heifer calves
February 28, 2017

How to Build a Better Herd

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Professional sports teams built through the combination of quality young talent and proven veterans usually succeed. Over time, success continues to build when quality young talent realizes it’s potential and replaces the veterans past their prime.  The same can be true for your milking herd.

There is a risk in investing in young talent only to have them fizzle out when it comes time to produce. While that’s tough to predict with certainty in athletes, genomic technology is helping dairy producers accurately predict future performance. Having these results helps dairy producers build better, more profitable herds.

The goal is to identify the type of herd you want to have, develop a genetic program to build that herd, then implement an inventory management program to make it happen.

“We’re always looking for that ideal cow,” says Simon Vander Woude, who milks around 3,200 cows near Merced, Calif. “The cow that freshens, milks and gets pregnant. She might not be a 40,000 lb. cow but she’s in the 30’s and really just does her thing every year.” Making a herd of cows like that is the goal for Vander Woude, and genomics have helped him get closer to that goal.

A genomic test is performed on each Vander Woude heifer shortly after birth. Vander Woude knows how many heifers he wants to calve in each month, and genomics identify which animals they want those heifers from. Results also tell which heifers will receive sexed or conventional semen. Top end heifers become part of the dairy’s new in vitro fertilization (IVF) program. “The best genetics are in our heifers,” Vander Woude says. “I can see what I have coming by looking at the genomics.”

The rest of the animals are bred to Angus, which includes about half the lactating herd. “These are profitable cows to milk, but not necessarily those that I want the next generation of our herd from,” says Vander Woude.

Several research studies using an intense selection program similar to Vander Woude’s significantly speeds genetic progress. Dutch research shows the use of genomic tests for decision making speeds genetic progress, and that progress accelerates when genomic tests are used in combination with strategies that include sexed semen and other reproductive technologies.

The accuracy of genomic results is what enables confidence in knowing which heifers are likely to be profitable. “The power of genomic selection of replacement heifers is the ability to make decisions early on,” says Dr. Kent Weigel, professor of breeding and genetics and department chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If 7 or 8 times out of 10 you make the right decision instead of five times, in the long run that makes an enormous difference.”

Genomics can be one way to know if a heifer is worth the investment of raising it all the way to calving, says Steve Bodart, principal business consultant with AgStar Financial Services, Baldwin, Wis. He cited a 1,000-cow dairy example where the bottom 15% of heifers were culled at four months of age. Compared to a same sized dairy that kept all heifers, cumulative net income went up nearly $170,000 and the difference in cost of production was 36 cents per hundredweight.

“Optimizing inventory management has a significant impact on cash flow and net income,” Bodart says. “This has a major impact on profitability and the financial health of the dairy.”

Vander Woude can tell improved genetics are paying off and that he’s building a better herd—as herd genetics have improved more lactating cows are getting bred with sexed semen rather than conventional or beef semen because their genetics are more desirable.

While better genetics are really the foundation of a better herd, Vander Woude points out there are a lot of management factors involved in making each animal’s genetic potential shine. He recognizes genetics and management go hand-in-hand, noting that he does take into consideration wellness indexes that are derived from genomic results. 

The goal at Vander Woude Dairy is to freshen about 110 heifers monthly to achieve a cull rate of around 30% in the lactating herd. Genomics can predict if those heifers will be as profitable as their mature herdmates.