We are often an industry of “should haves.” It is difficult to predict our volatile market swings, forthcoming production regulations or consumer trends.

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

However, just because we can’t forecast every aspect of our industry doesn’t mean we can always play the unexpected change victim card.

Don’t ignore a call to action for change. Closely evaluate what you know about the world today. Be open-minded to environmental, efficiency, social and economic signals. Genetics will influence each of these areas.

Thanks to genomic testing technology and data collected every day on your dairy, we can cross-reference most traits to correlate which have high profit impact. This identifies genetics behind cows who thrive in your unique operation and milk market. Design your breeding plan with these relevant traits in mind.


Plant genetic selection strategizes with the way certain genetics work under specific environmental conditions. Alternatively, dairy cattle genetic selection typically focuses on an individual bull’s average daughter performance. Not an individual bull’s average daughter performance depending on facilities, management style or climate.


Genotype-environment interaction is powerful. We cannot expect cows to fulfill genetic potential for production, health or reproduction if they are not built for their environment. Certain genetic traits will better support cow performance under distinctive conditions.

Big cows don’t last very long in most commercial environments. They don’t fit in facilities and get injured. When cows are too large to comfortably fit in your stalls, resting times, and ultimately milk production levels, will be reduced. You can moderate cow size with trait selection for PTA Stature (ST) and Body Size Composite (BSC). For both traits, zero is breed average. Selecting a value below breed average will support small frame sizes.

Dairy cows are highly sensitive to heat stress due to high feed intake, rumen fermentation and metabolism generating extra internal heat. You can’t control the summer sun, but you can ease production and reproduction consequences. In tropical climates, the SLICK gene for heat tolerance often gets genetic selection priority. However, it is a trade-off. Dairy sires available in North America carrying the SLICK gene typically don’t have the high genetic potential for milk production most commercial dairy operations seek.

Feed-efficient and ‘green’-friendly

We are in an era with “proactive consumers.” People want to feel good about their purchases. Today’s consumers are not rushing to buy products labeled “from low-methane-emission, feed-efficient cows.” But will they in the future?

Climate change is an evolving global debate. Regardless of mixed messages across industries, we do have one clear message: Agriculture is largely an industry of price-takers. Consumers dictate demand. If society monetarily supported a premium for low-emission animal products, are your genetics modern enough to qualify? This could be the milk market’s next disruptive social responsibility consumer trend.

Methane, a primary greenhouse gas associated with livestock production, has been correlated with feed intake levels. Feed-efficient cows produce less methane per pound of milk. Genetically develop greater Feed Efficiency (FE) cows to produce the same milk volume while lowering feed intake.

Cows consume 1% to 2% of their bodyweight in dry matter (DM) each day for maintenance. A large cow might not produce more milk but will eat more than a small cow. Breeding small-framed cows will help reduce maintenance dry matter intake (DMI) without limiting milk yield potential.

Less is more for your profitability and consumer values for social responsibility. Harvest an excellent protein source with less resources and minimized carbon footprint on a per-cow basis.

Economic efficiency

Regardless of milk market and income stability, reducing expenses is always a prudent strategy. Emphasize input-reducing traits, not just output traits like production.

How is the labor force in your part of the world? For many, expensive and regulated. Breed a consistent herd needing little human intervention. Sick cows are a huge labor inefficiency. They are also costly due to treatments and reduced salable milk. Even if a cow is not an extreme milk producer, total profit will be strong if she can calve on her own, stay out of the hospital pen, avoid lameness and breed back quickly.

Most health problems occur in the first phase of lactation. Pay attention to transition-oriented disease resistance such as ketosis, metritis and mastitis. A trouble-free transition equals higher overall lactation performance.

Cows traveling any distance to the feedbunk will be more likely to do so if they are sound. Poor hoof health, which is genetically correlated, results in lower intake, less production and reduced reproduction performance due to stress and not showing heats.

The ultra-dairy, clean-boned cow idealized by some is not ideal for all. Breeding cows who maintain body condition throughout their lactation will reduce time spent in negative energy balance. This generates better reproductive results.

Genetics for Early First Calving (EFC) and calf health help youngstock reach the income-earning phase of their life quickly and boosts total lifetime profitability. Milking Speed (MS) and milk let-down traits help improve milking time efficiency without sacrificing milk-out quality. Shortening milking duration maximizes facility and labor return on investment.

Milk market

Consumers, via processors, tell you which products are valued with premium prices. In many regions, consumers have told us they prefer to eat dairy products instead of drinking them. Prioritizing fat and protein genetic selection is smart for dairies shipping to processors in these areas.

Study other consumer-driven movements creating marketplace value. Specialty product labels signal curiosity in our Google-friendly world and a product superiority perception. Specialized today could become standard tomorrow.

Differentiated product labeling has generated industry-wide change in the past. Recall when products labeled “free of artificial growth hormones” heightened consumer awareness. Scientific debates aside, consumer cognizance and, ultimately, preference drove change to the entire industry: rBST-free milk became the expectation.

Milk containing beta-casein A2 has been marketed as superior in some markets. As a value-added product, advocates claim easier digestion and health benefits. Is it possible, someday, A2A2 could become the standard? Genetically establishing an A2 milk-only herd is feasible over several generations.

Kappa-casein BB could be a cheese market-driven genetic criteria. Cows producing BB milk have improved cheesemaking efficiency from enhanced coagulation.

Could timed A.I. programs fall under similar milk labeling interpretation as rBST? Perhaps we should genetically prepare cows to be more fertile with traits like Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR), Cow Conception Rate (CCR) and Heifer Conception Rate (HCR).

Other traits corresponding to potential social perception include using polled genetics to align with animal-welfare objectives and disease-resistance genetics to support reduced antibiotic use.

Distinguish between fleeting fad or permanent trend. Just because your milk market doesn’t ask for a characteristic in 2020 doesn’t mean it never will. Understand the different channels your processor may take to pivot with demand.

Be focused and deliberate in your decisions

Genetic selection should correlate with your profitability. Not the average dairy. Be curious about areas that are different from tradition. It is scary to stray from normalcy bias. But it is dangerous and costly to breed for the average knowing it is not the best fit.

Industry genetic indices, such as Net Merit Dollars (NM$), are often too universal for herds to make strong progress in individually important areas. Alternatively, a custom genetic index will rank sires in order of relevance to your herd.

Identify a group of economically important traits to incorporate into your index. This priority trait focus will establish rapid and relevant genetic progress. Avoid putting custom index weighting on low-financial-impact traits. This dilutes genetic progress.

You have tools available to design genetic packages best suited for your dairy’s economic, environmental and social sustainability. Estimate what your operation’s unique needs will be. Breed your cows accordingly.