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 pounds butterfat).
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 stores.)
* * * * *
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, outcrossing”
“Crossbreeding only works when we understand it as outcrossing”
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 unproductive.
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 adaptation.
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:
(1) Holsteins are just too big to succeed on grass
(2) Breeding Indexes solve all our genetic selection problems
(3) Crossbreeding solves all the rest of our animal problems
(4) Individual cow mating interferes with maximizing genetic value
(5) Heat detection is obsolete, just OvSynch all your cows and time breed AI groups
(6) Sexed semen means you can sell half your calves and have enough replacements
(7) New 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 environments.
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 predictive way.
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 comparative performance.
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 Ingalls (1833-1900)
“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 dead.”
“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 domesticated.
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 reproduction.
The beef cow-calf guy knows that his income depends on his cows having living calves each season, which requires bovine reproduction.
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 reproduction?
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 result.
How a biologist and biogeneticist looks at fertility
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 reproducing.
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 herd.
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 insemination
Taking this from my Dad’s 1952 customer presentation: “the advantages of AI”
(1) Better herd disease control [eliminate sexually transmitted diseases like “Bangs”]
(2) Better prediction of calving dates and milk flow [breeding dates were known]
(3) Better 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]
You can 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 industry
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 characteristic selection.
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 theorizing.
“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 triggered].
“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 uneven ground.
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.
Continental Dual Purpose: Fleckveih, 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 fertility characteristics.
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 significant horns.
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 FARM DESIGN
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, etc.
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 involved.
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 inputs.
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 indices.
Thus the certified organic producer has to this point decided that
(a) he is going to base his genetic selection on crossbreeding, either the two-breed Kiwi crisscross or the three-breed USA rotation; OR
(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 performance).
Is your herd reproduction based on synthetic hormone stimulation?
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 reference population.
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.
How 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 Trudy.
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 value.
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 circulation
(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, minerals)
(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 utilization?
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.
MILK -- 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 food”.
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 release energy)
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 nutritional molecules
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 raw form.
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 globules).
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 offspring.
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 forever
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 generated.
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.