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Accelerating genetic gain in the dairy herd

Accelerating genetic gain in the dairy herd

The calving season in the dairy herd is coming to an end and the breeding season is fast approaching. In this article, Séamus Nolan, Dairy Advisor in Teagasc Castlerea, outlines technologies farmers can use to accelerate the genetic gain in their dairy herd.

Animal performance is heavily weighted towards genetics. The old saying that ‘an ounce of breeding is worth a tonne of feeding’ really follows through and is particularly evident when we examine the performance of new entrant herds that targeted good genetics (top 25% nationally) when establishing their herds. They generally outperform more established herds quite quickly as genetically their herds are more superior.

As the approach to breeding season is upon us, it makes sense to put a plan in place. In previous years we placed a lot of emphasis on bull selection to produce replacement dairy heifers, but it’s important to remember that the bull only provides half the genetics. In more recent times more focus has been placed on selecting suitable cows to produce heifers rather than using dairy semen across the whole herd for a period of time.

How do we go about selecting suitable cows?

  • Examine milk recording data from 2022 and select only fertile, early-calving cows with good milk solids as well as fat and protein percent. These will be the higher EBI cows in the herd in general;
  • In the absence of milk recording data (e.g. 2023 first-time calvers will have no milk recording data) use EBI alone;
  • Maiden heifers are generally the most genetically superior group of breeding animals on the farm. Ideally these will be genomically tested to increase EBI reliability and the more superior animals selected for dairy breeding;
  • More and more farms are using sexed semen to further increase the chances of obtaining a female calf from these targeted matings. If doing so, use the protocols as advised as if done incorrectly the results can be very unforgiving.

With advances in technology there are great opportunities to accelerate genetic gain in the dairy herd. Genetic gain will manifest itself through more efficient and profitable animals. As previously mentioned the bull is still half the equation and obviously high EBI sires should be used on the best cows to produce top quality replacements.

Also read: Synchronisation programmes for replacement heifers

Watch: Breeding beef from the dairy herd