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Dairy cattle genetics

Quick facts

  • There are several genetic evaluation tools that make interpreting dairy genetics easier.
  • Sire selection is the fastest way to make improvements in herd genetics.
  • Crossbreeding and choosing the best breed of cattle for each farm is important.
  • Farmers should have goals and know what traits are most important for their farm to focus on.

How are dairy genetics measured?

Genetic indexes are effective tools in measuring dairy genetics. Most indexes use a combination of traits to select animals that excel in a certain area that farmers want to focus on.

Consider the reliability of traits when reading a bull proof and selecting animals to mate.

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Does the bull or the cow make a bigger genetic difference?

The fastest genetic progress is made with sire selection. While cow families and pedigrees are incredibly important, sire selection usually makes up more than half of the equation in terms of genetic progress.

Breed choice

One of the biggest genetic decisions a producer can make is what breed or breeds they will have on their farm. While production factors and economic decisions play a huge role in the decision, there are many other factors including tradition, what a producer has now, what breed the kids would like to show, etc.

Breeds will differ on the size of the animal, milk components, production and temperament. The decision for each producer will be based on the market, personal preference, facilities and various other economic factors.

Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding is breeding an animal from one breed to an animal of a different breed. Often, on a dairy, this is done by using a bull of a different breed on the majority of the cowherd.

  • Crossbreeding started in the United States when farmers began using Jersey sires on Holstein heifers and cows to take advantage of Jersey’s high calving ease.
  • Crossbred animals can have increased fertility, increased longevity and increased health, which all lead to increased profitability.
  • The resulting increases of beneficial traits from crossbreeding is termed heterosis and is sometimes referred to as hybrid vigor.

What farmers should select for

Producers should identify their overall genetic goals or preferences for their farm and select animals based on the specific needs of their dairy.

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Joe Armstrong, DVM, and Brad Heins, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2020

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