Dairy Report: Holstein Inbreeding Stands at 8%, Cattle on Feed Drops

Dairy Today 102919
( Taylor Leach )

The level of inbreeding in Holsteins continues to increase. New research from AgSource says the current level of inbreeding in Holstein calves born this year stands at 8%. Meanwhile, new numbers show the number of cattle on feed has dropped by 1%. AgDay’s Clinton Griffiths explains more in the video above. 

Holstein Inbreeding Reaching Moderate to High Levels

AgSource has been tracking inbreeding levels since 2011, and now has compiled data from more than 1.4 million cows.

The current level of inbreeding in Holsteins calves born in 2019 is 8%, according to the AgSource data. Eight percent is still considered to be a moderate level of inbreeding. “Inbreeding levels less than 3.15% is considered low while inbreeding levels over 12.5% are considered high,” explains Nicole Nehls, with AgSource.

But averages don’t tell the whole story. “There has been a significant shift in distribution in only seven years,” she says. “The majority (76%) of Holstein cows born in 2011 fell in the low to moderate category of 3.15 to 6.25% inbred. However, Holstein calves born in 2018 now fall in the moderate to high category (82%), which is 6.25 to 12.5%.

“Avoiding inbreeding will become harder as selection of top cows and bulls in the Holstein population are made,” she says.

Why the increase?

The use of genomics is one reason inbreeding levels are increasing. The second reason is shorter generation intervals, say geneticists.

“Genomics is a big driver of it,” says Chad Dechow, a dairy geneticist with Penn State University. “We refuse to use bulls that are not the best, and we’re having a tough time using a bull that is $50 less on Net Merit but is still a good bull.”

The problem is all of the top bulls come from pretty much the same families and lineage. Even with more genomic identification of many more females, A.I. companies are having difficulty finding genetic outliers and, as a result, avoiding inbreeding in bull matings becomes more difficult.

Use of genomics is almost a self-fulfilling promise. “If genomics leads to faster genetic progress per year, which it does, then it almost has to lead to more inbreeding,” says Kent Weigel, a dairy geneticist with the University of Wisconsin.

In the past, he notes, the rate of inbreeding was limited by generation interval on the male side. “So even if we made lots of close matings, we couldn’t get inbreeding per year to change too quickly because there were so many years per generation.

“If in the past we made one mating of related animals every five years, and now we’ve cut that in half so we’re making two generations every five years, then even if inbreeding accumulation per generation is constant we will double the rate of inbreeding per year,” he explains.

What to do about it?

At the individual herd level, better animal identification and the use of mating programs designed to limit inbreeding can help, Dechow says. (See sidebar).

Limiting inbreeding on the population level is more problematic. If bull mothers are only being selected from elite families, the genetic diversity that might be available from good (but less than elite) families will be lost. And that is happening quickly, Dechow says.

In groups that study inbred wildlife populations, geneticists there look at “effective future inbreeding” (EFI). EFI is an estimate of how related an individual is to other animals within the population, and genetic diversity conservationists base all mating decisions on that number, he says. “But in livestock genetics, we have not come up with a good policy on dealing with it,” Dechow says.

“The good part about genomics is that more really good bulls are available and their marketable shelf lives are shorter,” says Weigel. “Granted, we can go crazy on some, but the days of 2 million units of Toy Story semen or 3,000 progeny tested sons of Blackstar are probably over.

“We’re accumulating inbreeding through groups of closely related bulls now rather than one individual bull,” he says.

Cattle on Feed

New numbers show the number of cattle on feed has dropped by 1%. Cattle and calves with capacity of 1,000 or more head totaled 11.3 million. The inventory was 1% below this time last year. The inventory that includes more than six million steers and steer calves was down 3% from 2018. Placements in feedlots during September totaled more than 2.09 million head, that’s 2% above 2018. Marketings were 1% above last year. 

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