Breeding more profitable cows

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To be profitable dairy producers need cows that calve easily, produce large quantities of high quality milk, and are healthy, fertile and long lived. USDA's index, Net Merit Dollars (NM$), is an economic index developed to breed exactly that kind of cow. NM$, last revised in 2010, currently puts 35% of the emphasis on production: 19% on PTA fat pounds. and 16% on PTA protein pounds. Health traits make up 48% of the index with productive life at 22%, somatic cell score at 10%, daughter pregnancy rate (DPR) at 11%, and calving ability (calving ease and stillbirths) at 5%. Udder composite is at 7%, and feed and leg composite at 4%. There is a negative weight of 6% on body size in the index because everything else being equal, smaller cows are more feed efficient.

Genetic progress by breed

The dairy industry continues to make genetic progress. Table 1 shows the genetic change comparing cows born in 2010 versus those born in 2005 for selected NM$ and individual traits. The table illustrates that the genetics of an average Holstein calf born in 2010 will return $324 more profit compared to 2005 genetics.

Holsteins have made relatively more genetic progress than the other breeds. The most probable reason for this is that Holsteins have had a huge advantage in numbers of young sires progeny tested during this time. Increased genetic progress because of genomics may increase Holsteins' advantage further in the future. Yearly progress for milk, fat and protein has been impressive and steady for the past 40 years. Progress in the health traits (SCS and DPR) from 2005 to 2010 has been a little slow. A reason for the slow progress for DPR is that national genetic evaluations for DPR were not available until 2003. It has taken a few years to even get high PTA DPR young sires into the progeny testing system. Also, breed association indexes, such as Holstein Association's TPI, put less emphasis on the health traits than found in NM$.

Holsteins increased by only 0.43 for DPR while Jerseys actually show a slight decrease of -0.08. This is not to say that Holsteins are more fertile than Jerseys. Holsteins started at a much lower level. The average Jersey born in 2010 has a genetic value of 29.2% for DPR while Holsteins are at only 25.2%. Holsteins need to make a lot more genetic progress for DPR before they begin to catch up to the fertility of Jerseys.

Even though there has been negative weight on body size in the index since 2000, the upward genetic trend for body size has been difficult to slow. Dairy producers who want bigger two-year-olds at first freshening should concentrate on improving heifer nutrition and management rather than selecting for high PTA stature.

Ranking of stats for cows' genetic level of NM$

Minnesota Holstein dairy producers have done a relatively good job of selecting for NM$ with Minnesota ranking 6th of the 50 states (Table 2). Florida ranks first with an average PTA NM$ of $215, which is only $23 higher than Minnesota. Minnesota is $10 higher than Wisconsin and $21 higher than California. For the non-Holstein breeds, Minnesota ranks 4th for Brown Swiss for PTA NM$, 12th for Guernseys and Milking Shorthorn, 18th for Ayrshire, and 29th for Jerseys.

Considerations for breeding more profitable cows

  1. Select AI bulls based on NM$.
  2. Breed heifers to calving ease sires.
  3. Avoid eliminating high NM$ bulls based on minimum standards for individual traits. For example, it is ill-advised to stipulate that bulls be at least plus 1000 pounds milk and plus 1 on udder composite. If a high ranking NM$ bull is low in one trait, he makes up for it by excelling in other traits.
  4. Minimize inbreeding levels by using an AI stud or breed association mating program.
  5. Take semen price, availability, and sire conception rate into account.
  6. If crossbreeding, use high ranking NM$ or high index sires within each breed.

Table 1. Genetic value change for cows born in 2010 versus 2005.


NM$ Milk Fat Protein SCS DPR
Holstein 324 753 34 25 -0.14 0.43
Jersey 258 623 39 24 0.05 -0.08
Brown Swiss 179 350 14 13 -0.06 0.03
Ayrshire 110 422 18 14 -0.04 -0.14
Milking shorthorn 105 395 13 11 0.03 -0.65
Guernsey 54 122 14 6 0.02 -0.40

Table 2. Ranking of states by PTA NM$ for cows calving during the first 10 months of 2013 that have USDA genetic evaluations. Included are high ranking, Midwest and major milk producing states.

Rank State #cows PTA NM$
1 Florida 8493 215
2 Wyoming 266 207
3 Iowa 41,794 201
4 Colorado 16,464 196
5 Idaho 69,549 194
6 Minnesota 110,033 192
7 New York 168,880 190
12 Wisconsin 269,058 182
14 Michigan 60,971 178
20 California 285,514 171
24 Texas 16,163 162
25 South Dakota 12,624 158
29 Pennsylvania 113,172 153
Acknowledgement: Data from Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

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