Friday, February 6, 2015

What do we really know about the process of breeding good cows?

From the 2010 August September Dairy Route Letter

An interview with Brian Coughlin, managing partner of Foundation Sires in Listowel, Ontario- a key part of Affiliated Sires.    Brian is perhaps the most successful sire analyst in Holstein AI circles globally, with a 60% YSP “success rate”.

Canada’s Holstein breeders have a heritage of breeding seedstock that have contributed to dairy industry development around the world.    How does Foundation Sires fit into that tradition?

Foundation Sires is continuing the tradition of breeding seed stock through their sire selection process.   We focus on cow families first.   This gives the customer access to multiple years of selected breeding by some very astute cowmen.   Then we make logical matings using all the tools available, avoiding single trait selection.   This gives us a true “balanced breeding” approach that lots of people talk about, but very few truly practice.   

Your family has a successful dairy enterprise and you had a career as a world-respected Holstein classifier and cattle judge.   What led you to see there was a need for a new AI stud in Canada?

My family has deep roots in the dairy industry.   My grandfather was a Master Breeder with the Valley Lodge prefix which I picked up and still use.   My late father’s herd was Shadi-Lawn; he was an official judge, past President of United Breeders and spent many years on their sire committee, selecting bulls like “Astro Jet” and “Warden”.

I milked cows under the Valley Lodge prefix until 1984 when I became a classifier.   I moved on in 1999 at which time I was Holstein Canada’s Program Manager of Classification.   I was always of the opinion that if you keep your mouth shut and your ears open you’ll learn a lot more.   So for fifteen years I listened to some pretty good cowmen voice their displeasure with where the breed was going, embracing the “Index” system.    Today you have a parallel momentum for “Genomics”.   My Dad instilled in me there is no sense complaining unless you’re going to do something about it.   Thus Foundation Sires.

The prevailing belief in AI is that you must sample hundreds of young bulls to find a few successful proven sires.   How do you explain the success of Foundation Sires in having so high a percentage of accepted proven sires from relatively few young sires selected?

Sampling bulls is an expensive venture regardless of who you are.   We calculate it at $50,000 per bull.   Economics dictated we could not play “the odds” so we need to be more selective up front.   We first sort pedigrees, and either look for or create those logical matings.   We like to have as deep pedigrees as we can find, plus deviations for production and components in the three closest generations.   We turn more bulls down for inadequate production than any other reason.   Stay away from fads.   Don’t buy out of heifers, if buying a bull from a first calf cow she should be bred back.   Use all the tools available-- parent averages, Genomics, classification, milk records, etc, but most of all “cow sense”, and we look at every bull we purchase for his physical development to ten years of age before we make a final decision.          

How many dairy countries have found Foundation Sires offerings useful to them?    Among all such countries, where do USA dairymen fit into “Foundation Sires” marketing?

Since we started we have exported to over 20 countries.   Lately that world has changed as those markets mature, so a lot of our focus can be on developing new markets.   We can travel all over the world and spend a lot of effort but we realize our biggest market is two hours to the south.   We often tend to categorize too much between “commercial” and “breeder” dairymen, when in fact, whether US or Canadian, we all want profitable cows.   Our climate and quota system regulate the size of dairies a bit more but our larger dairies tell us that fertility is a priority, and we hear the same in the US.   We are extremely proud that we have achieved the #1 stud fertility rating over all the AI studs in North America.

Knowledgeable cowmen have noticed you have brought sons of many cows to AI service that were ignored by commercial AI systems.   How important is the “cow side” of any bull’s pedigree?

The cow side of a sire’s pedigree is the more important part.   Even buying bulls from older dams, you can’t always get a true breeding picture which is why deep cow families are so important.   Following the breed as close as we do you can get a sire’s breeding pattern and look at his proof.   With the “cow” side you need to focus much more attention and thought on the cross you think will work.   The Windy Knoll View “Pala” family is a good example.   [80H1046 Prime Time, 80H1056 Power.]

 We were the first AI to purchase from them.   All bigger companies stayed away because of “Stardust” and “Ultimate”.  Now they all buy bulls from the “Pala”s, even though “Stardust” and “Ultimate” are still there in the pedigrees.

In a time when most AI systems closed their bull barns to visitors, and the photography of bulls is being dropped by some studs, why did Foundation Sires invest in sire viewing windows at the new Listowel housing and semen collection facilities?

Besides the large sand-bedded pens, it has been one of the greatest features.   The viewing windows incorporate one wing of the main barn and we try to switch bulls around so visitors can always see something new.    We photograph every young sire and then once again when they are mature.    (Photos give you a record of how individual bulls develop.)

At one time in Canada all bulls were required to be classified, now it’s optional.   At “Foundation” we classify all our bulls.   I’m proud of the fact that every bull purchase in eleven years has gone “Very Good” or “Excellent”—NO exceptions.   And close to 80% end up “Excellent”.   Correct functional conformation equals profit whether producing milk or semen.   Come see for yourself—visitors are always welcome.

Since the introduction of Genomic testing, we have seen dramatic shifts in how AI systems select young sires for sampling.    Do you see any weaknesses in the rush to adapt Genomic theory?

Yes, there is definitely a dramatic shift.   I can hire someone for $10 an hour to run around and pull hair samples.   I just hope we do not lose too many of the good cowmen that got us to where we are today.   I will keep stressing that Genomics is just another  tool to use, let us try to keep that in perspective.   There is still a lot of “tweaking” going on and reliabilities are for too low to put all your eggs in the Genomic basket.

Given the pedigree similarity of so many of the ranking Genomic sires, do you believe that wide adoption of Genomics could lead to serious future inbreeding issues?  

Two years ago I did an interview with a European breeding magazine [Holstein International] and pointed out that very fact.   Now they tell us that two of every five young sires have “Shottle” blood, with “Bolton” and “Goldwyn” not far behind.
Inbreeding was the hot topic prior to Genomics, and now we don’t hear about it?

Genomics’ advocates appear to believe that knowing the “genotype” of a breeding animal is of greater importance than proving the “transmitting pattern” of a breeding animal.   Where does Foundation Sires stand on what has been a traditional pillar of cattle improvement?

I know we are a traditional type of AI company.   We spend a lot of time sorting out what bulls we purchase, we make the decision, and then we do the Genomics.    (It is not changing our commitment to the pedigree and the individual.)

With anything new you need a “measure”.   How do we measure Genomics?   We measure it against the standard of the traditional “proof”.   As long as we use semen we will still have a proof based on daughters, Genomics or not.   Genomics will help some companies sort out which bulls they will purchase, but if they rely on it solely we will miss some great breeding bulls.  Genomics may be an estimate of the bull, but it’s still a mating that produces the offspring we milk.

To what do you attribute the superior conception rates of the Foundation Sires semen package?

We consider it a team effort.   It starts with sound, healthy young bulls;  the barn staff giving them exceptional care;  our lab doing an incredible job with the most rigid AI industry standards.   We started from scratch and developed our own process with state of the art equipment.   91% of our bulls exceed average for SCR, and we still strive to do better.

Foundation Sires has three living sires scored a near-maximum 96 points “Excellent” and offers sires with comparatively high type ratings, many already noted as having “Excellent” daughters.   Where do you see the dairyman’s advantage is in using “typy” sires?

Yes, we have three living 96 point sires  [Prime Time, Power and Laramie]  and are known for our high type ratings.

Type isn’t a bad word, it is just harder to achieve.   It has an extreme correlation to profit in my books.   Close to 80% of the high lifetime milk producers in Canada score VG or EX.    We need two year olds that will produce enough milk in their first lactation and increase every year, breed back on time, and stay problem free.    That is who becomes your “longevity” cow.

The highest producing yearling in Canada two years ago and the highest producing two year old last year were both sired by Foundation Sires bulls that were minus on paper for milk.    Make them “right” and they will milk.

Do current classification systems fully account for what traits are needed in a “free stall” cow, or do you think there are additional selection considerations such a dairyman should make?

Here in Canada they are doing a pretty good job of identifying those traits [in the Canadian type classification system].

Dairymen do need to pay a bit more attention to width of chest and depth of heart.   It is included in “dairy strength” under Canada’s scoring system.   But there’s still a lot of work to do on properly identifying it.

What additional information relative to cow success can a dairyman find in sire pedigrees, for which current evaluation rankings and genetic estimations do not answer?

We go through a lot of effort to get a sire through to the point where he has a proof, then we tend to discard him and go on to the next “hot one”.   Your evaluations give you the number of daughters in a proof and those bulls with lots of daughters and an established breeding pattern have better value for your dollar than that low reliability sire.

“Longevity” needs to be better identified.

Sometimes our doubt in evaluations come form trying to put a number on a trait that is more closely linked to management.   As long as we keep trying to convert management practices to a number we will struggle with accuracy.

Taurus Service Inc acts as your agent for distribution in the USA.    How closely does the Taurus breeding philosophy fit to the Foundation Sires breeding philosophy?       

Taurus stresses cow families and does a good job of sourcing bulls from some of those useful lesser known cows.   They’ve been in business now for almost forty years, and can take a bit more risk than we can afford yet.

Thank you Brian for sharing your insights with us.

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