Genomics has become a hot topic of discussion on today’s dairy farms as producers look for innovative solutions to maximize performance and improve profitability in their herds.
Cheryl Marti, dairy production specialist with Zoetis, said this new technology can be worth the investment on well managed farms. She said Zoetis views genetic improvement as an important part of a comprehensive management program involving health, milk quality, reproduction and nutrition that together can create a sustainable dairy business plan. Ultimately, genetics and genomics are permanent and additive ways to improve many aspects of performance with the end goal of raising healthy, more profitable replacements.
Marti said dairies use genomic testing in one of two ways: as a replacement inventory management tool or to improve the genetic potential of the next generation. Regardless of the strategy, Marti said producers must clearly define their goals and keep good records to make the most of genomic testing.
Replacement inventory management
A static-sized herd not looking to expand in the next year may use genomic testing to decide which calves they’ll keep as replacements. By doing so, farms with too many heifers aren’t “leaving it up to chance” or lower accuracy pedigree-based information when they pick the calves to sell. Genomic testing gives producers more accurate and dependable information to make decisions on which calves to sell. If this is the strategy you choose, Marti said she recommends testing calves as early as possible so they can be sold early to reduce rearing costs on calves you won’t keep.
Improving genetic potential of the next generation
For years, dairy producers have been improving the genetics of their herds through sire selection. With hundreds of offspring coming from a single sire, producers have accurate data to use in making bull choices. It’s not the same for a commercial dairy cow. With relatively few offspring in her lifetime, it is nearly impossible to predict her genetic value prior to genomic testing, especially if it is to be made before she’s creating her third calf during her second lactation.
Now producers have more dependable information they can use in planning the next generation of the milking herd. This strategy is intended to help stack the odds in your favor of getting more females out of the better groups of females through the value of other reproductive technologies such as sexed semen, embryo transfer or in vitro fertilization on top animal groups. Conversely, some herds with abilities to produce greater than 20 percent excess females in a generation may also breed their low-end genetics to some beef. Furthermore, herds can utilize mating programs to match females with bulls to achieve the best possible offspring, while also reducing risks of inbreeding and recessives, particularly since parentage has been confirmed.
If strategically maximizing your genetic gain is your goal, Marti recommends waiting until two months before breeding age to test the animals. That way, you’re getting the information at the time you’ll be using it versus tracking it for an extended period of time.
As herds start genomic testing, Marti finds they discover additional strategies and uses as they get accustomed to the choices they make through an animal’s life. While using either of the aforementioned strategies alone is usually economically viable, combining them and/or using genomic information for additional management decisions greatly increase the economic returns.
In addition, testing may bring awareness to other issues. For example, the level of pedigree misidentification is a surprise to many herds. Marti commonly sees ranges of 7 to 80 percent of the sires misidentified in herd groups. Genomically testing an animal will verify and correct who the sire and dam are as long as they’ve been genomically tested. Having accurate pedigree information leads to the dairy’s ability to better manage inbreeding and recessives in the next generation.
When deciding on your strategy, Marti said she recommends pulling together your herd management team, which may include your A.I. technician, nutritionist, veterinarian, herdsman, etc. Once you have the genomic results for a group of animals, rank them according to their ability to help you reach your goals. Next, apply the strategy that will help you reach those goals in the most economical manner.
Marti emphasized that good recordkeeping is essential to the success of a genetics program. To begin, producers need permanent identification for all animals, and the earlier the better. This prevents misidentification – and wrong decisions – when it comes time to make breeding selections and provides links to your record keeping systems.
Overall, genomics is a game-changing tool works best when you are committed to recordkeeping, good management and long-term improvement of your herd’s genetic potential. Genomics provides for more dependable genetic information to allow producers the ability to make better decisions, resulting in more efficient and profitable dairies.