Each dairy producer has their own idea of the perfect cow. There are variations of importance placed on size, leg structure, udder quality and so forth that make up what, in a producer’s eyes, is the perfect cow.
Breeding for those kind of cows is more science than art these days, with the options available to producers through bioinformation gleaned from genomic technology. Today, producers can make genetic gains in a herd profile significantly faster than what was possible in the past by making herd selection decisions earlier in an animal’s life. Those decisions will be accurate more than 70% of the time.
Building a healthy, sustainable, herd is a goal of brothers Alex and Kip Neuenschwander who together own Neu-Hope Dairy, near Bluffton, Ind. Their 400-cow herd is relatively young, having just gotten back into the business in 2012 after Terry and Tom Neuenschwander, Alex and Kip’s father and uncle, respectively, sold the dairy in 2008 when they decided to retire and take advantage of high cow prices. Alex and Kip raised heifers on the farm and started by buying about 100 head. Alex built the herd over time, mostly purchasing animals from one dairy in Ohio. About one-third of the cows in their herd trace back to the original dairy. Alex manages the cows and Kip manages the outside work. All crop acres are contracted with local growers for feed needs.
Emphasis on Components
The farm’s entrance into genomic testing came through buying their first animals. “We wanted cows that were positive on percent and pounds protein,” Alex says. “The animals we bought were all genomic tested so we knew exactly what we were buying. Having that selection criteria cost more, but it was worth it.”
Heifers are tested at weaning so results are back in time for decisions to be made by breeding age. Calves stay on the farm for about 12 weeks, then leave to go to a heifer raiser. The bottom 10% of heifers are culled. “It’s so expensive to raise heifers, we can’t be raising the bottom ones,” Alex says.
Early herd management decisions are what makes genomic testing so useful, says Micah Wallis, Great Lakes dairy specialist with Neogen Corporation.
“Genomics give producers a solid baseline without them waiting until females get older to make herd management decisions,” he says. “Producers can get results back in as little as 17 days to be able to make those decisions.”
Breeding decisions on the heifers are made based on their genomic profile, with a look at overall animal health and an emphasis placed on components. That focus on improving fat and protein content is because Neu-Hope Dairy is a supplier for Dannon, a division of Danone North America. They entered into a contract about a year ago, and all milk ships to a yogurt plant in Minster, Ohio.
“Before we started shipping to Dannon we just looked at production,” Alex says. “Now we’ve backed milk down and increased components to make a better product for yogurt production.”
Using a genomic profile to determine which animals will deliver the components they need is just one part of the equation. Knowing which bulls to use on those high-component heifers is another important factor. Alex uses the ABS Genetic Mating System mating service to match the right bulls to the right females.
“We tell them what we want—sustainable cows that are going to breed back quickly,” Alex says. “They made a selection composite for us that maximizes solids and chooses seven or eight bulls that we use to get us to our goals.”
Meeting Market Needs
Sustainability is important to Alex and Kip, and it’s a cornerstone of Dannon’s mission as well. As a direct ship processor, Dannon has a keen interest in the technologies used to assess the cows that produce the milk that eventually ends up on store shelves. Building better cows through genomic testing is on their radar.
A genetic index that focuses on the right mix of milk solids was developed with input from Dannon and the Neuenschwander’s genomic supplier, Neogen.
“We continually look for ways to improve the efficiency and sustainability of our supply chain and are beginning to assess how bio-information can enhance the matchmaking of sires and heifers for a healthier cow,” says Michael Neuwirth, senior director, external communication with DanoneWave and Danone North America. “This is another example of how our direct relationship with American dairy farmers improves efficiency and sustainability.”
Once breeding decisions are made, timed AI gets heifers and cows bred. Alex uses a PreSynch, Ovsynch, ReSynch program and a 50-day voluntary waiting period to hit a 30% pregnancy rate. Alex admits he’s looking at a monitoring system to reduce dependency on the timed AI program.
Sexed semen is used on heifers and the top 10% of cows. The bottom 25% of the herd get beef semen or are used as recipients of embryos out of the top 5% of cows.
Some of the top cows in the herd have been flushed with the resulting embryos coming back into the herd. Alex has also dabbled with in vitro fertilization with good results. The economics of ET and IVF work might force Alex to change his process down the road and go to just purchasing embryos to implant. “It’s economical if cows flush well and you get a lot of embryos,” he says. “If they don’t, the economics don’t work out.”
Using genomics has worked out well for the herd at Neu-Hope Dairy. The table above shows results of genomic testing in real-world production results. Looking to the future, Alex and Kip would like to continue growing the herd with a goal to expand to around 700 cows. Facilities are getting older, and Alex would like to build a new barn to be able to house all of the cows in one spot. But breeding decisions won’t change he says, “Regardless of size we’ll keep selecting for components, daughter pregnancy rate and a more sustainable cow.”
Note: This story appears in the February 2018 magazine issue of Dairy Herd Management.