(This is a very long multi-page post, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a digital copy)
In 1940, The late Mark Keeney, superintendent of the
Overbrook Farm in New Jersey, was invited to write a series of articles for Holstein-Friesian
WORLD magazine on his feat of developing a multiple year 500 pound
butterfat herd average (this in an era when 400 pounds butterfat was considered
pretty good in purebred Holstein circles and grade cows were closer to 300
This led to Mr Keeney authoring a book, Cowphilosophy,
which combined the articles written for the WORLD (focused on herdsmanship)
with his views on each popular dairy breed and his approach to breeding
improved cattle with the tools available at that time. (Long out of print, you occasionally find
copies appearing on “eBay” or from “Amazon” used booksellers, or in antique
* * * * *
Over seventy years later, there has yet to be a
comprehensive practical dairy breeding manual written that helps the dairy
herdsperson grasp the overall picture for “selection” and “mating” to produce
the herd wanted from the cows available.
Organic dairymen are particularly confused by the
contradictions between advisors who advocate linebreeding, or crossbreeding, or
aAa analysis, or the Net Merit index, with an attitude of “just do this and
ignore everybody else’s ideas”.
I am one of the many who believe that gene action cannot be
understood by discretely separating all its processes from the environment that
enables gene expression. Thus bear
with me as we establish a biological basis underlying the original genetic
theories, and how that contrasts with the population statistics theories.
In this book I am calling “Bullphilosophy” I will assert my
personal philosophy behind dairy cattle
selection and breeding: The
successful breeding animal transmits abilities in will to live, reproduction
and production, sufficient to be adaptable to any changes in its environment,
and remains competitive within a herd over a full lifetime. The comparatively short productive
lifetimes of commercial dairy cows—in milk production barely longer than the
time it took to generate and raise them—does not meet the above definition,
which is based on not just a cow’s peak production volume, but on her daily
lifetime profitability over all investment and input costs.
Chapter outline (reorder pages to correspond to this) Are they all relevant to the goal?
“Bullphilosophy” 1 page
“Milk—what is it really?” 1 page
“Grass” 1 page
“My personal view of organic farming” 2 pages
“Monocultural vs Pluracultural design” 1 page
“Genes do not dilute” 2 pages
“Are you a biological or a chemical cattle breeder?” 2 pages
“In biology, all production first requires
reproduction” 2 pages
“What really is this beast we call cow?” 1 page
“Species, subspecies, breeds, bloodlines” 1 page
“Balance” 1 page
“Physical balance—using aAa to match form to functions”
“The choice between natural and artificial
insemination” 1 page
“Which cow is good enough to be a bull mother?” 2 pages
“What is the importance of type?” 1 page
“What constitutes the ‘best’ AI sires?”
“Matching trait selection to milk payment systems”
“Successful historical examples: linebreeding, inbreeding,
“Crossbreeding only works when we understand it as
MY PERSONAL VIEW
OF ORGANIC FARMING
Prior to 1945, all agriculture was essentially “organic”, in
the narrow sense that industry had not developed the chemical herbicide and
pesticide products that would stimulate a dramatic shift on farms from a
general multiculture of crops and animals into specialized grain and single
specie animal farm monocultures. Row
crop acreage increased while pasturage decreased, corral dairies moved across
the country, feedlots expanded. Corn,
Soybeans and Wheat became the rotation, until demand for Alfalfa (to replace
plowed up pastures) made it the fourth focus of plant breeders. Chemists came up with fertilizers,
herbicides and pesticides while seed breeding incorporated them; and with the
advent of “Round Up Ready” and specialized planters, a monocultural farming
industry returned. Grass became a
“weed” in the new farming concepts.
To me, there is a “positive attitude” and a “negative
attitude” way to approach organic farming.
The “positive attitude” way is grasp what makes it a unique farming
method; the organic emphasis on utilizing soil, plant and animal biology to
produce a sustainable stream of salable nutrient-dense products and at the same
time by a combination of the recycling of plant residues, harvest and
processing waste, animal and “green” manures in a progressive crop rotation,
stimulating and increasing soil fertility for future production.
The “negative attitude” way is to criticize all practices
that are used in chemically based farming methods, whether focused on soils,
seeds, crops and animals. The most
virulent form of negativity is to instill fear in consumers and each other that
diseases and death of animals, humans and ultimately the earth follows “the
unsustainable path of mainstream chemical farming”. Any train of thought that leaves us fearful
or jealous also dulls our capability of observation and inference, stunts
creativity, makes us into cynical defeatists, incapable of the self-analysis as
critical thinkers that is the first step in bettering our farm management and
taking the steps that would lead us to profitability.
A veterinarian who also breeds polled Jerseys with whom I
work in genetics says it in a succinct way:
“Organic is not my religion”.
He is like many, who basically farms in an organic fashion, but sells
into the conventional market given his main paradigm is his history as a
mainstream veterinarian with the training to carefully manage antibiotic and
hormone therapies, who mistrusts elements of organic “preaching” that
contradict what his science training tells him. He observed clients who entered into
organic production without a grasp of “the bigger picture” and failed to be
profitable; this makes him doubt the economic viability of organic methods,
blaming lower crop and animal yields, when from my perspective (which takes in
an awareness of resource availability in areas of the world less fortunate than
the well-watered US upper Midwest) the organic production methods
offer the best option for cost effective production of nutrient dense food for
both humans and animals adaptable to any geographical condition on this earth.
Another business acquaintance who teaches at Ohio State
University told me that he and many of his colleagues believe the future is for
mainstream farmers to absorb and utilize the elements of organic culture that
will lower commodity production costs, while for us on the organic side, push
our experiments to develop yields and handle larger acreages.
Our current organic methods—marketing or production-- are not perfected
It is important for those both inside and outside of organic
production to grasp all the ways in which modern organic agriculture and
marketing is a “work in progress” that is struggling with the transition from
being craftsmen to becoming entrepreneurial.
There is no infrastructure (vendor support structure) in place to
support organic production as has existed for decades in mainstream
agriculture, nor do organic certification rules even allow use of the bulk of
mainstream infrastructure to make organic farming easier. The entire mechanism by which a conventional
farmer can locally access his seed, fertilizer, weed control, custom crop
harvesting, transportation, drying, storage and marketing, his veterinary care
and genetic selection and mating, does not yet exist in most places of the
country for the organic farmer.
Likewise, organic marketing cooperatives generally lack capacity, are in
the hands of very few and often more idealogical than practical, making the big
mistake of mimicking the commoditization in mainstream agriculture.
The illusion of higher prices for organic milk, meat and
grains has pandered to the lazy half of organic producers who would rather
“talk organic” than “walk organic”—you can find that kind of organic producer
at every meeting, when they should invest some time at home actually using
those organic techniques that would increase crop and reduce weed
productivity. They will be the most
adamant that conventional agriculture is harming consumers, they will be at
every climate change rally and they will rail against corporate America as evil
for having an understanding of the necessity for a return on capital, while
their personal capital (soil, animal and human) is underutilized and
Monocultures lack the capability of recovering all costs of production
The key weakness of mainstream farming is not its reliance
on petrochemicals, it is the continually rising costs of accumulative
technology to sustain yields that reach plateaus that cannot be crossed without
financial losses. If you accept the
concept that earth is designed as an integrated ecosystem, which prefers plant
and animal diversity, it is clear that nature abhors monocultures
primarily because they disrupt the fertility enhancement implicit in multi-species
I would caution organic dairymen to question if
self-definition as a specialized dairyman does not lead us into lots of
limitations that relate to this conflict between monoculture farming and
natural biosystems. Once organic
certified, anything you grow or raise is by definition organic—learning
to produce and manage coexistent income streams is not only going to optimize
the productivity of your soil and thus your farm, it is more capable of
maximizing your profitability from an optimized multiple of income sources.
This book is written primarily to those who wish to set an
example of productivity and profitability while using evolving organic farming
and husbandry practices in order to meet the sophisticated expectations of a
highly educated consumer sector. I
intend to challenge as many of the “sacred cows” regarding animal selection and
productivity as possible, and to prove that most “experts” provide us
sub-optimal (monocultural) advice.
ARE YOU A BIOLOGICAL OR A CHEMICAL CATTLE BREEDER?
Outside of old order Amish dairy communities, there is
very little organic dairying that is not a conversion from conventional
dairying. Dairymen who choose to
switch from conventional to organic agriculture and dairy go through a
transition period in which they wean their soils and their cattle off
synthesized chemical and hormonal inputs.
The goal is to replace these with an enhancement of the natural
biological processes in which soil enzymes, microbes, and animals process
nutrients drawn from recycled plant and animal residues to maintain soil
fertility and water capacity, releasing nutrients to growing plants which in
turn nourish and sustain our dairy animals in their production of equally
nutrient dense foods for human consumption.
It has been perplexing to me
that, as dairymen become advocates of biological farming and then adapt
homeopathic and nutrition based animal management, they cling to what is
essentially the “chemical” [linear process] view of breeding selection and
mating. They buy into “fads” that are
promoted by mainstream popular genetic simplification:
are just too big to succeed on grass
Indexes solve all our genetic selection problems
solves all the rest of our animal problems
cow mating interferes with maximizing genetic value
detection is obsolete, just OvSynch all your cows and time breed AI
semen means you can sell half your calves and have enough replacements
Zealand has all the answers, the rest of the dairy world is just stupid
None of these concepts are
scientifically proven as absolute fact.
They are just opinions, in most cases supported by a bit of
research that started out to justify an initial bias. Thus there are dozens of experts who will
tell you that to succeed in grazing you need Jerseys because they are
the smallest commercial dairy cow—while there is one highly visible University
Professor who used to write a column in Hoard’s who says the Jersey cow was
always worthless while the Holstein is becoming obsolete, so you need to
cross European Red breeds. If
you read widely without prejudice you soon see that those advising organics are
highly prejudiced—but if you do not, you are arbitrarily subjected to the
adherence of your genetic supplier to one of the above.
It must be understood that the
“indexing” of genetic “value”, the linear view of cow structure, and the
application of every chemical therapy known to ensure against failure of cow
health and reproduction, are all developed in the context of conventional
high-input agriculture, which is seeking maximized yield volume at any cost,
rather than sustainable yield volume with nutrient density and a profit for the
producer. The evaluation data used by
mainstream AI population genetics does not sort between natural and OvSynch
fertility in calculating any sire’s conception rate or progeny fertility. It does not identify whether a sire adds or
subtracts forage capacity, as it is seeking rapid metabolization of GMO
grains. It cannot tell you if animals
have a strong will to live. It does not
measure anything in combination—thus it does not distinguish between a cow who
milks herself to death to milk more, or just is capable of milking more while
staying healthy and breeding back on time.
It makes all comparisons against an ideal environment and idealized cow,
rather than measuring adaptive ability to real, constantly variable
There are no linear
processes in biology. If you
have become a successful organic/biological farmer you know this is true. What we miss is that gene action is
biological, not linear. The processes of conception, of the
interaction between a directive genotype and an environmentally defined phenotype,
of the impact of non-production genes on capability to milk a full
lifetime—these are beyond the capability of data to answer in a reliably
Linear trait geneticists (more
mathematicians than biologists) only use “empirical data”—they distrust
“observational inference”. They will
measure “pounds” while ignoring “behavior”.
They continue to seek fast prediction of productivity, but rarely
retroactively study the genesis of the longest performing competitive cows,
treating a ten year old cow in a free stall barn as an anomaly rather than a
replicable result of a comprehensive selection approach. The cow to them is a disposable input,
rather than a living breathing sentient organism.
The organic dairy industry is
hampered in breeding, as in all other aspects, by the lack of any support
infrastructure that is focused on organic production. We have private and cooperative marketing
systems, we have a government-controlled certification system, but we have no
such thing as an “organic” feed company, an “organic” veterinary school, or an
“organic” AI stud.
Thus we have to define an organic
view, and in the dairy genetics arena, this means a judicious blending of
traditional animal husbandry propogation techniques (eg, observation of
potential breeding animals, pedigree analysis, linebreeding, outcrossing,
in-house data collection and analysis, crossbreeding, compensatory physical
mating) with trait data generated in mainstream management systems for
This sounds tedious, time
consuming and thus impractical-- but it
is actually pretty simple and many of you already are doing just this.
The true test of any breeding
system is if you still can see progress as you define it after three generations
of following its guidelines. Why
three generations? Because you
have had an 87.5% exchange of genes in three generations. The fourth generation puts you at 93.75%
in genotype alignment to the theories of the breeding system. Inbreeding effects begin to
show up in the third generation, and manifest themselves in the fourth and
later generations, if you are following any of the “single trait focus” methods
devised by population genetics for mainstream dairy propogation, where a single
result—eg, milk volume—was the selection focus.
Truth be told, there is little
difference between an organic and a mainstream dairy in optimizing genetic
selection. Conventionally managed
herds who follow the above practices are “better” (more profitable) than their
counterparts who follow the short cut methods advocated by semen salesmen and
extension advisors. This goes
undetected in the “data” because there are more herds maximizing production
yields than there are herds optimizing yields at maximum profit levels, and the
“same” genetic sources are being used (just utilized differently).
In an era where organic dairying
is being criticized for not optimizing yields, organic dairymen need to
recognize the need of the organic system is to first prove its
profitability. No business of any kind
survives a lack of profitability. If
organic dairies make good profits, they stay in business— while consumer
interest in where food comes from pushes organic to keep growing.
GRASS excerpted from Senator John J
“Next in proportion to the divine profusion of water,
light and air, those three physical facts which render existence possible, may
be reckoned the universal beneficence of grass. Lying in the sunshine among the buttercups
and dandelions of May, scarcely higher in intelligence than those minute
tenants of that mimic wilderness, our earliest recollections are of grass;
and when the fitful fever has ended, and the foolish wrangle of the market and the
forum is closed, grass heals over the scar which our descent into the bosom of
the earth has made, and the carpet of the infant becomes the blanket of the
“Grass is the forgiveness of nature, her
constant benediction. Fields trampled
with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green
again with grass, and carnage is forgotten.
Streets abandoned by traffic become grass grown, like rural lanes, and
are obliterated. Forests decay,
harvests perish, even flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter it
withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality and
emerges upon the solicitation of spring.
Sown by the winds, by the wandering birds, propogated by the subtle horticulture
of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude
outlines of the world. It evades the
solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and pinnacles of mountains,
and modifies the history, character and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal
vigor and aggression. Banished from the
thoroughfare and fields, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is
relaxed or the dynasty has perished it silently resumes the throne from which
it has been expelled but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry of bloom to charm the
senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than
the lily or the rose. It yields no
fruit in earth or air, yet should its harvest fail for a single year famine
would depopulate the world.”
You are by definition a “grass farmer” to be organic. You need to understand why.
It has been taught in Geography that only 14% of the
earth’s surface is “arable” (farmable) land.
Beyond that, we must recognize that nature abhors bare land, and as soon
as topsoil develops or is exposed it will get covered by grass. This is nature’s way of carbon
sequestration. Much more of the
earth’s surface is suitable for grazing than for row cropping. Humans evolved as “ominivores” alongside
animal species that were “herbivores”, and protected those flocks and herds
against predation from “carnivores” once they figured out which could be
Without “herbivore” species to feed on the grass that
nature proliferates, both the carnivore and the omnivore species on the earth
would starve. Animal husbandry is
necessary to the human population, both for a balanced diet and for sufficient
nutrition to be available worldwide.
In biology, all “production” first requires “reproduction”
This statement is worth pondering before we enter into
any specifics about gene selection, breeding for a purpose, corrective mating,
and measuring results.
In agriculture, there is no production without prior
reproduction. We cannot grow any
crop without first planting seed. We
will not get a profitable yield on any crop we grow if there is not a residue
of fertility in the soil which soil microbial reproductive activity makes
available in the root zone.
The pig farmer knows that his income depends on
his sows regularly producing living piglets, which requires porcine
The beef cow-calf guy knows that his income
depends on his cows having living calves each season, which requires bovine
The poultry guy can answer the age old question, “which
came first, the chicken or the egg?” For
all practical purposes, without eggs first, there are no chicks hatched, there
are no birds grown, and ultimately without some ovine reproduction, the supply
of eggs dries up.
The grain farmer thinks about seed selection all
year long, will attend long and often boring winter meetings to insure he gets
the “right” seed to produce his next crop.
How about the dairy farmer? Does he recognize, as much as his
neighboring farmers, the essential nature of reproduction to his dairy
operation? That both milk and
calves would not “flow” as a source of cash flow without some bovine
In recent years the mainstream of dairying has shifted
its focus from genetics to mechanics, and you will get ten times as many
dairymen to a dairy equipment show as to a cow show – ten times as many
dairymen to a feed company lunch as to a genetic company lunch. The latest action in mainstream conventional
dairying is anything related to mechanized milking or TMR feeding. The only reproduction topic covered in
progressive dairy conferences is OvSynch or pedometer radio signal estrus
management. The only “new” products
of the breeding industry have been sexed semen and Genomic imputation for
ranking genotypes on young breeding animals.
Implicit in all of these developments are higher costs
(eg, sexed semen costs five times’ regular semen, once you calculate it on a
“per one million sperm” basis) and greater potential failure if all the
technology limitations of each process are not considered in your use of them.
Within this trend, you saw a lot of discussion supporting
the advantages of the 18 month calving interval over the traditional 12 month
(stay “in season”) calving ideal.
This strategy was using recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBST) as the
progressive substitute for reproduction.
As the supply of replacement heifers shrank, the salability of sexed
semen (producing 90% heifers) became economically viable in the minds of
technology adaptive dairymen.
For the organic producer, whose certification affidavits
(and whose consumer market) prevents the use of these higher cost, specialized
skill, technology substitutes for biological paradigms, we have to grasp that fertility
is the stimulant to all our production in the soil, in the crop, in our
herd. Our management attention to and
skill development in sustaining fertility is what will insure success in
reproduction and then a steady potential production stream is the
How a biologist and biogeneticist looks at
Fertility is a primary selection trait because it
is an absolute necessity for the potential survival of any species. If you study the characteristics of species
whose survival is currently monitored by zoologists, for example the Chinese
Panda, or any number of geographically limited bird species, a common
observation is the limited capacity or proclivity of these species toward
Fertility does not just imply successful
reproduction. Genetically, genes
causative to fertility are also highly associative to genes providing will
to live. An animal lacking
libido or sexual capacity is lacking both the desire to produce and the instinct
to preserve the life of its offspring.
In many species, overlooking the heritability of such
character has led to an associated loss in the quality of health of such
animals (or humans) when under the stress of disease or injury.
One of my Jersey breeder friends, in describing his
approach to developing his herd, is fond of saying “Fertility begins at birth”. In his estimation, reproduction is
not limited to getting a heifer bred or a cow rebred— successful reproduction produced
a living calf.
Stilbirth rates are one of the key fertility measures that
AIPL (USDA) decided to publish as the dairy industry began demanding more
genetic information on health and fertility traits. This is information that has virtually zero
impact on conventional AI semen marketing or gene selection in AI dairy
farms—but it is actually pretty important to recognize that genetic variation
exists in sires you can buy as well as in choices of breeds to utilize in your
Stillbirth rates get combined with measures of Calving
ease (percentages of difficult births) to provide a composite view of
animal capability to provide successful reproduction. However, as with many population genetics
approaches to available data (as collected by DHIA testing systems) this is a
confusion of behavioral (will to live) and physical (structural
capacity to present a calf) characteristics, thus the heritabilities of the
traits as measured seem lower than what a biologist would intuitively assume
given its relative importance and the Darwinian (“survival of the fittest”)
nature of its results.
Daughter Pregnancy rates are another of the key fertility measures
that AIPL introduced, and this gets a bit more attention, because more dairymen
seem concerned over conception rates and calving intervals. In other countries, they measure not only
if conception occurred, but if a calf makes it to term, and then measure the
elapsed time between conception and calving.
This helps us to see that “slow fertility”
(conception delayed by negative energy status) is not the same as “infertility”
(chronic failure of glandular functions and sexual systems), but too high an
incidence of either is going to have a negative effect on herd income streams.
The choice between “natural” and “artificial” insemination
Among organic “animal husbandrists” you will find many
who believe that “natural mating” is closer to the “organic ideal” than the use
of artifical insemination technology.
I will freely admit to being prejudiced, given my father
was an AI pioneer in Michigan, being the first Distributor for Curtiss Breeding
Service who was not a licensed veterinarian (Curtiss Candy company began their
AI business franchising large animal vets who hired and supervised their
inseminators) and the first AI promoter in Michigan who organized AI
training schools for “do it yourself” cattlemen, building a direct-farm service
as soon as frozen semen became practical.
The original selling points for artificial
Taking this from my Dad’s 1952 customer
presentation: “the advantages of
(1) Better herd
disease control [eliminate sexually
transmitted diseases like “Bangs”]
prediction of calving dates and milk flow
[breeding dates were known]
management of milk flow [avoid fresh
cows breeding back too early]
(4) Safer work
and family environment [bulls are
unpredictable and often dangerous]
(5) Increase herd
capacity [put a cow or two in the
space the bull(s) are taking up]
(6) Better herd
reproduction management [observing
heats can catch repeaters quicker]
(7) Choice of
sire [avoid all your replacements
coming from an inferior bull or mating]
(8) Access to
more genetic choices [bulls in AI
offered from all major bloodlines]
now use sires you could not afford to buy for natural service
How these points fit into the concept of organic
practices producing better food
Note that in the early days of AI, the emphasis was on
(a) disease prevention, (b) improved herd management, and (c) avoiding
injury and death on the farm. To
me these strongly parallel the goals of certified organic farming, given the
farmer and the consumer have shared interests in producing a sustainable food
supply. Nothing stops
“sustainability” faster than disease or death—most conventional farms get
sold out after the death or incapacitation of their owner, but the risks of
having your herd incapacitated by infectious disease are greater.
Why genetics seemed to take over the focus of the AI
In the entrepreneurial beginning of AI, you had purebred
breeders collecting and selling semen on their herd sires; you had a handful of
large-scale cattlemen (Rock Prentice and ABS, Otto Schnering and Curtiss,
Clarke Nelson and Carnation) who developed larger scale corporate AI services;
and you had the state AI cooperative sponsored by a land grant university. While the industry grew, there was room
for everyone. Once AI reached market
saturation, staying in business as a competitive bull stud required marketing
the product as well as the service.
Genetic evaluation of sires (aided by both purebred breed
associations and the AIPL division of USDA, with extension dairymen adding to
the dissemination of sire data by AI cooperatives) is what eventually became
the “genetic horse race” we see today.
The entire genetic selection problem in dairy herd
development can be distilled down to this deceptively simple word. It is a word that AI stud advertising uses
to describe their approaches to sire selection and mating, knowing that many
dairy operators believe in and are seeking it. It gets used both to describe key
ingredients of quantitative trait selection and qualitative physical
I think it is time for dairymen to define the term, rather
than allow it as a promotional phrase to sell some arcane sire ranking
theory. So here goes:
“Balance” is necessary in the bovine specie qualities
that make an animal dairy type and the qualities that apply equally to
making an animal beef type. Physically,
the cow that is “all dairy” may prove too frail to survive a challenging
physical environment – while the cow that is “all beef” may prove
insufficiently productive to insure a future income stream in dairy.
The “balanced” physique drawn from nature, with an
eye to all purposes contributing to
farm income streams, will prove to be more adaptable in organic dairy
than a highly specialized physique designed under “monocultural” dairy or beef
“Balance” between production traits and type traits
is dictated by the necessity of the cow to have the proper physical
proportions and qualities that keep it fit for production in the physical
limitations of the individual farm environment, at the volumes demanded under a
relentlessly cost-conscious economic environment.
“Balance” between production yield, reproduction
efficacy, and health maintenance is necessary to generate cows that are
capable of a competitive longevity of function.
Balance” is the optimizing of mating
selections made to take into account all three levels at which genes influence
the resulting phenotype: (a) quantitative,
(b) qualitative, and (c) interactive [environmentally
“Balance” is the understanding of the market
capitalist economic system, in which not just the effect on cash flow, but the
effects on capital accumulation, are fully considered when we decide which selection
traits and which mating approaches will optimize our cows’
contribution to our farm business.
Any economic analysis of modern agriculture proves that the
dairyman who manages his farm to maintain and when possible multiply his capital
insures a higher family income than results from monocultural focus on
increasing yields and short term cash flow only.
“Balance” in compensatory selection of mates by phenotypic
qualities (avoiding “like to like” sire stacks) will maintain physical
“hybrid vigor” to counteract the tendency in trait selection by genotypic
ancestral relationships (“like to like” quantitative ranking) that are
proven to promote “inbreeding” effects.
WHAT REALLY IS THIS BEAST WE CALL A “COW” ?
First, she is a she. A Cow is the female of the Bovine species. The male of this specie is called a
Bull. The newborn product of their
mating is a Calf. The immature cow is
always called a Heifer prior to first calf, and sometimes after that until
physically matured. The castrated Bull
is called a Steer. Finally, the
“spent” cow is called a Cull.
What defines a “bovine”?
They are a mammal (producing their offspring by sexual
contact, the female incubating this offspring within her womb, until
sufficiently developed for birthing, and then suckling the offspring until it
develops the ability to feed itself.)
They are a quadruped (walking on four appendages we call legs)
and have a cloven hoof for a foot, designed for mobility across often
They are a herbivore (eating vegetative plants, not flesh) and
to process that vegetation have a ruminant digestive system (multi chambered stomach, in which the
central section, the rumen, acts as a fermentation vat for converting
cellulosic fiber into fat and protein forms).
They are a grazier, in
that their instinctual behavior is to pass across any vegetative landscape and
eat at ground level the green cellulosic plants (grass, legumes, forbs,
brassicas, herbs) that possess digestible fiber in their vegetative (pre-bud or
seed head) state.
Their daily behavior is divided
between several hours of mastication (grazing fresh forages) and several
hours of rumination (lying down while the rumen processes the fresh
forage into fats and proteins that can be absorbed into the body as life
energy). Cows chew their cud
(regurgitated forages) as part of the early stages of breaking down the
cellulosic plant fibers.
They are a social animal,
preferring to live in a group we call the herd. As in any society of sentient beings, there
is a developed “pecking order”— there is a “boss cow” in every herd. As a consequence, you will also find that
singling out an individual from the group will produce a nervous response in
that individual (the group offers security in the open against wild predators).
They have relatively placid dispositions. Humans found they could “domesticate” (tame)
the cow by providing more secure habitation than the wild, in exchange for the
draft, meat and milk products the cow offered the human race. They have a trusting disposition
and thus respond to human efforts to train them in repetitive behavior (ie,
entering milking parlors daily; leading by halters for show or transport). These two aspects of their disposition
prove the cow has basic intelligence and especially memory,
consistent with being a sentient being.
It is worth recalling these basic biological aspects of
cattle, as a reminder to us that the environment we design for dairy cows will
function better—thus cows will last longer and be more productive-- when it
conforms to rather than contradicts the instinctual (gene imprinted)
preferences of the bovine specie.
SPECIES = SUB-SPECIES = BREEDS = BLOODLINES
In the cattle business
around the world, we find the bovine has three major sub-specie groups,
sharing the same number of genes and chromosomes, but with distinct differences
that reflect the effect of their regional (geophysical and climatic)
development prior to human domestication.
The cattle breeds that
originate in the European continent (which has the spring, summer, fall
seasonal forage growth and winter fallow season) are now sorted into dairy,
dual purpose and beef breed distinctions roughly as follows: [not a full list]
Continental Dairy: Holstein, Friesian, Red Holstein, Brown
Swiss, Normande, Skandinavian Red (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish
variants), MRY, Lakenvelder [Dutch Belted].
English Dairy: Ayrshire, Jersey, Guernsey, Milking Devon,
Milking Shorthorn, Red Poll.
Montbeliarde, Simmental, Tarentaise, Angler.
Continental Beef: Charolais, Limousin, Pie Rouge,
Maine-Anjou, Chianina, Belgian Blue.
English Beef: Angus,
Hereford, Beef Shorthorn [Durham], Galloway, Scotch Highlander.
Also worth mentioning are
the Irish Dexter [Kerry] cattle, the most familiar of “crofter” breeds
(smaller size cattle breeds popular on small land holdings).
Unique to Bos Taurus is
the development of fertility capability in any season.
The cattle breeds that
originate on the Indian subcontinent (southern Asia) and are popular in the tropical
parts of the world, whose hide qualities offer significant heat and insect
resistance, and who are able to develop in areas of soil calcium depletion and
higher lignin content in the plant cellulose. This subspecies retains highly seasonal
The cattle breeds that
originate on the African continent, and tend to have been domesticated more for
draft purposes, secondarily for beef or dairy purposes. Uniformly smaller in size and scale than
either Bos Taurus or Bos Indicus breeds, but often with
Although each subspecies
has distinct genotype characteristics, the number of chromosomes and gene pairs
is identical, thus you can cross across subspecies, which has created breeds
like Santa Gertrudis, Beefmaster, and many of the commercial dairy
crossbreeds in South America.
MONOCULTURAL vs PLURACULTURAL
In the conventional dairy arena, more dairy operators
call themselves “dairymen” than will call themselves “dairy farmers” (and of course, in the conventional dairy
mainstream, large numbers of dairymen do not “farm”—they contract their feed
from farmers and feed companies).
The trend in western agriculture,
primarily as a result of the adaptation of higher cost technology in
mechanization, chemical fertilization, herbicide and pesticide application,
seed hybridization, gene modification and irrigation, has been for the crop
farming sector to specialize.
Thus we have the plains wheat farmer,
the midwestern corn and beans farmer,
the deep south rice farmer, the
dry land cotton or tobacco farmer, the oilseed farmer,
But we also have the cow-calf rancher,
the sheep and goat farmer, the feeder calf yardman,
the finish steer feeder, and we have the dairyman, whether or not
also a farmer.
The higher cost of farming
equipment is a major reason we tend to specialize, but it also is a factor in
the vertical integration of the marketing chain for each of the commodities
Commodity definition of any
crop leads to monocultural (volume based) specialization both in
production and in processing.
Thus the multiple animal specie and rotated crop design of the farms our
grandfathers owned has given way in a majority of cases to specialization and
larger farming units to cope with commodity marketing pressure.
Nature abhors plant
monocultures. Study any tract
of land that is allowed to revert to a wild or naturally seeded state, and you
will see diversity both in plants grown and animals attracted to that
land. Thus, in our conventional farming practices,
nature only tolerates a monoculture on an annual basis at best—from the
second year on growing a monoculture, the challenges from invasive weeds and
predator insects (both above and below ground) and the cost of replacing
nutrients drawn unequally from the soil just increase.
At a certain point, the cost of
sustaining the monoculture exceeds the commodity value of the crop harvested,
and the yield capability of the soil dedicated to the monoculture
plateaus. No amount of added technology in chemical or
GMO form can fix that, within the limits of market payback for a commodity
product. In world history, this caused
nations to collapse.
Just as in understanding the
bovine species to design an environment in which she will produce economic
returns that are sustainable over time, it is necessary to understand the
processes that nature uses in building, regenerating, and regulating soil and
its population of flora and fauna.
The advantage the animal farm has
over the crop farm is three fold:
(1) multiple species of animals
can be accommodated to utilize multiple species in crop rotations; (2)
the forage farm can grow a pluralculture of plant species
simultaneously; (3) the animal manure recycled in the soil is a
continuation of the natural design that aided soil development over time and
feeds the desirable “soil animals” that are more often harmed by chemical
Which cow is good enough to be a “bull mother” ??
Grazing circles have exerted the largest influence on
organic dairy selection approaches, for the obvious reasons that (a) transitional organic dairies are recruited
from the existing grazing dairymen, (b) leaders in the grazing arena quickly
developed concepts of grazing selection, mostly from studying beef range
cattle breeding programs and then introducing New Zealand grass based selection
Thus the certified organic producer has to this point
(a) he is going to
base his genetic selection on crossbreeding, either the two-breed Kiwi
crisscross or the three-breed USA rotation;
(b) he is going to follow LIC “Breeding Worth” concepts and
shotgun selection (no individual cow mating) or follow AIPL “Net Merit”
concepts and computer pedigree screening (“to avoid inbreeding”); OR
(c) he is going to buy a crossbred bull from another grazier
who tests for A2A2 Beta Casein and breed them all naturally, AI being too much
work for what it is worth.
In none of these scenarios does anyone bother to verify that
he will be using sons of cows that he would want to work with on a daily basis
in his environment.
Why would this matter?
First, it is observed that the majority of sires in
conventional AI service are the results of embryo transfer (hormone
induced) reproduction, mated randomly on the basis of ranks for a single
genetic index (specific to one country and its mainstream dairy model),
then genetically verified for economic value by Genomic imputation (association
of DNA with a historical reference population of AI sires with known
Is your herd reproduction based on synthetic hormone
Is the selection index used for genetic ranking a match
to your economic environment?
Is the selection index weighting traits equally to what
your herd needs to improve?
Are the Genomic imputations based on performance under an
organic production model?
Organic certification prohibits the use of synthetic
hormones, thus we must seek natural fertility capability. This cannot be determined from current
genetic trait or ranking data.
Even the New Zealand “Breeding Worth” index, the only one
using data from grass base dairy herds, is calibrated for Kiwi economic
conditions, not USA or Canadian conditions.
$Net Merit, Holstein TPI, Jersey JPI, Canadian LPI, all are
calibrated for the production maximization concepts of mainstream TMR group
confinement or tie stall dairies.
None of the indexes in use factor fertility as the
trait requiring the highest weighting in the composite, which is pretty
specific to the grass-based seasonality of organic dairying. (Closest may be the Skandinavian “health
trait model” indexes) Genomic values
are all derivative of the mainstream conventional dairy model data for the
Have you described the “true type” organic cow?
Interestingly, I think we skipped this step, as the
“experts” were already telling us a key component of the grass cow was that she
needed to be smaller. “You
cannot meet the energy requirements of a ‘full size’ [ie, Holstein] cow from
grass” is typical of the advice to crossbreed with smaller frame seedstock
(Jerseys, Dutch Belteds, Euro Reds, Ayrshires or Shorthorns).
When large frame breeds like Normande, Monbeliard,
Fleckveih, and Brown Swiss have entered into crossbreeding experiments, even
when starting from a Holstein base, you can find promotion of the results as
superior “because these breeds were developed on grass”. Yet they did not produce smaller cows. In many cases we end up with bigger
(heavier) cows, because most such breeds are easy fleshing. It is my belief that easier fleshing is
related to appetite and rumen efficiency in converting a cellulose fiber into
protein and energy. Just making the
cow “smaller” is not focusing on mobility, appetite, vigor or capacity, or
rumen efficiency. These breeds are
being selected as dual purpose in their home regions, optimizing beef vs dairy
qualities due to traditional marketing options, and so production yields in conventional
dairying require careful sorting of their gene pools. The key difference in their selection is
that the highly angular cow model in vogue with USA, Canadian and European
dairy type selection is not a big factor in these breeds.
Ironically, if we add up the pure Jersey, Ayrshire, Shorthorn
and outcross Holstein herds that are pasture managed across the country, we may
have as many purebred as crossbred dairy cows producing milk from grass. The crossbreeding activity on dairy farms
is as prevalent in conventional confinement as it is in grazing management, but
in herds with a much larger average herd size. Thus it is still not a practice that is
producing data that is more indicative of the “ideal grazing cow” given the
health and fertility boost sought in
conventional dairy management.
What we have seen and must be acknowledged is the loss of production
yield that has accompanied crossbreeding in organic grazing herds. By contrast, these same breeds used in
conventional dairy environments generally are maintaining high enough
production yields to keep Holstein dairymen using them.
My only conclusion is this:
breeding in favor of smaller size limits milk yields. The typical crossbred cow in organic
production is smaller by weight and frame than the best modern purebred
Jerseys, starting with a slower adolescent growth rate.
The organic dairyman needs to identify the cow size that optimizes
his environment. In this, if winter
is the major limiting factor, when cows must be in barns, measure your free
stalls or pack surface. Estimate how
big a cow comfortably fits in each stall;
calculate how many square foot of pack per cow is required to keep her
clean and dry; these define how big your
cows should be (and how many cows you can carry across winter).
Then, knowing that, how much productivity can you fit
into that frame size cow? This is
what you seek to optimize from selection and mating.
important is “type” ?
The late Jack Kaufmann of Sandusky MI bred registered
Holsteins under the “Thumb Pride” prefix.
Early in his career, he acquired a cow named Cirose Osborndale
This cow was only scored 78 points as a young cow and
finally made 82 points as an old cow—basically average according to Holstein
USA type standards of the time.
But by the end of her lifetime,
she produced 278,000 pounds of milk in Jack’s stanchions.
She was carrying a heifer calf
when Jack bought her that he named Cirose Thumb Pride Trixie. This cow was remarkably better in type,
scoring 84, then 86, eventually 90 as a matured cow. She was bigger, had more substance, had a
better balanced, stronger attached udder.
By the end of her lifetime, she
produced 354,000 pounds of milk in two different barns.
Her best producing daughter was
named Thumb Pride Bova Ttttttt. More
angularly made than Momma, she did eventually score 86 points, so above
average, but not her momma.
By the end of her lifetime, she
produced 311,000 pounds of milk in two different barns.
The many Holstein breeders
involved with the propogation of the famous “Roxy” cow line were very adept at
promoting “Roxy” as being part of a four generation line with 1,000,000
pounds lifetime production.
“Roxy” was a national show champion cow who produced many show
descendants from various of her daughters and sons.
But relatively unknown Jack
Kaufman and his neighbors almost made a million pounds in three
generations-- that is likely still a
breed if not a bovine record. And they
were not show cows, nor was Jack ever interested in making show cows. But he liked good type cows.
What is my point?
It is traditional in purebred
breeding to associate “good type” with animals that last longer. It is simple common sense that if a heifer
calves with a bad udder, or bad legs, she will have a shorter herdlife (either
the udder or the legs we expect to fail before she can mature).
Purebred breeders are as
cognizant as commercial dairymen that “longevity type” and “show type” can be
(and often are) two different things.
But the concept of “functional type” that is used by Extension and AI to
promote the highest milk volume bulls is a favoring of the faster maturing
physique over the longest-lasting physiques.
The result is that the average Holstein now takes 24 months to raise to
calving, and then only produces milk for 29 months thereafter.
Most experts blame it on
concrete, blame it on free stalls, blame it on higher production, but the
skilled observer can see the difference in “type” between cows that last and
cows that do not. If you accept the
concept that the functions we demand of a cow dictate the bodily form she
should possess, it is not a big leap to recognize we are asking her to have
“good type”. All that remains is to
define what “good type” is, relevant to that plurality of functional needs.
The nutrient energy demand triangle—the genotype we must design
Population geneticists have spent decades defining
individually discrete traits to measure according to the available data set
that flows from the DHIA milk testing system. They will weigh milk yield, they will test
it for butterfat and protein content, maybe the nonfat milk solids as
well. They will measure suspended
somatic cells. They compare these
yields against herdmates on the basis of age and season of calving (“parity” of
data) and eventually it all gets credited to breeds, to sires, to dams if
known, to maternal grandsires.
On the basis of this data, we have been selecting AI and
natural service sires for decades. In
the process, we have grown increasingly dependent in interpreting the genetic
value of our animals based on a “sire stack” pedigree—which is now the key
factor in Genomics.
The geneticists’ goal has been to identify the genotype (the
transmittable gene qualities) of each animal. Knowing that all the genes that produce
the measured traits somehow coexist in the genotype, the theory has been to
weight traits by importance to produce an “index” of the genotype, or genetic
What we are really influencing,
however, is the biological distribution of emphasis in how the cow physiology
and endocrinology metabolizes feed and then directs
the nutrient energy the rumen produces to the key energy-driven functions:
(1) Health maintenance which includes body condition and blood
(1a) for the immature animal, this will also
include growth completion
(2) Reproduction the processes of cycling, conception,
incubation and birth
(3) Production mammary secretions of digestible solids (butterfat, protein,
(3a) suspended in a water-based fluid carrier
that we call milk
When we select herd sires, we
are in fact selecting redistribution of the relative proportions of emphasis
on Health and Growth, Reproduction, and Production. There are many known and suspected
correlations, both positive and negative, among the genes that add up to these
three areas of cow behavior. To
produce a cow that is sustainable for optimum profitability, we need to have a
balance among these three areas of energy utilization.
Why do I insist that the
selection of sires is a selection of relative nutrient energy
Because the ethical organic
dairyman is constrained from utilizing chemical, hormonal, and synthetic feed
inputs that can “band-aid” over a deficiency in cow ability for any of
these. He may have cows where all the
selection emphasis was on milk volume and as a result, the cow is
shedding body condition to make milk faster than she can eat grass to maintain
weight. This results first, in
lack of estrus (delayed reproduction) and if prolonged, in loss of health.
The best selection and mating
scheme will keep the body’s gene-driven rationing of nutrient energy intake in
mind, and seek to balance the physical capability as it fine-tunes the genetic
potential. Thus, the primary
consideration in breeding is phenotypic rather than genetic.
-- WHAT IT REALLY IS
The milk that comes from the
udder as a white fluid is intended to be more than the sum of its component
parts-- it is the original baby food. Babies both bovine and human are able to
drink a cow’s milk and digest its nutrients before they are able to eat
anything else. Thus the poets may
declare milk “the elixir of life” while a mother may call it “nature’s perfect
The biochemist will see milk as a
solution (a fluid whose components are in suspension rather than
combined by chemical reaction) from which the following can be abstracted:
Butterfat soft globules of digestible fat (slow
Caseins multiple forms of digestible proteins
useful for various purposes
Lactose a dissolved form of sugar (fast release energy)
Vitamins building blocks for more complex
Minerals essential to bone formation, eg, calcium
and phosphorus, and organ functions
Enzymes aids to digestion of the
components when they reach the stomach
Lactose is the “other
solids” on your milk checks, and Minerals contribute the “ash” you may
also see on your milk market reports.
Obviously, they have value even if for most of dairy’s dependence on
external marketing companies, we have not been paid much for them.
Inherent in understanding this
nutrient soup are some basic broad concepts:
Vitamins are generally fat
soluble. Remove the butterfat
and most vitamins leave with it. Thus skim
milk is of little value to a newborn that is in the developmental stage
when internal organs are starting into function and demand nutrient
density. It is necessary for bottlers
to add vitamins to all skim milk products to approximate milk’s value in its
Fat from one specie does not
easily convert to body fat during metabolism by another specie. It is converted to energy and transported
in the blood stream to cells demanding it.
Thus eating foods containing fat will not automatically “make you
fat”. They just elevate your blood
levels of fats if you need more exercise than you are getting.
Lactose is not within the
butterfat, thus a skim milk product will still contain sugar-- which is
more likely to be converted by metabolism into stored energy (body fat)
whenever the level of activity and growth does not require it for quick
energy. Recent trials have shown
that those who drink whole milk actually control weight better than those who
drink skim milk.
Breeds of cattle (and bloodlines
within each breed) differ in the percentages of each component and this
will affect the level of milk yield expected from a given volume of feed. Breeds also differ in vitamin and mineral
secretion (Guernseys—more carotene: Jerseys—more calcium and
phosphorus: Ayrshires—smaller fat
The higher the level of
traditional bf% and pr% in a breed, the higher the levels of bf% and pr%
needed for calves in that breed during the nursing or bottle milk
period, until weaned.
Genes do not dilute
The convoluted estimates of
genetic “value” now in use, as a reductionist view of animal performance
in heritable gene responses, are often based on concepts of “pedigree index” or
“parent average”. This proves to be
an oversimplification that complicates calculating for genotype improvement
under organic production systems.
“Genes” are the basic identity
code within the DNA of any living being.
Every cell in the body of any living human or animal (or in the tissue
of plants we grow) has an identical helix of genes assembled in pairs, arranged
on a fixed number of chromosomes, that add up to the “genetic code” for that
specie. The number of chromosomes and
genes within that DNA must match for males and females to produce offspring
from “mating”. The genes themselves
are enzymes, and only four basic enzymes make up all genetic material.
Genes are transmitted at
conception in pairs, one received from poppa and one from momma.
Thus, the basic truth that genes
do not dilute is understood from visualizing how whole genes, one from each
parent, combine to produce the new, individually unique conceptus that
becomes the offspring of their sexual union between sperm (male) and ovum
(female). It is impossible to
“average” out any gene pairing—genes are not divided or split.
Most if not all measured trait
differences in our animals are the result of multiple gene pairings which act
in correlated fashion, responding to the opportunities and limitations
presented by the environment, to produce the phenotype we can measure linearly
and analyze quantitatively. In every
case, half the result can be blamed on the sire, half on the dam, of the animal
produced; I challenge any and all of us to apportion the blame exactly on the
individual mating result.
In countries that assign all
deviations to sires and/or dams, the trait number is called an EBV, or Estimated
Breeding Value. In countries that
divide all deviations between sire and dams, the trait number is called a PTA,
or Predicted Transmitting Ability.
The mathematical representation
of the biological gene code which we call genetic evaluation is thus not a genotype exactly, but a
reduction of the average of comparisons of phenotypes against contemporaneous
performances. As an ongoing averaging
of offspring from different ages and stages, it has always fluctuated. Because the geneticists know the
underlying DNA genotype was “fixed” at conception, a great deal of effort
has been put into designing computation models that would produce a more
“fixed” result. The ultimate evolution
of this theoretical “fixation” is what we now call Genomics,
which has values imputed to each identified “marker” gene that add up to the
trait values published for adolescent animals, and remain in their evaluation
after actual production begins and reproduction produces measurable
The attention of dairy population
geneticists for decades now has been on separating each trait from its environment
(geographical, seasonal, physical, nutritional, human management, mating
choices) that cause the phenotypic measurements to vary from the genotypic
evaluation. Lots of assumptions
are thus made, but the key assumptions are applied across all animals despite
the increasingly wide disparity between dairy environments [facilities and
management choices] as designed today.
These assumptions have compounded their effect over multiple generations.
Thus the animals that conform closer
the assumptions remain viable in the breeding population, while those that
consistently differ from the assumptions have been culled from the breeding
population. The result is a higher
level of pedigree inbreeding within each modernized dairy breed, that is
generally associated with higher levels of selection depression (popularly
known as “inbreeding effects”).
You cannot make “new” genes but you can lose “old” genes
Perhaps the most important realization in understanding
how genes combine to produce a new generation is that, as a result primarily of
selection for breeding on any reductionist method of evaluation, any genes not
valued in a current generation will be lost to succeeding generations in favor
of genes that are associated with what is valued.
Once these genes are lost, they
cannot be replaced— in the absence of any “GMO” process for inserting
genes into breeding animals from other species, once the generation of cows
retaining these heterosis variant gene enzymes at specific chromosome
locations have died, the genes die with them.
Likewise, as the basic enzymes
used in constructing gene patterns are a fixed number, any new patterns of gene
combinations are limited to genes already possessed in the breeding population.
Therefore, good or bad, any
assertion of “new” genes being created
is impossible. The best we can do is,
as the focus of Genomic mating is currently pursuing, create genotypes that
align more of the assumed positive “marker” genes into the new individuals
When it comes to inbreeding at the gene level, we have yet
to see the worst of it
Genomics is a powerful
tool, for good or ill, depending on how it is applied to a specie. At this time in dairy genetic selection, it
is being used (as all prior genetic evaluation reduction systems have done) to
first, define the “ideal” genotype and then to focus matings on
animals that come closest in possession of this “ideal” as our future
breeding animals, both male and female.
The scientific community
continues to seek “like to like” matings and continues to formulate “single
trait” selection indexes to guide those matings. Both of these practices have long been
known to produce “selection depression”—in other words, the “inbreeding effect”
that produces animals whose health, reproduction and productivity are inferior
to their ancestors. This is the
opposite result that the dairy industry desires.
Knowing this is still the road we
are on, and in more than just the dominant Holstein breed, the organic dairyman
(if not all dairymen) must have a breeding strategy to counter this risk. Again as “inbreeding depression” is mostly
realized in terms of the physique and organic function, the necessity to breed
for the optimal physical balance appears paramount.
In other words, “genetics” as
practiced does not answer all your needs, and may confuse us as to what our
biggest needs really are. The trend in
genetic evaluation has been to turn breeding as a comprehensive generation of
better replacements into a merchandising horse race. If you are not willing to gamble away your
future herd betting on the fastest horses, keep reading.