From the March/April CONCEPTIONS Dairy Newsletter
This may seem contrary to what you read everywhere, but I still can hear my Grandad telling a neighbor, “when the neighbors slow down driving by your farm, shaking their heads at what they see, you must finally be doing something right.” Peer pressure – that social force that got us into trouble during our school years, also has hidebound the dairy industry into replicating high-cost, technology-based operating styles that produce rates of return on investment lower than the costs of financing and depreciation.
Nowhere is this discussion more important than in the use of sex-sorted semen, which is promoted as a way to reduce calving problems in heifers (true enough—avoid the big lunker overdue bull calves). So many dairymen following pre-health trait ranking indexes complained of never having enough heifers to keep pace with herd turnover. As soon as sorted (female) semen came online, they wanted it and paid significant premiums to utilize it. Today, the cost of sorting semen at the market level of demand has proven to be a huge financial burden to the AI industry, forcing some merger consolidations.
For those using it who actually already had enough heifers, too often the result is – too high a charge for raising replacements against the value of each cow’s milk production. Calculated costs of raising a calf to first freshening are in the neighborhood of $2.25 to $2.75 daily, or $1650 to $2000 per replacement.
The market for fresh heifers (given surpluses caused by sexed semen) barely matches the cost of raising them, so we are no better off today than we were in the 1960s, the last time we had a structural surplus in the replacement supply.
The “experts”are now telling us to do what they told our fathers not to do
Up into the 1960s, most grade dairymen bred heifers to beef breed bulls. Reeasons: (1) usually an easier calving; (2) they already got enough heifers from the cow herd, which had more longevity than what the industry is harvesting today; (3) they did not want to raise a replacement from any heifer they decided not to keep. Culling of below average heifers was their primary (and practical) method for genetic improvement. (4) raising heifers only from “proven” cows kept numbers at a level that did not put strain on the milk check, and was always able to maintain desired herd size without buying cows.
“Genomic test, breed the best sexed, sell the rest”. In fact, breed your cows to beef bulls (sell those calves as deacons to capture the beef breed premium) and raise all your replacements from heifers and younger cows, which are your “newest” genetics. This is the recommendation now for a “progressive” dairyman to follow. This places total trust in the technology of theoretical genetics for dairy.
Except there are consequences. Here is a true story from Wisconsin. A large herd bought into a Genomic testing of every calf. Based on their cow turnover rates they sold the lowest 20% of heifer calves based on Genomic values. A neighbor was buying all those calves at the sale barn (preparation for herd expansion). Six years into this effort, the Genomic dairyman saw his neighbor’s herd average now exceeded theirs, SO he dropped in for a visit to see what was happening.
“Why do you buy all our cull calves, and how are you getting so much production from them?” Turns out the neighbor had a longevity-based genetics and mating philosophy, and these “cull” calves proved to mostly be born from his oldest cows—thus carried lower index values, but realized more longevity.
In spite of years of selection favoring ‘fast maturity”, cows that actually achieve a functioning maturity milk 30% more. Dr Dan Weigel, Zoetis “Wellness”