Genetics show path to greater dairy production, profits

WESTLOCK, Alta. — Tremendous progress has been made in accelerated milk production and cow performance using selective breeding and genomics, but more work is needed.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts a 100 percent increase in demand for food by 2050. Probably 70 percent of that extra food production will come from technology, said Larry Schirm of the international genetics company ABS Global.

“We need to double how much milk the world is getting by 2050. We need a strategic business plan to address it,” he said at the annual meeting of Jersey Canada held in Westlock on April 13.

There are 10 million dairy cows in North America but considerable improvement is needed on the bottom third of those. While high-performing bulls are often used to accelerate genetic improvement, more attention needs to be paid to using quality cows.

“We need to manage our females like never before. We have got 10 million of them but the bottom three million are not too good. We need to eliminate their genes. The dairy men who do that will have a leg up on surviving,” he said.

“Using inferior genetics will cost you more money than you can save,” he said.

Commercial producers are the ultimate consumers of purebred cattle genetics. Commercial people are interested in raising healthy animals that survive, get pregnant and convert feed into milk efficiently.

“We want our commercial dairymen to be profitable. If they are not profitable, they are not going to buy your genetics,” he said.

Crossbreeding is being used to improve cow production. The top cows are selected to produce embryos and replacements while the rest of the herd is used as recipients or are bred to beef bulls.

“Today we have lots of herds that are breeding half their cows to beef,” Schirm said.

Paul Meyer of Westgen, a western Canadian genetics company, advises producers to use the best bulls possible on the farm to improve the herd.

“When you use good bulls on good cow families, then you get genetic progress and really move forward.”

Improving animals takes careful planning, plenty of data and money.

“What I’m interested in looking at is the actual performance and whether or not the highest 10 are significantly better in terms of generating profit for a farm. That in the end will underscore whether the investment you are making in your farm in genetics is actually going to pay a dividend,” he said.

Management will improve all animals but producers need to consider the groups to see where improvements can be made. It is unwise to raise replacements from the bottom 10 cows in the herd.

Think about how many heifers are needed, consider how much it costs to raise them and how much they can be sold for to make a profit.

Try genomic testing on the better animals to get more information about genetic potential as well as unwanted recessive traits, he said.

Russell Gammon has worked with Jerseys throughout most of his working life as a Jersey Canada manager and manager of Semex Jersey global program until 2017.

The Jersey cow is meant to be the milk solids producing cow in the industry.

“The breed has undergone a great change in terms of available genetics,” he said.

The trade-off in the past was a beautiful type versus superior production but that is not the case anymore.

“Genetic progress at rates we have never seen before is possible,” he said.

Breeders must capitalize on the merits of using sexed semen, and more genomic testing of Jerseys is needed in Canada.

The Jersey sector also needs to find out what processors want. Consumers govern milk demand and they need to hear the story about Jerseys, the dairy industry and agriculture in general, he said.

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