Breeding for the post-COVID-19 cow

Written by Mandy Schmidt for Progressive Dairy

COVID-19-induced crisis mode is creating a scramble for short-term, and sometimes shortsighted, adjustments. Unfortunately, a narrow “right now” mindset doesn’t work for genetic plans.

Milk markets have ebbs and flows; genetics are permanent and cumulative. Some dairies learned this hard lesson in 2009 when genetic plans changed with the downward market. In these herd-specific scenarios, we can still see genetically capped herd performance over a decade later.

Management cannot overcome bad genetics. Your milking herd performance is a combination of environment and genetics. Semen and breeding expenses are typically about 2% of the entire operation’s expenses, yet genetics can impact as much as 50% of a cow’s performance in some areas.

If short-term decisions involve going backwards on genetic progress, will you regret milking cows in the future who are less profitable than your cows today?

Choosing priority genetic traits

Don’t breed for cows you don’t want. Compare genetic potential versus actual performance in your herd to understand which traits support long-term profitability.

Choose a short list of personal genetic priorities which will have high impact on your operation. Avoid selection for too many traits. This creates dilution and slower genetic progress. Weigh the opportunity costs of each trait addition to your genetic strategy carefully.

Industry genetic indices are a good starting point but not always a strong fit for individual plans. Typically, the best solution for balanced progress is using a custom genetic selection index.

Regardless of milk price or production restrictions, your income will always be highest from cows who produce a milk composition valued in your market. Your expenses will always be lowest with low input, healthy cows. Cows need to freshen, breed back and stay out of the hospital pen.

Suggested priority traits

  • Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR), Heifer Conception Rate (HCR) and Cow Conception Rate (CCR): Cows only make it to the next lactation if they breed back. Fertile animals stay in the herd longer and average more days at the start of lactations where feed efficiency is greatest.
  • Somatic Cell Score (SCS): Udder health helps milk quality bonus potential and milk production. Healthy cows also perform better reproductively.
  • Productive Life (PL) and Livability (LIV): Most cows spend their first lactation paying back rearing costs. The longer cows last, the more time is spent generating income versus debt reduction.
  • Disease resistance traits such as mastitis, ketosis, metritis, milk fever and lameness: In one lactation, cows with a single disease incident are unlikely to break even from costs associated with labor, treatments and days on feed with unsaleable product. Health is essential because milk produced doesn’t always equal milk sold.
  • Body Size (BSC): As body size increases, dry matter intake for maintenance increases. Bigger cows might not produce more milk than a moderate-sized cow, but they eat more. A moderate-sized cow can have the same output with less input.
  • Protein (PTAP) and Fat (PTAF): If solids, not water, grow your milk check, emphasize pounds of protein and fat.

Sexed semen versus conventional semen

Sexed semen costs more than conventional, upfront. If an immediate cost cut is needed, removing sexed semen can make sense at first glance. However, do the math first.

Conventional semen can introduce silent costs. Heifers who have heifers with easy calving tend to perform better in their first lactation than those with calving difficulty. Typically, they will also breed back more quickly.

Using sexed semen lets you be picky about who creates a heifer calf. Not every animal in the herd is equally profitable. Generate replacements needed from your genetically elite. Breed undesirable genetic animals to a terminal cross with beef semen. Don’t allow them to carry on another low-profit generation.

Precisely calculate the number of heifers needed. Raising excess heifers creates a bottleneck in rearing programs and an unnecessary drag on expenses. Save your cash and only raise the number you need.

Sexed semen also allows more opportunities to produce beef-dairy crossbred calves as a secondary revenue stream. Certain beef-dairy crossbred calves will still carry value over Holstein bull calves in a post-COVID-19 world.

Beef-dairy crossbred calves

COVID-19 is putting stress on the packer industry. With harvesting not operating at full capacity, we are seeing bottlenecks along every stop of the beef supply chain. The beef industry is screaming for stability and will be searching for product dependability post-COVID-19.

There will be a demand for beef, but quality product will likely become more relevant. Space in feedlots is limited. Only so many animals can be harvested per day. Feedlot priority will be given to high feed conversion cattle. Beef-on-dairy matings need to be complementary and corrective to dairy traits to achieve consistent, high-yielding crossbreds.

Calf buyers have financial incentive to source beef-dairy crossbred calves with verified genetics for optimal feedlot performance. The value of reliability is going to be more important than ever before when selling day-old crossbred calves.

“Cheap semen” can become very expensive when it impairs reproduction. Typically, beef semen will be used on more mature, less fertile cows. Don’t exasperate days open with infertile semen. Look for beef bulls with known fertility based on data for beef-on-dairy breedings, not beef-on-beef.

Reproduction program

If your timed A.I. protocols made sense for expense versus reproductive results pre-COVID-19, carry on. However, if implementation is not effective, reassess quickly. Breeding protocols are never more expensive than when they don’t work. Ask a third party to review your records for areas of opportunity.

Don’t forget to check your heifer program. Sub-par heifer reproduction will keep heifers in the non-income earning phase of their life longer. Beyond potentially reducing first-lactation milking potential, it will take longer to recover cash wasted on extra days on feed.

“New” normal

We are uncertain what the “new normal” will be. But, we do know successfully breeding for a post-COVID-19 cow will be concentrating on what makes money in your herd’s environment, facilities and milk market.

Breeding results today are a commitment to your calf crop in nine months and the ability of your future 2-year-olds to pay a return on investment. You are also making your herd performance genetic foundation for years to come.

Mandy SchmidtNorth American Dairy Genetic Services Specialist – ABS Global.

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