The “true type” cow for the progressive dairy producer is the “four-event” cow – a cow that freshens, gets bred, is confirmed pregnant and later is dried off. Cows that only have these four “events” in a given lactation are the cows that generate profit for the dairy enterprise.

Dairymen invest in proven semen and breeding programs to build genetics in the herd that help to create a trouble-free, profitable cow. Is this investment paying off? And what groups of cows are creating you the most profit?

I’ll focus this article on benchmarking the genetics in the progressive dairy to answer these important questions. The analysis to follow is a case study example from a 2,000-cow dairy, one of the 180 dairies enrolled in Alta’s young sire testing program.

The perfect experiment

Too many dairy managers benchmark genetics too simply, focusing on the relative fertility of bulls used. This is a huge point to benchmark for performance, for sure. However, it’s the quality of the milking daughters that really count for long-run profitability. The production, reproductive performance, longevity and milk quality of daughters should be factored into the evaluation, too.


Fortunately, your dairy is the perfect place to evaluate the contribution of genetic progress to the performance of your herd. All of the environmental and management conditions are the same for all cows on your farm. Therefore, the relative performance differences among groups of cows can be confidently attributed to genetics.

Cows that earn their keep

Production, reproduction and longevity are the core economic drivers of dairy profitability. Cows that produce relatively more quality milk, get pregnant relatively fast and continue to do it “year over year” are more profitable than ones that don’t. We’ll benchmark cows on each of these dimensions.

Milk production

Milk is the primary source of revenue on the dairy, and one would expect cows sired by high-milk bulls would generate daughters that produce relatively more milk. On our case study dairy, the 90 daughters of high-milk bulls would be expected to produce about 1,100 pounds more milk per lactation compared to the other 109 analyzed. In fact, the 90 daughters are generating nearly 1,400 pounds more milk. At a $16.50 per hundredweight (cwt) mailbox price, that means the 90 daughters are generating more than $230 per cow more revenue than the others. This herd is actually getting slightly more milk than what would be expected with the high-milk sires.

Milk quality

Somatic cell count (SCC) is a quality parameter on which milk premiums are often established, with producers being compensated for low cell count milk. Benchmarking the genetics once again shows that the daughters sired by low somatic cell score (SCS) bulls are producing better quality milk compared to the high SCS-sired cows. Based on the difference of the PTASCS of the two groups, we would expect a difference of about one-half of a point of linear score. The relative impact of this half point of linear score on SCC is going to depend on what the herd average is. In this herd, the margin of quality is a 156,000 lower cell count. And lower cell count is also a sign of healthier udders too, which means less infection and treatment cost.


The push for production often comes with some sacrifice to reproductive performance. The fertility of cows can help compensate for this, and genetic tools like daughter pregnancy rate (DPR) can be the tool to do so. On the case study dairy we are analyzing here, the 91 daughters of high DPR bulls are 13 percent more likely to conceive, are 5 percent more efficient at getting pregnant and are open 15 days less than the daughters of low DPR bulls. At a conservative rate of $10 per cow per point of pregnancy rate (PG), the 91 daughters of the high DPR bulls have an additional profit of $4,550 per year ($10 x 5 points of PG rate x 91 cows), and increasing the PG rate on the entire 2,000 cows by 5 points would be worth $100,000 per year.


Cows with longevity bred into them also provide dairy managers the opportunity to increase voluntary culling to improve genetic quality of the herd overall and harvest more milk. Productive life (PL) is a genetic tool to increase longevity of your cows, and benchmarking genetics in this case study herd shows that to be true. The cull rate on low PL bulls was 2.5 times higher than on high PL bulls by the conclusion of the second lactation. A 14 percent cull rate on the high PL-sired daughters means the last daughter in the 207-cow group will last for up to seven lactations!

Management strategies

Benchmarking the genetic potential and payback of the cows in your dairy is worth the effort. The process allows you to identify the genetics and breeding strategies for your dairy that contribute profit. And that makes for smarter decisions going forward.

There are several things you should consider when creating the breeding program for your dairy:

1. Find the baseline

The A.I. company representative you work with should be able to construct a benchmark and demonstrate the relative performance of genetics in your herd through a method applied here. The analysis helps you make smarter decisions on the basis of better information.

2. Demand accuracy

Sire proof information is the starting point to determine what bulls should be added to your breeding program to create the cows that work. But the quality of the data that contribute to the sire proof must be accurate, and the testing environment should be competitive. Unfortunately, research has shown that 25 percent of daughters are misidentified in traditional young sire testing programs.

3. Focus on production and health

Work with health and production traits. The heritability of health traits is often misunderstood to mean you won’t make progress by focusing on PL, DPR or SCS. That’s wrong! The heritability of these traits is already taken into account in the proof calculation. So in an accurate testing environment, a +1 DPR bull will sire daughters 1 percent higher on pregnancy rate compared to your herd average.

4. Create an index

The dairy industry is great at creating “standard indexes” like NM$ and TPI, and if one of these standard indexes fits your selection goals perfectly, that is great. But there is nothing standard about your dairy and your business. You should build a genetic plan for your herd, and look for tools that help you build a selection strategy that creates the cows you want to milk in three years. Tools to create customized indexes for your farm are available.

Make your genetics pay off

You can take advantage of the “perfect place” to evaluate genetics in your dairy by benchmarking the cows on genetic parameters. This process shows you the cows that perform and the sire selections that were worth the money. That can help you make the genetic investments that will pay and create the trouble-free cows you want.

Methods to benchmark genetics

Use your dairy software (DCOMP, PCDART, DHIPLUS) to benchmark genetics. For DCOMP users, for instance, you SUM performance for SID groups “SUM 305ME RELV for (SID=11H5086) (SID=11H5286) (SID=11H5486)” would give you a report summarizing the production of daughters of these three sires compared to average. The same can be done with “BREDSUM” to see which sires have DAUGHTERS that get pregnant “BREDSUM FOR (SID=11H5086) (SID=11H5286) (SID=11H5486).” PD

References omitted but are available upon request at