLI in the early 2000s. It had also suffered as an unintended consequence of selection for milk production

How to continue improving herd genetics

Step 1

Identify the right economic index for your calving pattern – £PLI, £SCI, £ACI.

Step 2

Shortlist the top 50% of bulls in the economic index you have selected in Step 1.

Step 3

Select bulls with individual traits that complement the improvement you would like to achieve – Lifespan and Fertility index should be part of this.

Step 4

Use a reasonable spread of bulls on the herd, based on their reliability.

Useful links

Find out more about genetic indexes

Learn about production PTAs

Find out about health, welfare and fitness PTAs

Learn about calf survival PTAs

Find out about management PTAs

Discover the different groups of type PTAs

Find out more about selection indexes

Find out about common genetic defects