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Improving herd fertility with use of genomics

Genomic testing replacements allows you to select the best animals to meet your breeding aims and potentially improve rearing efficiencies.


Cheshire farmer Trevor Warren believes genomic testing females and using the information to breed from the best has enabled him to improve herd fertility, while pushing for top-end milk yields.


Mr Warren genomically screens every female in the 84-cow Hennikers herd, which he runs with wife May.


Genomic screening enables a genetic proof to be produced for each animal, from birth (see Genomics - what you need to know panel).


This information is then used as a filter to breed from animals which meet their selection aims.


The Hennikers herd is predominantly pedigree Holstein, with about 13 pedigree Jerseys also joining the mix.


About 90% of the herd is run commercially, with the rest made up of showtype cows, which are either shown by the Warrens or sold to others as calves to do the same.


They also produce embryos for sale, with about five cows and up to 10 heifers flushed every year.

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Commercial side

On the commercial side, genomic breeding values are used to select for yields, fertility and balance, while for the show animals, the focus is on extreme Type, open rib and wider rear udders.


Any show-type animal which comes out well on the genomic proofs will become donors for embryos, with any lower performing cows on the commercial side, used as recipients.


Since the Warrens started genomically screening calves 10 years ago and selecting on these specific criteria, yields have increased to 11,300 litres at 3.9% fat and 3.3% protein, while average herd fertility index has gone from minus figures to +6.


Mr Warren says: “Our cows are a lot better than they were. It’s definitely improved the cows on fertility and getting in-calf. For example, it used to be 4.5 services to a pregnancy.


Now it’s 2.8 services to conception for the milking cows on the commercial side. The nutrition hasn’t changed much.


It’s solely on genetic improvement on fertility and utilising the information on genetic testing and flushing the right heifers.”


The strategy is one which has been used by the Warrens for a number of years, however it was only last year they started farming in their own right after taking on an East Cheshire County Council Farm tenancy.


For the preceding 15 years, Mr Warren was based in the South East, working for farmer Mike Goddard. During that time, he developed the Hennikers herd by paying Mr Goddard to rear his heifers and then hiring him the milking cows.


“The way I made money was selling genetics from my animals. All my cow hire money went on rearing costs so I sold heifers to make money,” Mr Warren says.


It was here genomic testing proved its worth, allowing high quality heifers to be identified early. For many years, the Warrens took hair samples and sent them off for genomic testing.


However, last year they started using specialist eartags, which take an ear tissue sample at tagging that is totally tamper-proof and gives me certainty that the sample is 100% from that animal.


He says this technique has massively aided management.


“You used to get a lot of contaminated samples as pulling hair from the tail is dirty. We did that for eightnine years. We now use Caisley Geno Tags. That’s made a big difference to us,” he adds.

Labour reduction

Unlike other genomic eartags, which solely take a tissue sample, the Caisley Geno Tag also doubles up as a conventional eartag, which reduces labour input.


“It’s a straightforward, clean, simple system and it works hand-in-hand with your management. You’re tagging your calf anyway, so you’re doing two jobs in one hit,” Mr Warren says.


He believes the range of tests available using the tissue from the Caisley Geno Tag another benefit.


For example, an animal can be tested using a low or high density SNP chip (see Caisley Geno Tags panel) depending on the information required. It also gives the option of banking the tissue sample and testing it later if needs be.


This proves particularly useful with bull calves, allowing them to be registered and genetically tested later on if they prove to be a good animal which could be sold for breeding.


In fact, genomic testing helped identify one of the Warrens’ best bulls; Hennikers Whirlwind, which is the highest UK-bred bull on the bull proofs for milk yield, with a fertility index of more than 16.


“Genomic testing is also important for sire identity. It’s amazing how many sire queries come back after genomic testing. It helps keep our herd pure,” says Mr Warren.

Genomics: what you need to know

Darren Todd, of Holstein UK, answers the hows and whys of genomic testing heifers.


What is genomic testing?

By taking a DNA sample from a calf, it is possible to get an immediate indication of genetic merit, rather than having to wait for that animal to calve and start milking/breeding.


How is it done?

  • Depending on the test used, a farmer will take a tissue sample from the calf
  • The tissue sample is taken using a specialist eartag, which collects a piece of ear tissue in a vial
  • The tissue is sent to a lab, which will read an animal’s DNA to produce a genotype
  • This information is then sent to AHDB Dairy. It uses a ‘SNP key’ which is a bit like a statistical genetic key based on historic data for 26,000 proven UK bulls and their daughter performance
  • The heifer’s DNA is compared to this SNP key to give an indication of its potential performance
  • It is possible to test an animal using a low (<10,000 markers) of high (>50,000 markers) density SNP chip
  • The low density chip covers essential genetic markers and will give a good feel for an animal’s genetic potential. The high density chip provides more information on genetic potential and may be preferable for pedigree farmers selling stock
  • Genomic breeding values are produced and sent to the farmer – this takes about six-eight weeks. These look similar to bull proofs and can be used to make breeding decisions
  • Available for Holsteins, Jerseys, Ayrshires and Guernseys


How does it compare to using parent proofs?

Genomic proofs are about 60% reliable versus about 20-30% reliable when estimating a heifer’s genetic potential based on parent averages.


What are the benefits?

  • Allows you to select the best females in your herd to rear as replacements and sell surplus or put the rest to beef
  • Could help labour efficiencies by only rearing the best animals, rather than everything
  • Genomic testing picks up various genetic defects such as cholesterol deficiency. A farmer can then choose not to serve a carrier female with a carrier bull to avoid the trait
  • Can pick up traits such as polled carriers and coat colour to aid selection


How much does it cost?

About £20-£30 a test, depending on company used and whether using low of high density chip.

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