Identifying the elite females in a herd through genomic testing will increase efficiency and sustainability while improving profitability.
Genomics is now a mainstream technology which comes at a price that should make it a ‘no-brainer’ for progressive dairy farmers.
This is according to Rudolph Linde, global business development manager at Cogent UK.
He points to the impact of genetics as ‘cumulative’, so using the very accurate genetic information supplied by genomic testing can allow significant progress within the herd in a reasonable timescale.
“Genomic testing allows the farm business to benefit from the maximum genetic and therefore economic gain, customised to the needs of their own system.
The information provided by genomic testing is far more precise and reliable than parental data.
“It also saves time as there is a two- to three-year delay before the performance of a female in her first and second lactation is evident.
The effects of inaccurate breeding decisions will not be seen for at least two years and the cost of this mistake could be significant.” He adds: “Dairy farming is at best a very marginal business, so it is vital to take advantage of the phenomenal genetic progress which has been made in recent years.
The reliability of the genetic information from genomic testing a three-weekold calf is now equal to the actual production values from a second to third lactation cow.
"Why would you take a gamble with genetics when using genomics, which is now proven to be around 67-68% accurate?"
Advanced genomics has enabled Cogent to provide its customers with an index which accurately predicts feed conversion efficiency in Holstein females.
Ecofeed is currently the largest database of a single operation measuring metabolic feed conversion efficiency which will permit genetic gains for the next generation.
Ecofeed is a measurement of whether daughters of particular sires are likely to consume more or less feed to produce the same amount of output.
Mr Linde says: “Ecofeed is not related to any other trait currently known in the Holstein breed and at 21%, is considered to be moderately heritable.
Compare this figure to fertility [which is less than 5%] it means farmers can select and breed for feed efficiency more rapidly, while also improving all other economic important traits using the Ecofeed index.
“When assessing feed efficiency, there are two possible measures.
The first is maintenance efficiency which quantifies energy requirements to support maintenance.
“Cogent and parent Company ST Genetics also measures residual feed intake [RFI] as a measure of metabolic feed efficiency.
This enables us to measure expected versus actual feed intake by means of establishing the variation in feed intake beyond that needed to support maintenance and performance requirements.
“Subsequently we can then make realistic comparisons of feed efficiency between a largeframed Holstein with a smaller sized animal, as RFI is also a measure independent of body size.
As a result, we have learnt that a larger framed Holstein could be as equally feed efficient as a smaller framed animal and vice-versa.” Developing the index has taken ST Genetics almost six years and development is ongoing.
It represents a considerable continuous investment due to the infrastructure requirements associated (>445,000 daily intake records over the past seven years) with capturing phenotypic and genomic information of more than 5,000 Holstein females sired by 748 different Holstein bulls.
And currently, ST Genetics has produced more than 262,536 female genomic Ecofeed scores.
Mr Linde says: “Feed costs comprise almost half the total variable costs on a typical dairy farm.
The highest index Ecofeed heifers can consume up to 24% less feed per day, which translates into 4.7kg less fresh feed consumed per day than the lowest index heifers, with no difference in final body weight or average daily gains.
“Examining the holistic picture – less feed needs to be grown for each cow and in turn, this requires less land and fewer inputs.
This has considerable, positive implications for the sustainability of a dairy enterprise including environment and the utilisation of land for increased global food security.”
“Genomics enables us to accurately predict the ‘predicted transmitting ability’, the ‘PTA’ for these traits.
It is not just about whether the animal has the desired traits, but whether they are able to transmit these genes to the next generation.
“This is vital because if the animal has the sought-after genes, but cannot transmit them to his or her progeny, why would we choose to use such bull or breed future replacements from that female?
“Why would you take a gamble with genetics when using genomics, which is now proven to be around 67-68% accurate? This compares to a figure of around 35% accuracy for parent average data.” Mr Linde believes genomics now comes at a price which makes it accessible to all farmers and it is unlikely the price will come down much further in the future.
However, he thinks we are likely to see more traits available within a genomic evaluation as a consequence of continuous investment in the technology.
In turn, this will offer dairy farmers more accurate information on an increased number of traits.
Dairy farmers are now realising the dual-purpose benefit of a dairy cow which can produce elite female replacements or a commercially valuable beef calf carrying the traits soughtafter by the beef supply chain.
Sexed semen is now a ‘completely different product’ from when it was first developed and introduced to the market, according to Mr Linde.
“Cogent’s latest product, the 4M High Purity sexed semen achieves between 96- 97% purity, resulting in an equivalent per cent female progeny with no compromise on excellent conception rates.
“The majority of the elite bulls on offer with Cogent and ST Genetics are available as sexed semen.
Sexed semen is now used by most farmers on the top 30-40% of their herd, with beef semen often used on the remainder.
Conventional semen is now viewed by many as largely obsolete,” Mr Linde adds.
He points to the ‘unacceptable welfare issues’ around the management of dairy bull calves because there is now an efficient and sustainable solution available to the wider industry.
This has been a major incentive for the switch to beef semen, which now accounts for almost half of all semen sold onto UK dairy farms1 .
As the beef supply chain became more discerning about its specific requirements, dairy farmers rearing beef on dairy animals have had to carefully consider the traits they are seeking when selecting beef genetics.
“For example, easy calving and small birth weights but with accelerated growth rates will be of most importance for suitable heifer matings.
Early lactation in comparison to later lactation cows have different requirements to ensure profitability is maximised with each pregnancy.
“Cogent conduct extensive progeny testing and store comprehensive data on a wide range of traits captured on the progeny of many beef breeds.
Information starts with birth weights and continues through to carcase data, to deliver a much more consistent and quality beef carcase as outcome.
“There is significant variation between individual bulls and breeds, but offspring by beef sires from maternal dairy cows differ significantly from progeny produced from beef on beef matings.
Cogent has developed a beef on dairy index, the Cogent Beef Index [CBI], which allows customers to choose genetics which match the needs of their supply chain and individual on-farm requirements.” Equally, the opportunity to use Cogent male sexed beef further presents an opportunity for increased economic gains.
“Cogent’s data on growth rates from easy calving sires shows that while the calf may be small at 10 days old, it has the opportunity to achieve the required growth and weight by the time it reaches slaughter age.
This gives the buyer the confidence when seeing a young animal which initially appears small, that it will achieve the desired specification.
“Beef is no longer just beef, it is an important income stream for dairy farmers so they need to select the best genetics which best fit their farm, their system and the market.
This will enable them to produce a very attractive and saleable animal,” Mr Linde adds.
Source: AHDB’s report (September 2020) on the increased popularity of sexed semen and the corresponding reduction in the use of conventional semen.
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