In all aspects of your farming and dairy operation, you are applying increased precision to accomplish tasks, leaving less to chance and directing resources to where the return on investment will be greatest.

Whether it’s how you milk your cows or how their production information gets collected, how feed gets processed into a ration or pushed up every few hours, how those home-grown feeds were harvested or even planted, there is precision and increasing technology being used for all these tasks – with the expense justified by the labor it saves or the extra milk it generates.

Applying increased precision to genetic planning provides real benefits too and should be regularly considered; after all, we are talking about the factories that generate most farm revenue. It is far better those factories are equipped with the best components, which is why we are going to focus on those options here.

To be fair, many producers are applying some precision and planning to their genetic program. So what are we talking about? An example can be what appears to be a simple decision to use sexed semen on heifers. Some go further by identifying lower-end females in the milking herd – plus perhaps difficult breeders – to inseminate with beef semen.

These are decisions made where no dashboard math is even required to validate the economics or payback. They are based in the simple logic that it costs equally if not more to raise a low-genetic-merit heifer than a high one.


Some decisions regarding genetic planning are not so simple, however, and require more up-front investment too. Do we have a good process to evaluate cost versus benefit? Here are some ways to help you get started.

An excellent tool to evaluate the logic in genetic planning decisions is the Net Merit (NM$) Index for individual animals and for groups of animals.

While using NM$ for this discussion is easier, as it is expressed in U.S. dollars, if you align yourself more with a TPI selection approach, the points being made are still relevant, as the two indexes are highly correlated. Your highest NM$ animals will be among your higher TPI animals too.

The point to focus on is the range from top to bottom and the difference between group averages for heifers, 2-year-olds and older cows. In many of the leading NM$ herds, top animals – usually among the heifer group – will have an index that approaches $600 to $800, while the lowest are often in the $200 to $300 range.

To check your own herd, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding and the Holstein Association USA websites are invaluable resources to do some digging.

Let’s say your top heifer has a merit of $600, and the average among the breeding age group for the coming year is $300. That means, on average, the $600 heifer will transmit an extra $300 of genetic merit (additional predicted lifetime profit) to her offspring compared to a $300 heifer.

That extra $300, while a prediction, is fundamental in establishing what extra precision you can afford to invest to replicate from her and other top-ranked animals compared to those in the lower tier. Here are some options:

1. Sexed semen – On average, two doses per heifer are required, with an extra cost of $30 per calf created. All of that cost can be offset simply by breeding heifers a bit younger (20 days x $1.50 per day = $30) due to fewer expected calving difficulties, so the gain in genetic merit isn’t even needed to justify this decision.

2. Beef semen – Add beef semen to offset extra female calves produced. If the average NM$-based genetic difference between cows to be bred to beef and heifers to sexed semen is $500, for each potential replacement calf we displace from the low end to the upper group, we increase lifetime profit of one animal in the herd by $1,000 (double the transmitting value), and if lifetime profit on your dairy means 2.5 lactations, it translates to an extra $1,000. Divided by 2.5 lactations, that equals $400 per year in profit for the operation. Plus, improving genetics is additive, meaning the benefits extend also to future generations.

With these two adaptations from the traditional conventional semen- only approach, there isn’t any need to increase investment in a genetic program to achieve it – just increased precision. Other strategic approaches to genetic planning generally do require some additional up-front investment.

3. Genomic testing – There are certainly benefits to genomic-testing all animals; however, many producers use it in a targeted way to verify top- or bottom-ranked animals before making further investment or potential early removal decisions.

Many producers have found that parent averages (PA) sort animals pretty well with few changing dramatically in the pecking order with genomic testing. Still, especially for a high-ranked heifer where either conventional or IVF embryo production is being considered, a $45 genomic test as confirmation of her caliber would be highly recommended before proceeding.

4. Conventional embryo transfer (ET) – While the traditional use of ET has been on top proven performers, more and more producers recognize the economics can work well on a superior young unproven female too. Some producers are fortunate enough to have such a female in their herd.

When TPIs exceed 2500 or NM$ values exceed $600, the level of superiority is such that focusing on making multiple offspring makes economic sense.

Investing about $200 per embryo pregnancy, using sexed semen to ensure female calves and generating offspring that are at least $300 genetically ahead of the average among the heifer group (including those that would become recipients for the embryos) means those animals will generate an extra $600 profit over their lifetime compared to the other heifers.

Spending $200 to create a potential three times return on investment (more if future generations are also considered) is a good business decision. If you need to go out and buy the heifer, of course the out-of-pocket expense increases substantially. Still, if you saw fit to invest in such a heifer and are wondering what to do next, flushing will be the best way to ensure a return.

5. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) – IVF technology has come a long way, and it holds great promise for those who want to really speed things up. For truly top-ranked animals (2600 TPI and higher, $700+ NM$), the window of opportunity to create the kind of animals you will want and others will want to buy from you, is short.

That’s where IVF really begins to make sense. Cost per implantable embryo is typically around $500 – so quite a bit higher – but you can collect every two weeks, and access to reverse sorting means more mating choices to exclusively make females.

IVF is ideal where a return on investment depends on lots of offspring to be created, but there are a lot of up-front costs. Using IVF in a commercial setting to generate higher-caliber replacements can be justified too, but even with excellent reproduction, return on investment will be more like two times, with about half of that coming from the additive genetic value from future generations.

Frozen IVF embryos have been reported to produce extremely high pregnancy rates (approaching 70 to 80 percent,) while unfreezable (Nos. 2 and 3) embryos produce rates closer to 40 percent.

Those who maintain use of conventional semen across the board for their genetic plan can generate solid rates of genetic progress; the key then, as always, is to focus on using top-ranked, daughter-proven – and now top-ranked genomic – sires too.

Still, it is easy to see how the average genetic merit of a heifer crop can be significantly elevated if special focus is made to concentrate the creation of replacements from the very best females in the herd.

Ensuring that as few potential replacements are produced from lowest-ranking animals by using beef products here will double the impact. Conventional or IVF embryo production from best animals can also pencil out nicely. The bottom line is: Adding precision to genetic planning increases return on investment. Talk to your genetic consultant to put your plan in place.  PD

Paul Meyer