From its humble beginnings with nine cows in 1945, Homestead Dairy of Plymouth, Indiana, has embodied steady and continued progress. It’s a value that third-generation owner-manager Brian Houin takes seriously.
Today, Houin, along with five other family members and two non-family managers, oversees more than 3,500 lactating cows and 8,000 total animals on three sites in north-central Indiana. The young dairyman attributes much of the exponential growth of the business to strategic adoption of new technologies and management practices over time.
“We always are looking for new ways to become more efficient,” said Houin. “We don’t adopt new things for the sake of trying them just because they are new. But if they fit our business goals and make financial sense, we’ll give them a serious look.”
An example is the dairy’s decision to start genomic testing all heifers. In just two years, Homestead Dairy is already reaping positive results from strategically selecting high-genomic replacements.
Heifers targeted for genomic information
Houin said an inventory of excess heifers initially triggered their interest in genomic testing. “We were selling springers and wanted to make sure we kept the right ones for our own herd,” he said. “Parent averages alone only provide reliabilities in the 20s, whereas (with genomic testing) reliabilities approach 70 percent. It made sense to try to get more accurate information on those animals.”
Homestead Dairy’s first 50 samples were run on bred heifers ready to sell. “It didn’t take long to figure out that those animals already were too old to make the best decisions for them,” said Houin. “Some of the lowest genomic heifers were bred to sexed semen, and some of the highest ones were bull bred.”
Homestead Dairy now does genomic testing on young heifers prior to breeding, so the results can help dictate mating and culling decisions.
Identification of parentage errors is another benefit of genomic testing that Houin appreciates. “Even with breeding and record-keeping protocols in place, mistakes happen,” he said. “By having the correct genetic information on every animal, we can mate them with confidence that our genetic priorities are implemented.”
Benefits far outweigh cost, time
By monitoring herd performance, Houin already has observed tangible results from genomic testing. “I can look at the top 25 percent of our young cows for milk production and the bottom 25 percent, and there is a direct correlation to their genomic values for milk,” he said. “The same is true for fertility. When I look at the daughter pregnancy rate (DPR) values we get back from the testing, there is a huge difference between the conception rates of the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent.”
The herd now is realizing the highest milk production ever from its first-lactation heifers, and Houin said every new batch of heifers that comes in appears to have more structural soundness and adaptability to the milking string. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we’re receiving and basing our decisions off of extremely relevant information,” he said.
Like almost any new technology, there is a financial investment required to implement genomic testing. But Houin is confident that the labor, testing fees and time to manage the information all are well worth the cost. The dairy’s workers find taking ear punches to be convenient and easy to use, and Houin said the testing fees and management time more than pay for themselves.
“I would be spending time making breeding decisions anyway,” he said. “With the information, I know I am making better decisions that will pay off in terms of the quality, efficiency and productivity of our herd. This has been a real lesson in how valuable accurate genetic information can be, and how rapidly you can improve your herd by applying it.”
Learn more about genomic testing and hear from more dairy producers who are using it to maximize herd performance at the reproductive management page of the Dairy Wellness website. PD
Cheryl Marti is the senior marketing manager for the U.S. dairy genetics and reproductives department of Zoetis.