Take a moment and make a mental picture of the most profitable cow in your barn. Is she the stylish, large-framed and open-ribbed 2-year-old who catches everyone’s eye?

Schmidt mandy
Herd Consultant / The Cattle Source
Mandy Schmidt was formerly a genetic data analysis consultant with Grai-Rose Cattle Sales and Mar...

Perhaps, when you picture the most profitable cow, you think of lactation and health records. She produces strongly every lactation and breeds back easily. Never a day in the hospital pen or a cell count flare-up to mention.

She does her job easily, under the radar with minimal inputs, making milk effortlessly. While her looks might not be anything to write home about, she is definitely the kind you appreciate lactation after lactation.

Genetics play an important role in creating a long-lasting, healthy cow that milks efficiently and breeds back quickly. However, narrowing down more than 50 published sire selection traits to profit traits can be overwhelming.

Indices, such as Net Merit Dollars (NM$) or Cheese Merit Dollars (CM$), are helpful in balancing a grouping of relevant traits into one easy number.


However, genetic selection is not one-size-fits-all. Likely, your herd will have a different genetic make-up and profitability factors than your neighbor’s. Strategize to place additional emphasis on the traits affecting your dairy’s daily operating income and costs.

Five ways to breed more profitable cows

The profit equation is income minus expenses. While protecting for functional type is important, genetics invested heavily into the herd should profitably correlate with either increasing income or reducing expenses for maximum net profit.

Efficiency speaks loudly in our industry of margin games. The model of efficiency is achieving target production levels with the minimum daily investment of time, money, labor and feed resources. By focusing genetic selection in the following five areas, you can improve your herd’s profitability:

1. Milk and components yield
Protein, fat and milk yield are clearly profit traits. The expected outcome is a 1-pound increase in yield for every 1-point increase in predicted transmitting ability (PTA) for milk, fat or protein. Increased production equals increased income.

The Holstein breed has done an impressive job of increasing levels of milk production over the past six decades.

Unfortunately, emphasizing production alone for greater income can result in increased input costs from feed, reproduction, labor, hospital pen and health treatments. Elevated income combined with more expenses doesn’t mean a larger profit margin.

In reality, you do not get paid on the potential of a cow to milk hard, only the product leaving the dairy as salable milk. A cow may be a high producer, but if her milk must be discarded due to treatment, she does not breed back quickly to reach another lactation peak soon or she is removed from the herd after only two lactations, the amount of salable milk is reduced.

In some cases, a moderate-producing, trouble-free cow may have the lifetime advantage in salable milk and profit margin versus a high-producing cow.

Yield traits are extremely important profitability traits, yet genetic improvement is not limited to increasing output. Genetics can also help control expenses and preserve profits during market downturns. Generate a higher net profit from less expense by increasing the health, reproductive and management genetics in balance with progressive production and component yield.

2. Fertility
One expensive side effect from the exceptional climb in Holstein milk yield is the breed’s reduced fertility. Female fertility is negatively correlated to high milk production. Holsteins have alarmingly diminished female reproductive performance.

The leading reason most cows are culled involuntarily in the U.S. today, according to national DHI records, is poor reproductive performance.

What is a pregnant cow worth to your profitability? Daughter pregnancy rate (DPR) is a prediction of how quickly a bull’s daughter will become pregnant. Daughters of sires with high DPR genetic values are expected to have daughters with fewer days open than daughters of sires with low DPR PTA values.

Income over feed cost margins are highest when cows are in peak production. Cows which breed back easily return to peak milk sooner. Although not a production trait, DPR does affect production efficiency.

3. Stature
Another strong genetic trend in the U.S. Holstein population is a rapid increase in type. The look of the breed has changed dramatically over the past half-century. Involuntary culling for poor udder or poor type are rare culprits in the current cow population.

The downfall of such intense type selection has been a compounding increase in stature for Holsteins. It’s not surprising cows are bigger than ever because type is 77 percent correlated to stature in today’s sire population.

Stature is the most heritable type trait which can be passed down to the next generation. Although most commercial dairy producers don’t select for taller cows on purpose, they may inadvertently select for stature when putting an emphasis on type.

It has become increasingly difficult to find actively marketed A.I. sires with a stature PTA less than or equal to zero. The sire population with stature PTAs above zero will increase Holstein cow stature.

Although there is no correlation between size and milk production, in the world of feed efficiency, we can all agree: Size does matter. Ruminant animals must consume nearly 2 percent of their bodyweight in dry matter intake for maintenance. Bigger cows require more feed than smaller cows. Larger cows will not as efficiently convert feed into profit (milk and components) because they require more energy for body maintenance. Beyond feed intake efficiency, cow comfort is not typically optimized for large cows in most facilities.

Wish your cows were more feed efficient? If you want to maintain or reduce body size, utilize the body size composite (BSC). Lower BSC numbers indicate daughters will be smaller than sires with a high value for BSC.

Zero is breed average for the Holstein population; selecting genetics which are below zero represent selecting cows which are smaller than breed average. The NM$ index does slightly penalize bulls which create large daughters, but producers should specifically look at BSC if size is an area they need to address pointedly.

4. Longevity
Are cows not lasting as long as you would like? Productive life (PL) is the ability of a bull’s daughter to remain productive and functional in the herd. It is expressed as the number of additional or fewer months expected from a bull’s daughter over their lifetime above breed average. High values represent long-lasting genetics.

5. Milk quality
What would a lower bulk tank cell count mean to you? Somatic cell score offers an indication of udder health and somatic cell levels for a bull’s daughters. Lower values are more desirable and imply daughters will be less prone to milk loss from treatment withdrawal times and have improved milk quality.

Make progress toward the type of cow which makes the most sense for your dairy’s business plan. Pretty-picture cows or traditional Holstein genetic breeding strategies might not fit your needs for profitability.

For many, the profitable cow of the future is an efficient cow that makes more with less. She maximizes net profit with a smaller body size for high feed efficiency, a healthy udder which produces quality milk with great components, breeds back quickly and produces more over a longer lifetime.  PD

Evan Schnadt is also with ABS Global.

Mandy Brazil