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On the Udder Hand

RSS By: Chris Galen, AgWeb.com

Chris Galen is the Senior Vice President of Communications for the National Milk Producers Federation .

Genes that Aren't Blue

May 07, 2012

The current issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a great article about how understanding and unlocking the genetics of dairy cattle (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly about Holsteins in particular) has led to spectacular increases in the efficiency of those breeds, and in doing what they do best, which is making milk.

As the author, Alexis Madrigal, points out:

In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk.

There are a variety of reasons for this quadrupling of productivity, not all of them breeding related.  Housing, feeding and animal care are the other key drivers.  But as Madrigal describes in great detail how having a regimented system of scoring traits, along with meticulous records, has led to the ascendancy of a handful of Holstein lineages that are in great demand, the world over.  It also has allowed us in the U.S. to make more milk with fewer animals, and attendant resources, which is at the heart of many arguments about how to define a sustainable system of providing consumer goods as the population, domestically and internationally, continues to grow.

To its credit, the Atlantic article also doesn’t shy away from some of the tradeoffs of the focus on milk output.  Specifically, the author acknowledges that reproductive success (which is the sine qua non of successful breeding) is inversely related to milk output.   More milk sometimes comes at the cost of making more calves.  Most improvements in efficiencies in other sectors have similar tradeoffs.  Smaller cars, for example, use less gas, but tend to be less safe in crashes.  Electric cars use no gas, but cost a great deal more, and their power still has to come from somewhere, often coal-fired, on the grid.  Free lunches are always hard to find.

 And interestingly, Madrigal mentions that humans actually have a highly homogenous gene pool in comparison to Holsteins.  At some point in prehistory, there weren’t that many of us around, and even with 7 plus billion people later, the home sapiens gene pool is as shallow as a sidewalk puddle. 

Since the unlocking of the human genome more than a decade ago, we’ve been expecting the growing science of genomics to help us understand more about our strengths and weaknesses.  So far, the results have been skimpy; deciphering the origins of disease, and unlocking the secrets to our longevity, are more daunting than was first assumed.  But as we get more data, more will be learned.  That’s been the case with cows, and humans won’t be far behind.

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COMMENTS (2 Comments)

Ric Ohge - Belmond, IA
Here's the Web Address for the Norwegian Red Cows:
http://www.genoglobal.no/no/ (P.S. I don't work for them or receive payment from them, but was impressed with what has been created by these dedicated Norwegian Cattlemen. These cows might also be a big addition to "Grass-Fed" Herds, as well.
2:37 PM May 8th
Ric Ohge - Belmond, IA
Then, there's these cows...how would you think they would influence US Dairy Production?

Norwegian Red Breeding Program
Each year 300 Norwegian Red (NRF) bull calves from elite sires and dams are selected for performance testing.

About 125 of these bull calves are selected as test sires and progeny tested based on 200-300 daughters each. Of these, 10-12 are selected as elite sires based on their total merit index and average relationship with the population.

Genetic evaluation
Genetic evaluation of NRF sires are based on information from 200-300 daughters per sire. Large progeny groups are necessary to obtain reliable breeding values for traits with low heritability, like health and fertility.

All data used for genetic evaluation comes from the Norwegian Dairy Herd Recording System, where all information, including health records and insemination reports, are stored in one national database.

All cows in Norway have individual health cards, where information on all veterinary treatments is recorded. The health card system is an integrated part of the milk recording system and this information is used for genetic evaluation of sires.

The progeny test of NRF sires includes genetic evaluation for 40 different traits. Breeding values for traits in the breeding objective are given weights to form a total merit index, which is used for sire selection.
Genetic evaluations for all traits are published in the Geno Sire Catalog.

For detailed information about the genetic evaluation system, see National GES information, where you will find a description of national genetic evaluation for dairy cattle in Norway.

Norwegian Red dairy cows
More than 95% of the dairy cows in Norway are Norwegian Red. The population consists of approximately. 230,000 cows, of which 98% participate in the Norwegian Herd Recording System.

All herds participating in the Norwegian Dairy Herd Recording System are active in the breeding program, and the best cows in these herds are elite cows and potential bull dams.

About 90% of calves born in Norway are sired by NRF AI sires; 40% by test sires and 60% by elite sires.

Tailored breeding plans
Technicians and veterinarians are trained and contracted to Geno to provide insemination and fertility services to farmers throughout Norway. Each herd is incorporated into Geno’s breeding program and tailored breeding plans are set up by certified advisers. Farmers in turn report data on production, fertility and health traits back to Geno through the Norwegian Dairy Herd Recording System.

2:35 PM May 8th


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