Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Is your farm producing generic volume or premium value ?


Starting as my Dad’s part-time office boy, ad writer and assistant bookkeeper, I am closing in on fifty years working in and observing the evolution of dairy cow breeding.   In this period, I have seen the exodus of my peers from farming to city jobs, or the changeover of dairy farms to crop farming and steer feeding.    All of us have seen the rise of environmentalism, now facing the first generation of the consumer public that does not see us as “the stewards of the land” but often as despoilers of the environment.    Many of you are jumping through extra “hoops” as more milk product handlers want to impact on the way in which we produce the milk they sell.   (My largest “aAa” customer in Ohio agreed to go “GMO free” in order to earn a premium on milk from Dannon yogurt.  With 2800 cows this adds up to thousands in extra income without added cost!)    

Are there opportunities for the majority of us?     There will be.    If you look at the sales made by Michigan’s largest on-farm bottlers (Country Dairy/ New Era, Moo-ville Creamery/ Nashville, Calder Dairy/ Carleton) all involve rBST-free, GMO free, and/or A2A2 Beta Casein labelling.    There are a couple successful local Amish-built dairies that are selling “creamline” premium milk and finding a ready market.

In Europe, the animal rights’ oversight on dairy farms has made note of how the “aAa” system for mating the cow physique produces “happier” (easier moving, more trouble free) cows.   In contrast, most dairymen suffering outsider inspection of cow lots find themselves written up for “lameness” – the majority of which is based on poor leg structure caused genetically and thus cannot be solved by any management intervention short of a higher culling rate.

Generic cows result from genetic indexes designed to produce commodity milk

Did anyone ever suggest this to you?    “Index” was designed from the beginning to satisfy the data-driven scientist focused on chemistry, rather than living biology.    Scientists do not trust “observational” knowledge, will follow a reductionist path to focus on data points that shorten the time of evaluation.    Genomics—a look at new-born DNA under a microscope—is the final step in this evolution away  from animal husbandry, which was always driven by interpretation of observed behavior and accumulated experience over animal lifetimes and intergenerational (rather than contemporary) comparison.

This focus on data points (the irony of trying to predict gene transmission when comparing a set of unrelated animals—ignoring the “mating effects” resulting from choice of sire and dam) has allowed undesirable behavior to propogate, and among this is the various mutations that effect milk composition in negative ways…    “blending” good and bad milk on the same milk route.  

Everyone suffers under milk market “pooling” when bad genes are allowed to proliferate

An example of this is when a major Michigan milk cooperative lost a lucrative volume market supplying milk to a cheese plant—and having three loads in a row fail to “set” curds in the set processing time.    What caused this?    OK, possibly too much fermented feed leading to too acid a milk produced;  but also, the proliferation of the “E”  Kappa Casein gene, a recently identified milk protein mutation that refuses to set curds.     This has multiplied in Holsteins as a result of widespread usage of a high Genomic value sire line dominating the “sire of sons” lists.     “Accelerating the generations” has meant that three generations of that sire line could be used in your herds before the first drop of milk was produced by the oldest generation of offspring having calved from that line.     By then, how many “outcross” (clean) cows do you have left?   

Traits not driven by data points have no impact on Genomic sire rankings.    Bulls with the “E” Kappa Casein gene should receive “Cheese Merit” indexes of zero – but their “cheese” indexes are still within the same range as the basic fluid milk “Net Merit” ranking.   Likewise, polled has no impact on any index, even though it has a clear multi-generation positive impact on heifer raising costs.    Data for Daughter Pregnancy Rates is not affected negatively when OvSynch has to be used to get cows pregnant (an increasing percentage of cows generated from IVF-ET sires will not cycle naturally) because DHIA does not record that data.    The relentless focus on more milk regardless of cost has you raising replacements that will require ever more intervention from external inputs raising costs.   In this, the $50 million that the dairy industry has invested in Genomic tests so far, to decide if a heifer deserves to be raised into a future cow, has not raised the net income of any dairyman who sells milk (instead of breeding stock) for his living.               

The 40% of dairymen who still use “matrix” trait selection are best positioned for the future

Genomics to date is calibrated simply on the male DNA side of the genotype.   The observable differences in female RNA (which pass from cow to her heifers) some of which affect milkiness are not considered.    Depending on Genomics for your total genetic decisions is to breed for bulls—and in fifty years I have yet to see any bull give a drop of milk!!

This might explain why we are happy to assist those dairymen who are increasingly selecting in favor of traits outside the data points—polled, A2A2 Beta Casein, AB or BB Kappa Casein, plus percents of butterfat and/or protein, depth of maternal line performance, and managing cow conformation with the “aAa” breeding guide (rather than following advice that has you mating your matured, most successfully adapted, more fertile, high productivity cows to “beef” bulls just because their DNA came from older thus “obsolete” bulls…)

So much of what the genetics industry is promoting reminds me of the children’s fairy tale, do you remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from the Brothers Grimm?   Just ‘cause everyone says this invisible cloth is lovely and therefore valuable, the fat old emperor is all I can see … it is still important we breed real cows with the capability of a long life of low-cost productivity.

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