Advancing genetics through genomics

Dairy farmers share how they use data to make improvements

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PIXLEY, Calif. — A cow at Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch was on her way to becoming a bull mother when genomic testing revealed that she was not exactly the animal her owners thought she was. Results showed that her registered sire was incorrect, and she was out of a herd bull.

“Fortunately, we caught it before calves were born and bulls headed off to stud because the impact would have financially been a big loss for us,” said Tim Baumgartner, genetics and marketing manager at Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch. “Parentage confirmation is one of the reasons we test. Genomics has helped us make sure we follow procedures and protocols in ensuring identification is right. Genomics has helped us be better dairymen.”

Baumgartner was part of a genomics webinar March 19 sponsored by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association. The panel also included Dr. Asha Miles, research geneticist in the Animal Genomics and Improvement Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service; Tony Lopes, dairy farmer and owner of Tony L. Lopes Dairy and Precision Genetic Solutions; and Shelby Smith, product owner of cattle genomics at Neogen Corporation.

Lopes’ involvement with genomic testing began in 2016 due to an oversupply of replacement heifers. Lopes is the fourth generation on the family farm near Gustine, where 5,000 cows are milked at four facilities. The family also raises 12,000 beef-on-dairy calves. When stuck with too many heifers, Lopes used genomics as a culling tool.

Now, he looks to genomics to ensure the replacements he raises are of higher value than what he can find elsewhere.

“From a lifetime profit potential, genomic testing is the best tool we’ve found to project an animal’s lifetime performance and ensure we aren’t paying more for our replacements than a producer down the road that’s buying replacements,” Lopes said. “Genomics allows us to get more out of our animals over the course of their lifetime.”

 Like Baumgartner, Lopes also discovered parentage errors and inaccuracies early on in testing. A surprising discovery for Lopes was the frequency at which a bull was incorrectly identified as the sire of a calf and the wrong dam was being attributed to a calf in the maternity ward.

“This was eye-opening for us to tighten up our management in other areas and ensure the plan we were enacting was actually working,” Lopes said.

By 2018, Lopes eliminated conventional Holstein semen for making replacements because of the number of data points he had on his animals.

“If we were going to draw lines and set thresholds in the cow herd to make a replacement, it became critical that we had data to support our decision and not inadvertently make copies of all animals in our herd,” Lopes said.

Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch near Pixley began genomic testing in 2009. The technology helped the 5,000-cow Jersey operation advance its genetics program and expand into global markets.

“Genomics is a tremendous management tool for us,” Baumgartner said. “It allows us to look at our herd as a whole and find areas for improvement. We can then select bulls to make advancements in those sections. That’s where the glory of genomic testing comes in. We can test calves as soon as they’re born, and we know right away if we made progress where needed or if we need to go back in one more time to make sure we get to that level of success we’re trying to breed into.”

Dairy producers might wonder if the science behind genomics can be trusted. Miles said there are many checks and balances built into the system to ensure high-quality data.

“We’re constantly working to make sure we can deliver better solutions and assess our progress,” Miles said.

Miles said the USDA is studying genomic data from heifers born between 2021 and 2023 to determine how closely production records align with genomic evaluations.

“We’re consistently seeing genomic predictions outperforming the traditional pedigree-based predictions,” Miles said. “We’re getting significant added value by adding that data to our models.”

A greater rate of genetic progress is the most compelling example of how the dairy industry has benefited from genomic data over the last 15 years, Miles said.

“The net merit for Holsteins dramatically increased once genomic prediction was implemented in 2009,” she said. “We can deliver predictions about an animal’s performance at birth without having to wait for them to calve and have their own lactation records.”

Neogen completed a six-year case study for a Midwest herd with approximately 8,000 heifer calves born yearly. This dairy tested all heifers at birth and used results to determine which heifers to keep as replacements, and, of these, which ones to breed to sexed semen.

“Calves born at year zero had roughly the same net merit score as the industry average,” Smith said. “Over the course of six years, they were able to outpace the industry average. By year six, there was a $111 difference between calves from this herd and the industry average for net merit.”

Lopes said the ability to put revenue-producing potential into an animal, such as production traits, and reduce costs through health, fertility and longevity accelerates genetic progress and performance.

“When looking at how compelling the data is and how the optimization of these values can result in increased performance, it’s my belief that the producer using this tool in a precise and measured manner is going to have a profound competitive advantage when it comes to overall performance,” Lopes said.

As more producers participate and more data is produced, Miles said the industry can make better calculations.

“More data equals more accurate predictions,” she said. “Overall, this means better bulls will be available. Producers will have more options to improve the genetic base of their animals, even if they are not genomic testing in their own herds.”

Baumgartner is excited about the future of genomics and what it can offer Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch.

“We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what we can learn from DNA to discover what truly makes a cow profitable,” Baumgartner said. “There are so many things to look forward to. Genomics is a great tool for us and is going to forever be part of the program here. The results speak for themselves.”

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