The importance of genetics in dairy production

It’s no secret quality genetics increase profits. But just how important of a role does a herd’s genetics play in a dairy operation? “Making an investment in the genetic progress of your dairy herd will pay dividends in the future,” Reagan Bluel, dairy field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said.

Trait Selection: Missouri is unique due to the fact that making genetic progress in the dairy industry differs depending on the structure of the herd. In the Ozarks, there are primarily two types of herds, conventional and seasonal grazing. Though there are fundamentally different genetic objectives for each type of herd, conventional and seasonal grazing herds value some of the same genetic traits. 

Both systems appreciate and seek traits that promote pounds of protein and fat. “A recent shift in milk pricing has greatly valued these components,” Bluel explained. “This reflects the overall change in the consumer’s interest and we as an industry are best served to meet the desires of our consumer.” Both types of dairy systems value a high daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), which is a metric of future fertility.

Genetic Plan: No matter which type of system dairy operations utilize, dairy specialists encourage producers to create a genetic plan. For dairy producers, this includes taking a hard look at heifer inventory numbers. Specialists say many dairy herds retain more replacement heifers than they need. 

Bluel recommends producers identify exactly how many heifers they truly need and create a strategy. While heifers hold the most current genetic material, some might not be the best for the herd’s future. This is where producers need to step back and weigh their options.

For instance, if a producer utilizes sexed semen for only the top portion of their herd, it affords them the opportunity to accelerate the genetic progress. “But more importantly, it provides the opportunity to not perpetuate the bad genetics,” Bluel stated. “There are ‘skunks’ of the herd in every herd.”  

Breeding Back to Beef Bulls: Producers should consider the risk of getting a heifer out of a low production cow. Creating subpar replacements only perpetuates poor performance. Dairy specialists encourage producers to breed the lesser performing females back to beef sires. 

In fact, according to recent research, many dairy producers are shying away from holding on to extra heifers and instead they are breeding for calves to put into beef channels. This is reflected in a decrease in dairy-breed semen sales and an increase in beef-breed semen sales. 

When producers breed the bottom portion of their herd to beef, they will positively help cash flow in a variety of ways. First, it keeps the mature animal in the herd until she has reached individual cow profitability. Next, mature production exceeds first lactation, ensuring a higher volume of milk to ship.

Additionally, this limits the number of dairy heifers to raise. And finally, beef cross calves bring more in the market currently than purebred dairy calves. Producers choosing to breed sexed semen exclusively to the top portion of their herd, fast-tracks the genetic progress of their herd, while simultaneously receiving other economic and genomic benefits. 


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