Super-Charged Genetics

Super-Charged Genetics

These dairy producers use genomics and in vitro fertilization to accelerate genetic improvement

For decades, artificial insemination (AI) powered by progeny proofs drove genetic advancement in the dairy industry. Now, a new set of tools is aiding dairy producers in their quest for increased yields, higher quality milk and cattle and improved longevity.

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Recently, genomics and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are increasingly being used to accelerate genetic gains—even at the commercial level. During the Western Dairy Management Conference this spring, three dairy farmers shared how they are using the methods hand-in-hand to improve their herds’ genetic profile.

At Oakfield Corners Dairy in Oakfield, N.Y., Jonathan Lamb uses both embryo transplant and IVF on his 6,000-cow dairy.

“We know genetics work,” Lamb says. “If we can use a tool like genomics and increase the reliability, those genetics are going to work even better.”

“We are transferring over 4,000 embryos a year. About a quarter of those would be for the high-type market and the balance would be for genomic cattle,” Lamb says.

Lamb genomic tests about 100 calves per month with two-thirds being heifers. The genomic tests help identify which females will be donors, recipients or AI bred to produce their own calves. 

The IVF program is not exclusive to heifers at Oakfield Corners Dairy with some of the older cows serving as recipients. “A lot of times, cows won’t be carrying their own genetics,” Lamb adds.

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By genomic testing heifer calves, dairy producers can more accurately determine genetic value.  

John Andersen is also using genomic testing to locate superior females at Double A Dairy in Jerome, Idaho.

“We’re trying to identify the very elite in our herd. Generally we’re identifying that top 0.5% after we’ve genomic tested,” Andersen says.

When the cattle are nine months old, the decision is made as to which heifers will become donors on the 13,000-cow dairy.

After finding the very top-end females, Andersen will then breed the next 20% or so in ranking through AI. The bottom 25% will be used as recipients.

“That middle, if they happen to come in heat on a day we’re saving recipients, they get an embryo. If they come in heat on a day we’re not saving recipients, they get bred,” Andersen explains.

Andersen started genomic testing every female on his dairy late last fall. That testing equates to approximately 500 Jerseys and 600 Holsteins each month. 

Prior to the change, only 100 Holsteins were being analyzed. Andersen was also using parent averages to sort out his bottom-end calves that he would sell.

“At this point, I don’t know if that will be a long-term thing that we do,” Andersen says. “We’re gathering some information to decide how we will use it and whether it is going to pay back or not.”

Andersen plans to continue to genomic test; he just wants to determine at what rate he’ll do it.

Dan Siemers from Siemers Holsteins near Newton, Wis., uses top-end genomic heifers as IVF donors. Conversely, he gives the bottom end of his heifers three tries as recipients. He’ll then AI breed them if the embryos don’t implant. 

Currently, all of the heifers are being calved out on the 2,400-cow operation. Eight hundred of them will be sold as two-year-olds, Siemers estimates. “That market right now is pretty strong because cow prices are good,” he notes.

Before testing a calf, Siemers will look at the parent average. An animal won’t be tested unless it has a 2200 Total Performance Index (TPI) parent average. Between 50 and 75 calves are tested per month.
Genomics aren’t limited to heifers. The testing has also helped identify young bulls to be utilized rather than proven sires.

Siemers Holsteins uses almost all genomic bulls. Siemers thinks there are still some great proven bulls out there that are hard to pass up. But with genomic sons or grandsons available, it helps to shorten the generation interval. 

Lamb hasn’t purchased semen from a proven bull in at least two years. (He still has some straws in the tank from a sexed semen bull and some show bulls that get used occassionally.)

“We’ve always known that genetics has paid and using good bulls has paid,” Lamb says. “It didn’t matter if they were proven bulls, genomic bulls—using good bulls makes economic sense.”

Anderson says Double A Dairy has been primarily breeding with genomic sires. On the rare occasion, there will be a bull like Massey that Andersen overlooked as a genomic bull, so then, he will go back and use a proven bull that was missed.

“We started using really good proven sires more than 10 years ago and moved over to really good genomic sires five years ago,” Andersen says. “I feel like we could still accomplish what we’re trying to do even without the IVF program if we needed to, especially on a commercial basis.”

All of the panelists agreed dairy producers need to start with quality semen for genetic improvement before getting started with genomics, embryo transfer or IVF.

“The fastest and cheapest way you can improve your herd is by using either proven bulls or genomic bulls, whichever you feel more comfortable with,” Siemers says. “That has got to be the driver of whatever program you have.”

Lamb echoes that by advising other dairymen to “use the top bulls and have a comprehensive breeding program before you worry about genomics.”

Andersen agrees using proven bulls or genomic bulls will benefit cow herds.  “It is certainly not necessary to have an embryo transfer and IVF program to make genetic progress,” he says.

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