Last month, we explored the relatively new practice of dairy herds testing every heifer calf for genomic merit. This month, we look at three herds that have adopted the practice, how they do it, and what they hope to glean from the results.
Steady numbers, steady progress
When Larson Acres of Evansville, Wis., doubled the size of its Holstein herd to 2,400 cows in 2010, the owners and managers didn’t have a lot of genetic information for the first-calf heifers they purchased for much of the expansion. They utilized genomics testing on the heifer calves born to those animals to determine how the future replacements fit into the herd’s genetic plans.
Mike Larson Based on that experience, partner Mike Larson grew comfortable with the process and trusted the data the genomics testing provided. Now that the dairy is at maximum capacity, the Larsons are using genomics as part of a more comprehensive herd strategy.
“We’re producing more heifers than we need for herd replacements,” he says. “In the past, we would have sold them as springers for extra income, but in today’s feed economy, it costs more to raise heifers than they’re worth when they’re grown.”
Now, Larson Acres tests every heifer calf at one to two months of age with the CLARIFIDE™ Dairy Genomics Test. They then designate the top 50 to 70 percent to be bred to sexed semen. The lowest 10 percent is sold to a private buyer for embryo transfer recipients. And the animals in the range in between are utilized as a “flex” group, depending on the herd’s future needs. Sometimes they are sold at approximately 400 pounds, but if projections indicate they will be needed as replacements in their anticipated month of freshening, they are bred with Angus semen. That way, they do not transmit their genetics into the herd, while some extra value can be captured from their calves.
“We think this approach really will help level out the peaks and valleys in our freshening rates,” says Larson. “It will allow us to keep steady numbers in the calf hutches, dry-cow area, fresh pen, parlor, free-stalls andat the feed bunk.”
Larson says he appreciates the flexibility the program provides not only for choosing the heifers they keep, but for maximizing the value of the animals they sell. “Right now, the beef market is good and it makes a lot of sense to create those crossbred calves,” he says. “But if feed costs and/or the dairy heifer market improve, we can easily switch gears and start producing more dairy heifers again.”