Back at the World Dairy Expo show ring, it doesn’t take any data mining to see the cumulative effect that a century of breeding has had on dairy cows. Compared to the squat, rounded cows Ted Halbach’s father judged 70 years earlier, today’s cows are bovine supermodels—longer, taller and svelte. This form has followed function: The industry has selected for cows that put energy into making milk rather than meat.
In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that such cows may not have the resilience to thrive in the larger herds that are becoming the norm in the industry. “This cow has to be able to function in the housing environment. She has to have the physical attributes that sustain and support her production,” explains Halbach. “You can have an animal with great production potential, but if she doesn’t have the physical attributes to reach that potential, she won’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Concerned that cows were becoming too frail, the Purebred Cattle Association asked Halbach in 2007 to lead an effort to revise its unified scorecard—the standard for that hypothetical perfect cow. Halbach turned to research conducted by Weigel, who had analyzed 20 years of data on Holsteins and Jerseys to find links between a cow’s physical characteristics and how long she survived in the herd.
“There was a perception that what makes a good dairy cow was her ability to milk herself—to take all this body tissue, mobilize it, make all this milk from it and not have any extra fat on her,” says Weigel. “Well, she also has to do other things, like get pregnant and not get sick and so on. It became fairly clear that that was a trait where we’ve maybe gone too far.”
The revised standards emphasize more balance between strength and dairy character. “We’ve started to get people to think again that, yes, we want cows that produce a lot of milk, but we also want them to not kill themselves doing it,” Weigel says. “We want them to be able to maintain good health.”
Still, the ideal cow epitomized in the revised standards and in the show ring is geared toward a particular kind of dairying, in which cows live in large, open-stall barns and are fed a mixed ration that includes grain, forage, protein and mineral supplements. This is the dominant milk production system in the United States today, but plenty of cows across the nation and around the world live a different kind of life.