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

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