Breeding for genetic excellence

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Genetics makes the difference between being average and being great according to Lloyd Holterman from Rosy Lane Holsteins in Wisconsin, USA.

Their herd of 1,100 Holsteins out-perform the averages for most production and health genetic traits as a result of breeding decisions made over the last quarter of a century.

Females tested in late 2018 averaged $750 net merit (the US economic ranking index, equivalent to £PLI in the UK) against a breed average of $300, which means they are expected to return $400 more per cow over their lifetime. Rosy Lane Holsteins has:

  • 1,100 Holstein cows and 790 heifers
  • Four partners and 20 full-time staff
  • 13,757 litres a cow at 4% fat, 3.2% protein
  • 728 hectares with an additional 485 hectares contract farmed
  • 37% pregnancy rate
  • 67 litres milk/ KG feed

Watch Lloyd share his philosophy on breeding better cows.

Rosy Lane genetics

Lloyd’s approach to genetics is about getting as many of the best cows in front of his team so they’re easy to milk, milk fast, give high components, calve easy and don’t need treatment.

They select for net merit first and then for health traits. By using great bulls, they increase the likelihood of getting great cows which has a significant impact on their bottom line.

We explore the areas Lloyd believes are crucial to meet their genetic goals.

1. Breed for your your contract

Supplying Sapoto on a cheese contract, bulls are selected for pounds of fat and protein as they’re paid for weight rather than a percentage.

The herd delivered 564kg of fat and 440kg of protein in 2018 - around 70kg more for each constituent than in 2007 - and with fat currently worth $2.85 per pound versus $1.15 for protein, they’re seeing additional revenue of $90 per cow, per lactation, per year.

2. Feed efficiency

Rosy Lane breed for healthier animals to reduce milk that cannot be sold due to illness. Feed efficiency has only marginally increased by 0.002 but it’s worth $55 per cow per year. Multiplied by the number of cows, it has a very powerful economic effect on the herd

GB producers can use AHDB's Maintenance Index which helps to manage mature cow size and ensures you are not breeding for bigger, less efficient animals.

3. Productive life

This trait is their primary selection after fat and protein and they expect their herd to transmit 6.4 extra months of genetic longevity compared with a breed average of 2.4. Rosy Lane started breeding for productive life in 1992 and Lloyd believes it gives them cows that are shorter, rounder, wider and breed back faster.

‘Lifespan’ is the UK equivalent trait and is expressed in terms of lactations meaning that a +0.5 point difference predicts daughters will milk for around 150 days longer than the average cow.

4. Daughter pregnancy rate (DPR)

Lloyd believes DPR is the most limiting factor producing more milk per cow by getting them into their fourth, fifth and sixth lactation. Rosy Lane have reduced the number of services per conception from 3.1 in 2007 to 1.7 today.

The UK’s ‘Fertility Index’ equivalent is a combination of traits to help breed cows with improved calving intervals and better non-return levels. Every point increase in the index decreases calving interval by 0.6 of a day and improves non-return rates by 0.25%.

5. Mastitis and lameness resistance

Breeding for mastitis and lameness resistance have helped Rosy Lane reduce vet costs by £147,000 per year. Disease resistant cows also result in less antibiotic use and they haven’t treated a single animal for over 60 months.

AHDB’s ‘Lameness Advantage’ combines existing type data for locomotion and Feet & Legs, together with on-farm lameness events and digital dermatitis records.

A bull with a +5% Lameness Advantage is expected to have 5 per cent less cases of lameness in his daughters per lactation compared to a zero bull.

The UK’s ‘Mastitis Index’ enables farmers to breed cows with improved resistance to mastitis. For every per cent decrease in a bull’s index, it’s expected there will be a corresponding one per cent decrease in his daughters’ mastitis cases.

6. The myth of the cow family

One of the first things Lloyd says he learned is that populations breed towards the average. When they started genomic testing he thought every female born would be an exceptional animal.

After testing he realised some were higher than average and others were lower than average, reinforcing the importance to continually review your genetic selection.

UK genetic indexes

Each country takes a slightly difference approach to running their farms, however economics sets them apart as AHDB’s animal genetics manager, Fern Pearston explains:

Milk contracts and prices may differ, but the cost of labour, feed and treatment of diseases can also vary widely between countries. The most profitable animal in the USA may not necessarily be the most profitable animal in the UK.

For example with fertility, there is a strong relationship between favourable animals for indexes on both side of the Atlantic. However these traits are not like-for-like as a handful of animals are favourable for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) used in the US but unfavourable for the UK Fertility Index and vice versa.

To ensure you are breeding from the best in your herd and farming system we recommend you use your country’s specific economic index. In the UK these are Profitable Lifetime Index (£PLI) for all-year-round calvers, and either Spring Calving Index (£SCI) and Autumn Calving Index (£ACI) for block calvers.