A universal goal of progressive dairy producers is to maximize milk production from healthy cows. But when you ask these same producers what and how they feed their cows to produce that milk, the diversity becomes clear. Producers choose strategies that fit their dairy conditions and their management style.

Matching genetic advice with the challenges and goals of the dairy operation is relatively new to the A.I. industry. Our industry focuses a lot on the latest release or the hottest bull in the line-up. But it’s individualized service and advice that progressive dairy producers want more and more.

This article addresses the question of how a breeding and genetics strategy can be set in place for your dairy.

What’s important to you?
The standard marketing tool for the A.I. industry is the proof sheet. On it you find actively marketed bulls offered by competing organizations and a range of officially evaluated traits. Should you focus on production, health or type traits? And if production is important, is it milk or components? If you want healthier cows, do you emphasize daughter calving ease, daughter fertility, somatic cell score or productive life? Or is it type you want, with good feet and legs and udders?

The importance of each and every trait on the proof sheet will depend on the situation of the dairy.


The weighty issue of indexes
How well do indexes like TPI and NM$ reflect your goals and situation on the dairy? Indexes like TPI and NM$ are constructed using “weights” that add up to 100. The more weight placed on a particular trait, then the more important that trait is in determining the index score for a particular sire. These indexes each represent a respective average dairy producer in the industry. TPI is deemed the index most appropriate for the average producer that puts a value on conformation, and NM$ values genetics purely from an average commercial standpoint. The question is, who strives to be average? What is the right index (or weighting within an index) for your operation?

Table 1* shows the weights and traits used to calculate both TPI and NM$, the most commonly used indexes in the industry today. For each sire, the evaluation on each trait included in the index is multiplied by the respective weight for that trait to arrive at a score, such as 1,800 TPI or 357 NM$. A quick glance at the data makes it clear that TPI places more emphasis on conformation traits (PTAT, UDC, FLC) than NM$; NM$ places more emphasis on the health traits (PL, SCS, etc.) than TPI.

Are weights and traits of indexes like TPI and NM$ important to you? Should they be included? If they are included, are they emphasized too much, just right or not enough? A potential problem with standard indexes is that they tell the dairy producer what is important without ever asking about the situation of the dairy or the goals of the producer. If you are a producer which has not culled a cow for years because of feet and leg conformation, should you place as much emphasis on feet and legs as the producer who has 25 percent of his culls due to feet and legs?

Build a custom index
Many dairy producers have little idea how an index like NM$ or TPI is created. But it is common for them to use these tools to make sire selections. This exposes a risk that there will be a disconnect between the cows that a NM$ or TPI-based selection strategy produces and what the dairy producer’s situation and goals are. Building a custom selection index for your dairy helps avoid this risk.

A few A.I. companies, including Alta Genetics, are providing this service to progressive producers. The companies that offer this service are using variations of a basic 4-step consultative process:

1. Review dairy records for incidence rates of dystocia, stillbirth, somatic cell counts, reproduction, etc. and make dairy observations (e.g., cow comfort, lameness).
2. Consult the dairy producer on goals for the dairy, such as expansion, improved reproduction, etc.
3. Identify the genetic traits that help correct issues in Step 1 and respond to goals in Step 2.
4. Divide 100 percent in weight among the traits identified with the producer; more weight is given to traits that help solve most important issues or achieve the most important goals.

Following this process, a computer model runs the index and ranks sires by the specific preferences of the producer. Sires are then selected on the basis of the strength of their match with the goals that the producer has identified and the situation of the dairy. Once created, the index serves as a filter for whether new bulls released at proof rounds fit your genetic program.

ROI & A.I.
The estimate of genetic improvement calculated by the USDA provides a point to estimate the payback from your custom index strategy. The contribution of production, health and conformation traits to profitability on your dairy can be reliably estimated. The economic value is discounted into present value so that a producer can compare the investment to the return in comparable terms.

Figure 1* is an example of how Alta Genetics is providing this information to producers. The milking daughters in this case will generate over $330 in profit compared to average herdmates. Component yields, udders and longevity contribute most of the value.

The purpose of this information is to determine what traits are making your cows more profitable and how much value is created in each. It also gives the dairy producer an opportunity to change the selection index. More weight can be added to areas of great economic value.

Make it your choice
Familiar indexes like TPI and NM$ are very helpful to simplify a complicated decision. In many cases, producers are pleased with using these indexes. Often that is due to a match in the producer’s goals and the selection index weights.

However, a growing number of progressive dairy managers want individualized product advice that matches the goals and situation of their operation. Committing to make a custom index a part of the breeding and genetic improvement program for your dairy puts you in the driver’s seat. PD

Table and Figure omitted but are available upon request to editor@progressivedairy.com.