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Dairy-Tech: Getting on top of genetics can strengthen your business

Washington State-based Levi Gassway spoke at Dairy Tech urging farmers to adopt breeding technologies to increase business efficiency. 


Laura   Bowyer

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Laura   Bowyer
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Single trait selection for milk production in the 80s was effective, when more milk meant more money, but Washington state-based dairy farmer Levi Gassaway said it was a misnomer.


He said: “High production came at a price and major traits impacting costs now are health, fertility and constituents.


“Fifty years ago, five or six lactations was normal, but now we are averaging 2.5. These days 40 per cent conception rate is great, but it used to be much higher. Production is not everything, it does not make a profitable cow. A 40-litre cow will be unprofitable if it has two major health problems in a lactation.


“Costs have increased and now 80 per cent of a cow’s gross margin is dedicated to operating costs, with the other 20 per cent of the margin for nutrition, management and law suits."


He said: “Within operating costs, feed will not come down in the future, labour will go up but replacement costs can be reduced via genetic improvement.


“But genetic management on-farm is hardly an honourable mention in terms of priorities at the moment, compared with how much time is spent on talking about nutrition.

 

"Feeding alternative feed stuffs does not create long-term sustainability of profitability. It is just a band aid. Similarly, feeding a ‘break-even cow’ with a special diet will not make her profitable.


“Genetics sets the bar for profitable farming.”


He suggested a farm’s goals should be to produce enough heifers to make replacements as not having enough heifers will potentially lose income and too many will be expensive. Out of the number of heifers brought into milk, 27 per cent will not last until their second lactation. By the end of that replacement population, 50 per cent will have left the farm.


“A genetic improvement strategy can take the farm to where you want it to be. Take control of genetic programme and synergise it with reproduction to create the correct cow for your farm. It might not be the prettiest cow but it will be the most productive for you," he said.


Reminding the audience of the time before genomic testing was available (pre-2009), he said previously it took up to six lactation years before you got the information which can now gain from genomic testing.


“Genomics is a tool to assess risk, with the goal being to invest in low risk, solid returns. Breeding from animals which do not produce will lead to breeding a legacy of unprofitable cows, so take these out and invest in the right cows. Alternatively, negative income cows can carry embryos of productive animals, reproducing the best genetics quicker.”


Genetics is a long-term investment and it can be slow to see the returns. Costs vary depending on genetic improvement strategy, he explained.


“Conventional breeding plan, i.e. AI, creates some progression and is relatively inexpensive. Sexed semen is only a little bit more costly, but with more progression. Once using genomics and IVF, you go away from linear growth and the genetic progress becomes exponential. What strategy you use depends on your goals and willingness and ability to invest.


“But genetics will not solve all problems alone,” he warned. “These high index animals are the Ferraris of the cow world – you cannot put regular fuel in and expect to perform like a Ferrari. A farm needs solid operations and nutrition so these great calves get best management. Even if they are genetically superior, they still will not survive a couple of doses of pneumonia."

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