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Seymour - In 1979, dairy mating specialists and dairy farmers had a list of 17 traits in sires to evaluate for breeding choices. Today, the number of traits evaluated in sires has ballooned to 71.

What to do with such “a ton of information,” specifically on how to use it for one's dairy herd, was the topic for Kevin Jorgensen, the Holstein sire analyst for Select Sires for the past three years, at the 2017 district meetings for members of NorthStar Cooperative in Wisconsin. NorthStar is a division of Select Sires.

Jorgensen reported that the cooperative is “doing phenomenal,” having become a $32 million business with the sales of 1.1 million units of semen in 2016 and the anticipation of a sale of 1.2 million units in 2017. He said the sire development program has enabled Select Sires to earn 8 of the 10 placings of Holstein sires in the current Total Performance Index (TPI).

Select Sires also enjoys having 46 of the top 100 sires for milk production and type along with percentages as high as 78 to 91 among the top 100 for some of the 79 traits, Jorgensen stated. He said 35 percent of the cows in North America are being bred with semen from Select Sire bulls.

Dairy farm decisions

How dairy farmers and their advisors should react to the multiple choices in today's “fast changing world of genetics” compared to a far more simple time should be based on a particular farm's goals for the dairy herd, Jorgensen said. He noted that the protein content in milk and the ability of cows and bulls to produce protein wasn't even considered in 1979.

Whether mating choices are guided by the TPI, Net Merit value of a sire, body conformation, health factors, or other considerations, there are many opportunities to pursue particular ones from the 3,102 active sires in Select Sire's lineup as of August in 2016, Jorgensen pointed out. Within the past decade, the emergence of genomic testing allows an early life evaluation of traits of both females and males in addition to the long-standing realm of proven performance, he noted.

Jorgensen said there are four basic questions dairy farmers should answer as they develop a breeding philosophy for their herd. They are what traits they're looking for, why they want those traits, what they are willing to give up for obtaining certain traits, and what technologies they will use to achieve the chosen goals.

Sharing observations

From his 25 years of experience in the field of artificial insemination, Jorgensen has noticed that the first question hasn't been asked very often. He calls for having “a clear vision” on whether the goal is the production of milk and certain components or developing show cattle. “You reap what you sow,” he said.

Among the four questions, the “why” of choosing certain goals (traits in the dairy cows) is the most important one for a particular farm, Jorgensen indicated. It's not appropriate to follow fads or trends or to have a artificial insemination technician, a veterinarian, or neighboring farmer make that decision, he stressed.

Because it's not possible to have it all on the desirable traits, Jorgensen indicated that high milk yield often means lower fertility (problems with reproduction), that extreme type leads to larger cows, and that choices for better health and fitness take longer to achieve than most other goals.

Advantages of technology

Among the technologies, Jorgensen mentioned the sexed semen which has been available for nearly 14 years, the use of in-vitro fertilization, and the use of beef semen to breed the lowest performing cows. “Use all or none of these but breed with the best,” he suggested.

Select Sires has used technologies to buy embryos sourced from all over North America and Europe to improve the genetics in its sire lineup, Jorgensen pointed out. “You need access to both the elite females and males.”

With the use of genomics and other elements of technology, Select Sires has been able to assemble up to six generations of sires starting with Planet, which has been in its active lineup for 14 years, Jorgensen pointed out. He cited this as an example of the speed which is possible in genetic progression today. On milk production, for instance, the minimum standard for selecting a sire is an increase of 2,750 pounds of milk among the offspring, he indicated.

Another aspect of technology is providing high quality semen, Jorgensen remarked. “There is no value in the traits if cows don't become pregnant.”

Liveability Index

With 20 percent of dairy cows dying before they are culled voluntarily, health and longevity are an important trait to consider, Jorgensen observed. That is shown in the Liveability Index that is calculated for every sire.

Jorgensen referred to a checklist of wellness traits that has been developed by the Zoetis company. They serve to rate sires on the vulnerability of their offspring for mastitis, lameness, metritis, ketosis, displaced abomasum, and retained placenta. He said 34 percent of the recognized traits relate to wellness.

While reviewing the Select Sires that are at the top of the line for obtaining the traits desired in one's dairy herd, Jorgensen acknowledged that the prices for their semen “are not the cheapest game in town.” He argued, however, that those costs are more than offset by the returns based on either proven production or on the DNA-based genomic evaluation.

“Cow families still matter,” Jorgensen remarked. He said sire selection involves a combination of input from those families, genomic testing, and the proven or tested traits for type, production, and health.

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