Just 25 years ago, the Alan Andersen family of American Falls, Ida., lost much hope in the Holstein breed.
"We started crossbreeding because of too many DOAs, too low of a pregnancy rate, and the Holstein breed wasn't addressing those problems at the time," Alan's son Greg says. "Since then, the Holstein breed has come a long way. Basically, O Man saved the breed, with calving ease, protein and fertility."
Greg manages Seagull Bay Dairy, American Falls, Idaho, a 500-cow milking facility on Alan's home farm. His brother Ben manages 2,000 cows (milking and dry) and the farms' replacements at Andersen Dairy, Delco, Idaho.
Many know the story of how the Andersens ended up with the top two bulls in the Holstein breed. It started at the September 2008 Eastern Elite Sale in Harrisburg, Penn. The Andersens bought the first choice of 10 Planet transfers due in April 2009, just as genomics were starting to hit the scene.
For $21,000, Greg's bid on lot A3 took Ammon-Peachey Shauna. They sent her to Trans Ova Genetics in Iowa, then brought her home to calve. Today, she's 6.5 years old. After spending more than four years dry, she calved for the second time in August 2015. In her 365 day record, she produced 35,000 with 1,400 fat milking two times per day.
As of the December 2015 proofs, Shauna's Robust son, Supersire, held a GTPI of 2719, a full 151 points over his full brother, Headliner. Supersire is also the No. 1 Net Merit proven sire, with Headliner at No. 8. Additionally, Seagull-Bay Sargeant is Shauna's Freddie son as the No. 3 proven protein sire, and No. 37 in GTPI.
Back in 2010, before genomics was mainstream, Shauna was at the top of the breed for genomics for 12 months.
"We didn't know what she was going to do, but we knew we needed to make calves from her," Greg says.
At the time, she was the family's only IVF donor, beginning at 9 months. When her sons hit the ground, they were in high demand and the Andersen's were smart enough to not sell everything, keeping many bulls as leases to retain residual income. But despite early success, the next proof run can always turn south.
"As the breeder, I was nervous about Supersire, even through this last proof run," Greg says. "Do I think he's going to stay over 2700 GTPI? No. But is he going to be the No. 1 bull for another year? Yes, maybe longer. Is he going to have a historic run at the top? Probably. He's an outlier."
Not pure luck
While much has been made of the two sons who outperformed already high genomic predictions, less has been mentioned about the more colorful portions at Seagull Bay.
Greg is plugged into genomics, happy with candid photos of his cows in headlocks and freestalls, and even posts videos of his cows taken by drone to Facebook. He's not stuck on industry tradition.
The farm is milking 50 Supersires today, and in the end Greg estimates the farm will milk 500 Supersire daughters; they are still breeding with him now. But part of the reason they can do that so heavily is because much of their herd has almost no risk of inbreeding.
"One of the best parts of crossbreeding is that I can come back with Supersire or Robust blood every three generations," Greg explains. "He's ideal for crossbreeding, as we pick the highest protein pounds in each breed."
"We've had registered cows and been active in the Holstein Association, but we're all about profitability in the dairy business," Greg says. "We're in a cheese market, so we need components. We still want adequate milk production because that's where you get the pounds of protein.
"We needed a heartier cow in the late 1990s. A cow that can maintain some body condition and still milk," Greg says. "And that's where the modern Holstein is today."
But in-between, the Andersens began looking for a different answer.
"The crossbreds, with Montbeliarde and Viking Reds fit that mold pretty well," Greg says.
The combination of Holstein/ Montbeliarde/Viking Red is also known as ProCross.
"We're happy with our modern Holstein, like daughters of Robust, Freddie and Supersire, but we're down this crossbreeding road quite a ways. There's still a big gap in some areas. Our crossbreds are 4% DOA, while Holstein calves are 8% to 9% DOA. We still haven't fixed that problem with the Holsteins."
Study backs up Seagull Bay's claims
The University of Minnesota (U of M) is in year 8 of 10 in a three-way cross like at Seagull Bay, using eight herds that average 30,410 pounds of milk, 1,115 fat and 943 protein milking three times per day. All herds are in Minnesota, ranging from 275 to 1,940 cows.
In the study, researchers assigned purebred Holstein cows to continue with either purebred or the three-way Montbeliarde and Viking Red cross. With lactation data cut off at 305 days for the purpose of the study, the first lactation showed similar numbers across breeds.
Viking Red x Holstein crosses did have more difficulty calving in males (calving difficulty of 2.1 versus 1.6 in Holsteins), bringing up the average calving difficulty significantly, but females were no different. However, stillbirth rates for the Montbeliarde and Viking Red crosses were 4% and 5%, respectively, versus 9% for Holsteins.
In fertility and survival, the crossbreds were equal or better in every category to pure Holsteins. Days open, conception rate and second calving within 14 or 17 months, all showed 5% or greater advantages for crossbreds.
"The two biggest hurdles for education on crossbreeding of dairy cattle at this time is not all crossbreds are HoJo's," says Les Hansen, the primary researcher behind the U of M study. "Jersey brings in all sorts of unfavorable issues for crossbreeding in dairy cattle, and the extra body condition carried by all types of crossbreds is a good thing and not a bad thing."
"Viking Red x Holstein crosses made the same fat pounds and protein pounds as Holsteins," Hansen says. "While Montbeliarde x Holstein crosses made more protein pounds and more fat + protein pounds than Holsteins. Also, both types of crosses returned to peak production sooner with their second calves, had smaller stature and carried more body condition than Holsteins."
"If somebody's going to crossbreed, use the best bulls for your criteria for each breed," Greg says. "The reason we do the three-way cross is for more hybrid vigor. We really like the Jersey-Holstein cross, but we don't like the three-way cross with Jersey in it."
"However, because of all the embryo transfer we're doing, slowly our Holstein numbers will be creeping up," he adds.
A league of their own
"I love to go to World Dairy Expo and love to watch the big cow show," Greg says, noting he does not plan to see Supersire daughters as class winners anytime soon. But that makes sense, as Seagull Bay is not breeding for the show ring.
"TPI, in the international world, is a pretty good driver," Greg says. "But in the United States people aren't buying bulls off TPI, nor should they. It places way too much weight and emphasis on linear type scores and udder composite. The problem we had all these years is we thought feet and leg composite (FLC) was related to longevity and good hoof health. But FLC is not related to hoof health, and udder composite has a strong relationship with taller stature."
"The classifiers do their job but the information we're getting isn't positively correlated to the economic traits. People are changing the way they look at type data. I don't think you even need a final score."
Greg says when he evaluates bulls, he looks at teat length and stature‚Äîbecause they're getting too short‚Äî but that is about it. Rather, he is more worried about pounds of protein, daughter pregnancy rate and somatic cell count.
"I've evolved even in the short years since I've had Shauna," Greg says. "I like what Genex is doing with ICC and custom indexes based on a producer's milk check."
"Some of the Scandinavian countries' indexes are also of interest to me, but it's hard to get their bulls as they're pretty protectionist," Greg says. "They've been selecting for health traits many decades ahead of us, plus they measure it more accurately because they make veterinarians do everything (which I am not advocating we do here), and on a type score they will knock a cow because she's too big."
Going forward at Seagull Bay and Andersen Dairies, the herd will expand to 2,500 total milking cows, including more Holsteins. Greg wants to continue to be a big supplier of AI bulls after selling 50 bulls in 2015.
They are currently testing the waters of marketing their own bull, too. Preparations are also underway for the farm's third sale, in partnership with Alan's other son John of Triple Crown Genetics.
Ten years from now, Greg says, "I hope we're still relevant. We may or may not be, but our mission is to continue to be a leading source of Holstein genetics."
But for today, they are enjoying their time at the top. "Oh yeah, I'm having more fun every day," Greg says.
Note: This story appeared in theApril issue of Dairy Herd Management