Friday, February 23, 2018

Strategic Breeding: A Purpose for Every Pregnancy

By: Gwen Powers, Director of Strategic Accounts-Western U.S., GENEX

As the U.S. dairy industry continues to grow in total cow numbers (with fewer farms), the push for dairies to be more efficient is greater than ever. This is especially true in today’s constantly changing market. Therefore, many producers are applying strategic breeding protocols to better streamline their operations; this includes how they produce replacements and manage excess non-replacement calves.

The number of replacements a farm needs is determined by the cull rate or turnover rate and the average age at freshening. With adequate conception rates and some use of gendered semen a dairy likely produces excess replacements annually. This raises the question, “Does a farm need every pregnancy to be a dairy-sired calf?” Depending on the local market, beef-sired calves could generate a premium. Beef semen can be used on the herd in a strategic manner. For instance, beef semen can be used on lower genetic merit animals (as determined by parent average or a genomic test) so these later lactation cows are kept in production without generating replacement females.

Identifying which animals to breed with different semen types is one of the first steps in a strategic breeding program. What is the best way to sort females? Parent averages can be used but accuracy varies based on the herd’s record keeping. Custom indexes or performance data can also be factored in alongside parent averages. The more accurate tool, however, is genomic testing. When applying genomic test results to strategic breeding programs, producers can increase the genetic merit of their herds which in turn should increase production and create an all-round better cow base. Genomic testing confirms parentage. It also includes a number of traits that enable a producer to develop a baseline for the herd’s genetics and decide where to improve. Health traits have been a focus in recent years, as research has shown they heavily correlate with a healthier and more efficient cow. Genomic values are available for health traits – such as subclinical ketosis, metritis, and lameness – as well as indexes that combine all health traits.

Genomic testing can help identify which animals should be bred to different semen types based on genetic merit. It can also be used to identify potential donor females for embryo transfer programs and recipients as well. Targeted use of gendered, conventional, and beef semen ensures replacements only come from animals whose genetics the producer wishes to keep in the herd. Lower genetic animals, and usually later lactation cows, are bred with beef semen to keep them in production and maximize the value of their calves sold for beef.

One option for producers with multi-site operations who are looking to capitalize on efficient replacement distribution is to dedicate one site solely to crossbreds or F1s. This would mean replacements are generated from purebred females bred to an A.I. sire from a different dairy breed - either Holstein or Jersey semen (typically sexed) - to generate replacements for the crossbred site. These F1 animals have been known to be the best of both worlds in terms of milk production, components, and efficiency. The F1s could then be bred with beef semen to generate terminal beef cross calves that, in many cases, can be sold for a premium.

Embryos are another tool producers are adding to their breeding protocols in a variety of ways. With improved technologies, embryo transfer (ET) and in-vitro fertilization are becoming more accessible to commercial dairy operations. Additional management and precise recordkeeping is critical when adding ET technologies, but the benefits can be significant. Improved genetic merit can be achieved quicker by selecting high genetic merit donor females and transferring embryos into lower genetic merit recipients. F1 embryos are another option for sites that are interested in generating replacements without entering an elaborate crossbreeding scheme.

The implementation of a strategic breeding program is a hurdle that producers must overcome. Once the herd inventory is sorted based on parent averages, a custom index, genomic testing or specific criteria within lactations that a producer wishes to focus on, then animals are coded through a mating program to be bred to a certain type of semen. If the animals’ pedigrees are known, the mating program can also choose individual mating sires that limit inbreeding.

When making the change to a strategic breeding approach, it is important to consider the dairy’s individual goals and current marketplace. Once a strategy is created, it should be followed through long enough to see the results. In return, dairies can more efficiently utilize available technologies to maximize herd genetics and ultimately profitability.

If you need help developing your strategic breeding program, GENEX can help. Talk to your representative about our ProspectiveSM programa semen profit comparison tool, to get started.

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