Breeding A Better Cow

Written by Marjie Knust

How cutting-edge technology has helped DFA members and others in the industry increase production, improve herd health and produce quality milk

Data has always been a staple in agriculture. Even the early farmers kept track of the weather, how much milk their cows gave and the health of their herd. Over the centuries, data’s role in dairying has increased exponentially, with the collection of data employing the latest technology.

Today, the importance of data and technology is most evident in the field of dairy cattle genetics. From the establishment of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) in the early 1900s to the recent use of genomics, the advancement in technology has profoundly impacted the nation’s dairy herd.

“Cows are much more productive than 20 years ago, averaging 203 pounds more protein per lactation, with 114 pounds, or 55 percent, of that improvement due to genetic selection,” says Paul VanRaden, a research geneticist with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory.

As any dairy farmer knows, a good breeding program is key to a profitable farm. Breeding decisions are based on knowledge of a bull’s or cow’s health traits, milk production, reproductive health and more. Since the early 1900s, this data has been available through DHIA, which created a national database for production information. While this information still plays an important role in producers’ breeding programs, new technology has allowed dairy farmers to get more information faster.

“Genomics uses thousands of genetic markers distributed across all chromosomes to predict the traits of each animal by examining the actual DNA that it inherited,” VanRaden says. “Breeders previously used two sources of information: measured traits and animal pedigrees. Genomics provides a third source of information, allowing more accurate selection earlier in life. This increases the value of younger animals relative to older animals.”

The Steiner family, owners of Dairy Farmers of America member dairy Pine Tree Dairy in Rittman, Ohio, are already seeing the benefits of the relatively new technology.

“We send samples from approximately 20-plus heifers and 20-plus bulls each month for genomic testing,” says Ethan Steiner, one of seven Steiner brothers and four sisters who operate the dairy with their father, Matthew. “In today’s market, it’s the only way to market high-end genetics. Our calves are tested in their first month of life, so it really lets us get information fast.”

The Steiners use the genomic evaluations when selling their bulls for stud or developing embryos for sale throughout the world. Since the 1980s, the Steiners have been building their genetics business, expanding to embryo transfers in the early 2000s.

“As the technology gets more cost effective, you get better cows and more offspring,” Ethan says. “That increases the quality of our herd and gives us more opportunities.”

In 2006, the Steiners decided to expand their market by becoming European Union certified, which allows them to export their dairy’s embryos.

“Europe and Japan are large players,” Luke Steiner says. “We decided to ship overseas because it opens up a bigger market to us, which allows us to be more profitable.”

The certification process includes routine inspections of their facilities and following specific protocols.