Friday, April 24, 2015

A Complete Breeding Program – at a reasonable cost

From the January 2012 Dairy Route Letter

Most of the people who buy semen from us are intelligent people who expect to produce better heifers for their future use.    In other words, they believe in the power of breeding selection—but it is on their definition of value, not someone else’s.    At the same time, they expect us to provide competitive prices whether they milk 25 cows or 2500, knowing other choices would be available.

Industry trends have actually raised the cost per pregnancy

With all visual heat detection and all natural heat servicing, it used to be normal to get 60% to 70% of cows bred on a first service, and average maybe 1.5 straws per cow per year.     Thus if you milked 70 cows and paid $15-$20 per straw to get the best bulls at that time, you still only spent maybe $1600 to $2100 in a year’s time to get those cows pregnant—a net cost per year of $22.50 to $30.00 per cow.

Today, after years of advice to adapt new, better technologies—“don’t waste your time watching cows, give up on heat detection and let a mount patch or chalk do it”, or “use Ov Synch drugs and breed them one day a week”—it now is taking people 3 to 4 straws per cow, and with 20% of cows lost annually to repro failure (still open after too many days in milk) it would cost $56.25 to $100.00 per cow pregnancy – and that is just the $15 to $20 semen, it does not include the mount patches or chalking or the $25 to $50 Ov Synch protocols that run the cost up closer to $200 per pregnancy in some herds.

Of course, the latest technology is to go back to natural heats—but use transponders for detection.   This system appears to cost less per pregnancy than Ov Synch and timed breeding when working optimally.    You just have those $10,000 and higher up-front costs to get into the initial hardware, and you become dependent on service fees for computer software and tech support.

Net result is:  more spent on the periphery of reproduction, less left to spend on genetics

A breeding budget used to be (a) buy a $500 tank and use it 20 years, (b) pay $10 every two months for nitrogen recharge, (c) buy gloves and sheaths and lube as needed, (c) stock the best sires that match my cows’ needs, (d) glue on a mount patch to any cow who repeats.     You probably looked at three AI studs and found everything you wanted.      The cost of all the peripheral service and supplies would add at most $2 per cow to the breeding costs, per pregnancy.

Today, the peripheries are costing more than the total cost used to be.     And technology conception rate has never matched the visual natural heat detection rate.    Thus we decide to pay less for semen, give up on any breeding or mating program and just “bid” the semen price.     The illusion of index ranking (you can make “good” matings without doing any “mating”) disguises how much control over the future herd has been given up, absorbed as we are by the added costs of using the latest technologies.

Your cow turnover rate is a reflection of the quality of your breeding program

The simple truth is, you can find exceptional cows in commercial environments.    A dutch immigrant using aAa in central Ohio showed me a 12 year old Holstein cow who has 255,000 pounds actual to-date lifetime milk production from nine calvings and is pregnant for her tenth calf.     This cow was a result of his continuation of the same breeding program he was using in the Netherlands in a 120 cow herd, when he came to the US thirteen years ago and set a goal to reach a 2500 cow herd.     By the end of her life this cow will produce 200,000 more pounds and maybe eight more calves than the average cow.
Buying semen like commodity fertilizer is NOT breeding selection

The big picture is that “there is no production without prior reproduction”.    Breeding is the most important herdsmanship job you have.    Do not listen to advice that says “you spend too much time looking at cows”.    This is the sort of advice that comes from people who want to sell you “stuff”.    

As for genetic selection, this is a “futures” game that recognizes all characteristics of cows can change as a result of proactive selection of mates.     Beyond production yield and conformation this also means behavior, growth rates, will to live, fertility, calving ease, maternal instinct, feed efficiency, and more uniformity in size to improve adaptability to group handling.    Ultimately the length of cow functional life can be enhanced by a well-designed breeding program.     Your costs of production can be reduced as a result of a well-designed breeding program.    “Breeding” is a profit center—not an input cost.

The mindset required is that, if we maximize reproduction, we can then optimize the harvest of genetic gains in production income, cost of production and slower turnover of cows.     Less new heifers will be required to make the same or more volume of milk.     More profit will come from more efficient costs of producing that milk.
If you ignore genetic selection, just buying cheap semen or using jumper bulls and mating randomly, you should never expect a herd any different than what you have.     But it could get to be more work to make the same volume of milk if your cows get worse—because if you do not handle genetic selection, “mother nature” is going to do it for you according to her rules, and you may not like the results.


Analyze your cows on the “aAa” method.     This is the simplest effective summary of individual mating needs and it easily groups cows into common characteristics so a small group of sires is used.

Stock a sire for each group.      Choose him on his genetic trait data and maternal pedigree depth, for traits you wish to see in your future herd.  Depending on your cows this will require from six to twelve sire choices.   The quantity needed will be based on the number of cows ending up in each group.

Stock two clean up sires acquired cheaply.      These are higher conception bulls with high DPR and PL ratings, acquired as cheaply as you can to cover chronic repeaters.   These get used on those cows the vet Ov Synchs when they are open after herd check, and the goal is to salvage a cow from leaving.       
Use the first choice sire two times—switch to the cleanup.     Based on observed heats, breed cows who have passed your involuntary wait (70 days avoids wasting a lot of semen) and limit Ov Synch to those cows with no observed heat after 100 days plus those cows open after two AI services.    

What about semen costs?

The semen price of sires we will recommend as our first choice for various aAa needs ranges from $ 8 to $18 per straw.      It might look like the example list that is inserted into this newsletter.     The cleanup sires we now offer are in the $4 to $6 range.       Thus even when using a couple bulls as high as $18 you will end up with an average much closer to $12 per straw, as the example shows.

The “aAa” procedure ($6 per cow lifetime) declines from $3 to $1 per cow per year as the resulting longevity increases.
How often can a dollar invested produce a $1000 average return in the dairy business?       But it is easily demonstrated.

Budget  for the  big picture—not for the individual inputs

Semen is cheaper today in real dollars than ever before, if you are able to manage your herd to optimize fertility.    But because related expenses are exploding, the proportion of reproduction dollars going into genetic selection is decreasing in many herds.   

That has consequences for the quality and profitability of your future herd.   

As herds get larger, the temptation to buy semen like fertilizer has increased, encouraged by some companies who decided to sell on unit price rather than on maximizing value.

This is a game that only the biggest discounter will win, while all dairymen lose.

Because in order to lower prices beyond what efficiencies make possible, some source of value has to be diminished (either in services, or conception rates, or reliability of genetic values).     The lost value may not be perceived—but it is there

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Beginning with the End in Mind


In 1977 we made the near-spontaneous decision to start a purebred Holstein dairy herd. Our first purchase was an open yearling heifer in a district club sale and required $750 to complete.

By 1979 we had a plan to start our own dairy farm, purchasing 160 acres two miles from my dad’s 65 acres, giving us one set of old buildings for cows and calves, another set of old buildings for heifers.
We found 16 new cows to add to the 12 we already had assembled and they moved “home” that fall.

My cow herd had cost around $2,000 average, and it was clear that the only way to recover that investment was from reproduction, the milk check was all going to be consumed by the costs of production (labor, feed, supplies and financing). We had a barn full of “second choice” cows (my wife’s euphemism for being outbid at sales for the cows I wanted first).

We had to have a plan, which we knew from the day after the first heifer purchase. Our cattle had to acquire and retain marketable characteristics; at the same time, they had to perform profitably under the fixed overhead of old buildings, small equipment, hand labor, and land only good for pasture and forage (buying our grain and concentrating on hay and silage production were our first decisions).

The big secret to achieving any goal is simply this: understand what your goal really means, and figure out the steps you have to take to get from today to the day your goals are reached.   

Our first decision in sire selection was to always review their pedigrees (as well as their sire summaries) for evidence of consistent year after year performance in the maternal lines. To select for a longevity result, we went to where longevity was already proven to exist. 

Our second decision was to not be confused by the assertion that selecting on “pounds” produced more protein than selecting on “percent”. Increasing percentage of components (protein and butterfat) allows your cow to produce more salable “value” on any given volume. We were going to push the limits of what a Holstein cow was capable of producing in value-added components. We rejected California based concepts of using plus protein volume and minus butterfat% bulls because we saw from our sire researches that the highest protein percent sires were also plus for butterfat percent.

The third decision was to follow aAa as our “breeding guide” because it was adaptable to whatever goals we set in sire selection, but not dictating a certain approach to sire selection that would limit our choices. 

Sue and I had started a family in 1980 so we had to be careful with money, and if a $7 young sire could be used in place of a $75 proven sire, aAa would tell us when that option was possible under our goals.

Did we make any progress? On our own farm, production advanced steadily from 14,000 pounds on the original cows, to 16,000 pounds on our first heifers, to 18,000 pounds second generation, in a facility designed in the 1940s for 12,000 pound milk grade cows. Over the same period, butterfat percent gained from 3.6% up to over 4.2%, and protein—our bigger focus—went from 3.0% to 3.6%. No changes were made in our feeding program, limited as we were by the small herd size. We pastured in summer, fed baled hay all year with a dry purchased grain mix, and replaced the pasture with corn silage in the winter.   

On the type side, our first type classification came out 101.2% BAA. A generation later we were at 103.5% BAA.  Second generation we made it to 105.9% BAA.  Some of those “second choice” cows turned out better breeding cattle than their consigners had predicted when letting us buy them off the “bottom” of their herds.

The important test of a “breeding” herd is always what your animals do in other dairymen’s barns. We routinely sold one-half of our heifer crop every year due to feed and space limitations, often selling them as calves in the club sales around Michigan and sometimes in groups at the farm. From these sales, between 1979 and 1986 (when we began our Jersey herd) there are six heifers that produced over 200,000 pounds milk lifetime.

275,000 pounds     This life total was produced by a Hanoverhill Logic daughter, whose dam was sired by Indianhills Senator Flame. The granddam was sired by Agro Acres Marquis Ned, third dam by Zeldenrust Pure Gold son (these sires all had high lifetime dams but a low PD milk sire stack). Her records were made in a tie-stall barn where hay was fed to a cow’s capacity year round. The owner expected this cow to go over 300,000 pounds—but an injury caused by another cow in heat prevented that.

242,000 pounds     This life total was produced by a Willowholme Mark Anthony daughter, whose dam was sired by Paclamar Astronaut. The grandam was by Paclamar Bootmaker. Her records were made in a confinement-style free stall barn in northern Michigan. Her owner ended up using two of her sons as “clean up” sires in the commercial herd where he worked as herd manager.

234,000 pounds    We had a Tidy Burke Forty Niner daughter that made 166,000 pounds milk. We bred her to Million Heir Caesar (an Elevation son of Quietcove Matt Cinderella). The resulting heifer was in a group of six calves sold to an expansion herd in western Michigan. She ended up with this lifetime total under their good but strictly commercial management. She now has over 20 milking descendants maternally in this 400 cow herd.

230,000 pounds    This cow started out as a $400 calf for a young lady’s 4-H project. She was sired by Hanoverhill Spartan (Shiek x Elevation) and from a first calf granddaughter of Agro Acres Marquis Ned. She produced ten times her dam’s lifetime production total and also managed to score “Excellent” as a mature cow.    

225,000 pounds     This cow owes her long life to also being a young lady’s 4-H project. She was sired by Pinehurst Pageant (Elevation x Copyright) and was the biggest heifer shown in any class for two years. She then followed this with a 10,600 pound first lactation! She stayed around and then made 16,000 in her second lactation. This was then followed by eight consecutive lactations averaging 25,000 pounds. She scored GP-80 as a 2 year old, then VG-86, then VG-89, and finally made Excellent as a five year old, eventually receiving a multiple E.

210,000 pounds     This is the cow on this list born from a “full pedigree” maternal side (EX Betty Chief from EX Astronaut from VG Browndale Highcroft Roeland). But we still chose a young “show type” sire, Browndale Sir Christopher and she became a third generation of “Excellent” cows. Sir Christopher proved to be more milk and less butterfat and protein percent than his pedigree had led us to expect—but this cow did alright for fat and protein.

What lesson is learned?

All six of the above cows resulted from matings at the 80% level of “aAa” use. Over half of them were sired by bulls we selected before they had progeny data. The reason for the selection of these sires was that they all came from cow lines that had exceptional lifetime performance in a multiple of consecutive generations. Most of these young sires did not make it as proven AI sires, failing to be plus for PD milk, but all of the above cows excelled over their dams the most on the production side. Thus, the aAa concept of ‘fitting form to function’ was added to the traditional selection concept that a sire can only breed from the cows in his pedigree, and they worked together for us.

As our first cows became old cows, and we realized we had sold too many heifers, we did try to buy some ‘better’ heifers. We bought four bred heifers who were supposed to be bulls for AI.  We had the idea we could play in that game too—but that didn’t turn out. Three of the four calved with faults (in legs, in udders, in frailty overall) that were very obvious. The fourth calved with mastitis in one quarter— we lost the quarter but kept her—and bred five VG daughters from her during a productive lifetime (including our first ever VG two year old). She was the one of the four where aAa was a conscious part of the mating. It became clear to us we had already bred better heifers than we could afford to buy. From that point on, we did not buy any ‘expensive’ cows—we bought cows when friends needed to sell something, and we bred decent heifers from them that we could sell to others who were getting started, which proved profitable.

I am convinced from our short experience breeding Holsteins that you can accomplish anything you desire from breeding if you stick to your plan and do not let fads and fancies and other people’s decisions get in the way of being consistent in selection.   

A big advantage I see in aAa concepts is that the cows you produce are more useful to others, as they have a more balanced physique that allows them to more easily adapt to a change in environment.
The heifers we sold always milked more for others than they did for us because those buyers had focused on the production side of dairying, not the breeding side. We could help them with breeding so they could harvest more production from their facilities and more aggressive feeding programs. However, as they usually found the sires we were using unfamiliar to them, the sire selection would quickly go a different way.    

A small herd can still make a difference, if that difference is aided by using aAa.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What is the real meaning and relevance of “cow family” selection?

This is from the November 2011 Dairy Route Letter

The more experienced purebred Breeders, those who thought about bloodlines prior to “index rank”, continue to seek out cow family sires--  bulls who come from developed maternal lines, often showing more longevity (thus higher fertility) than the conventional “sire stack” AI offerings. 

These Breeders recognize that “performance traits” and “maternal traits” rarely coexist in any individual sire, as underlying genes tend to be negatively correlated.     To produce cows who reproduce regularly and stay healthy over full lifetimes, but stay competitive for milk production, requires a “blending” of pedigrees, crossing “performance” sires on “maternal trait” cows, and vice versa, to keep some balance in their breed gene pool and maintain potential for heterosis in matings (“hybrid vigor”).

Single trait [rank]  vs  Multi trait [matrix]  selection  approaches

In other agricultural species [both plant and animal] parent stock lines are maintained with specific gene focuses, as in (a) growth rate, (b) fertility rate and litter survival, (c) milking ability, (d) fleshing ability.
In these species, there is no “one size fits all” composite genetic rank—there is instead a preservation of linebred stock lines, crossed to produce higher performance hybrid offspring.    In this way, plant as well as animal breeders maintain gene pool diversity, while improving yields.

The single trait selection approach (which began with PD Fat in the 1960s, PD Milk in the 1970s, then a move to PTA Protein in the 1980s, TPI in the 1990s, $Net Merit in the 2000s, Genomics in 2010) is thus peculiar to the mainstream dairy selection practices.     The fallacy in single-trait approaches (whether a single measured “trait” or a composite index “rank” is used) is that it leads us to make too many “like to like” matings—matings that intensify gene possession for a narrowly defined performance dependent on an equally narrow “ideal” environment.    These matings often lead to “inbreeding depression”.

The fallacy of composite index ranking over time

Under any single-trait approach, the more you accelerate yield gains in theory, the more you lose in the realized “secondary” (or ignored) supporting traits.   Traits given the most weight in the index will prove to dominate the resulting genotypes such that, in the third generation, most of the “heterosis” effect from initial switch to the selection index is gone.  Mediocre performance in all “secondary” traits is what now shows up in our cows, whether it is stalled production response (when the index favors health traits) or lost fertility, increased stillbirths, and lower immune function (when the index favors yield traits).

The concept of “performance” lines and “maternal trait” lines

In a practical sense, for dairy breeding today (given the huge loss in bloodline diversity that followed the pedigree-based approach to sire and cow ranking under “Animal Model” evaluation formulas) the better approach to both gain production and also gain health and reproduction is to alternate generations – if you have been following “performance” [sire stack] sire lines, switch for a generation or two in favor of  “cow family” [maternal line depth] sire lines.

In Holstein breeding history, this was done when the “Burke” [performance] line cows got too small and short lived (from udder failure) was crossed with the “Rag Apple” [maternal] line bulls, and the result—
gains in stature and strength, more mature production volume, longer breeding life—were exceeding the predictions from the individual sire line indexes.     Of course, the most dramatic example of this blood cross was  Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation  (inbred “Burke” sire from linebred “Rag Apple” dam).

Examples  of  “performance” sires  vs  “maternal line” sires

Two of the more extreme “performance” sires bred just prior to the introduction of “fitness” traits were Marathon BW Marshall and Stouder Morty.     Both of these sires were introduced to Holstein breeder circles as elite “production yield” sires with desirable “linear type traits”…     Both are now recognized as among the breed’s recent worst for calf stillbirths, daughter fertility, and thus productive life.   

They had some things in common.    First, they had dams that made a single huge lactation, but over short lifetimes had few calves and inconsistent breeding records.    Often such cows leave no maternal descendants to start a “cow family” due to the lack of (a) fertility and (b) maternal instinct.    A closer look at their pedigrees shows that each was from a line of cows with indifferent or inconsistent records.

These cows came to AI attention because they had high indexes, a result of having a high performance “sire stack” that was validated by their above-average first lactation yields.    But a sire-based “index” system has this weakness of understating differences in maternal traits of importance:  beginning with a trainable intelligence, followed by good natural fertility, then some maternal instinct at calving, an easy transition to group milking, a strong appetite, and good health consistent with a will to live.    Cows who come from a maternal trait inheritance will produce more live calves in their lifetime, and you will get more total salable milk production in their lifetime, than from a pure hybrid “performance” sire stack.

The  possible  weakness  in  our  initial  approach  to  Genomics

The accumulating defect in Genomic selection (as focused on TPI, $NM or LPI) is that all the emphasis is on the limited range of measured traits, that lean heavily toward “performance” over “maternal” cow phenotypes.    This is a consequence of basing all Genomic interpretation of females on a “sire” base—an error already implicit in “Animal Model” that contributed to losses in fertility, health and longevity.

In the USA, 70% of all young ranked Genomic sires have aAa’s of 2-3-4 combinations—clearly more “performance” than “maternal”.    In Canada under the LPI index, 70% of all ranked Genomic sires are 1-3-2 aAa combinations (similar to the US, but with less “strength” due to LPI’s lower health emphasis).
This is one way of observing that, rather than finding us “outlier” sires as predicted, Genomics to date is accelerating the process of “likes to likes” which leads to inbreeding depression.

Linear type and production yield measures are both “performance” in focus

Do not make the mistake of believing that “if I select high type I will avoid short herdlife cows”.   When you critically analyze that statement, common sense tells you that higher youthful type scores are just a prediction of earlier production maturity.     The way to add longevity to your herd is to look at the cow line in a bull’s pedigree and find cows like those behind 76H 466  Ridgedale Escalate, where you have three dams in a row that scored “EX 95” thus are proven to develop into maturity, and on their lifetime production performance, express an elite level of sustained productivity that requires successful fertility and health quality to realize.     (Pedigree may be an old tool, but it still contains relevant information.)

The stated genetic evaluations of sires like “Escalate” are never as high as you find from purely hybrid “performance” sire stacks.     But some clues to “maternal quality” are in the better ratings for stillbirths, daughter calving ease, daughter pregnancy rate, somatic cell scores, and Productive Life, verified from a maternal pedigree development that explains the gene source of that superiority in those traits.

These sire differences have always existed.     But who ever explained it to you this way?

Cow family sires      What goes around, comes back again

In the seminal days of AI, while many studs talked about “proven sires”, other studs (like Curtiss, our original home in the AI business) talked about “cow families”.     Comparing herds who followed each philosophy, you could find elite production in either group, and the same rate of production gains over time.     But this parallel progress was ignored by researchers who focused, not on total herd performance, but individual sire deviations.

When all we measured was lactation production and type scores, emphasizing one over the other, a great deal of bloodline diversity was lost.    Since the introduction of traits for health, fertility and “will to live”, it is much clearer that we were willing to trade off cow longevity in favor of rapid production realization and equally rapid cow obsolescence.

The “cow family” concept makes sense once you rename it “maternal traits” and consider the value in daily husbandry of the self-reliant cow who has a strong mothering instinct and equally strong will to live, attributes biologists see as linked to fertility.

Mich Livestock Service Inc--“For the Best in Bulls”, including knowledge to succeed