Paying attention to the bulls you select and knowing which genetics you’re buying is only a small part of the equation when trying to understand and evaluate genetic improvement in your herd. Of course, the genetics of the bull you select is important, but you have to consider many other factors such as the use of sexed semen, genotyping, managing inbreeding decisions of whether to keep or sell animals, or to use beef vs. dairy semen…just to name a few.

It’s similar to investing in your 401K. You probably don’t select an investment fund and never look at it again, assuming the return will be what you expected in the end? I anticipate you look at the results and available balances to see if the value of your 401K is increasing as expected. The same can be said about your investment in genetics. In order to do so, you need good, reliable data, using it to monitor the results, changes and decisions you make.

Assessing your breeding program can be made easier with tools that can assist in making decisions on which calves to keep, and which heifers and cows to mate to certain types of semen based on the genetics and phenotypic performance of either the animal itself, or it’s dam.

It all starts with identification!

Animal identification is the first step in ensuring good, reliable data. Several steps should be followed to ensure the genetic information you receive from the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) is accurate.

Step 1) The animal must be identified with a unique, official national animal ID.  Animals with a herd management number will not qualify to receive a genetic evaluation. 

Step 2) If you tag your animal, make sure to provide the official ID to your technician, or enter the complete official ID number in your herd management software as soon as possible.

Step 3) Enter the complete breeding information. For example, entering a partial NAAB code on a bull, or a bull’s short name, will result in a calf with a sire unknown.  Also make sure to enter the correct stud code for conventional versus sorted semen.

Step 4) Ensure the cow’s official ID is transferred to her calf’s official Dam ID. If the official ID of the cow is not transferred to the calf record, it will result in a break in the animal’s pedigree – causing missing inbreeding and incomplete genetic information.

Step 5) If you genotype calves, it is key you enter the same official ID used to receive genomic results in your AgSource records and herd management program. If the official ID numbers are different, there is little possibility the animal’s genetic information will be updated and she will receive two different genetic evaluations.

Current Trends

Since 2011, AgSource has compiled genetic data from over 1.4 million cows that have both a sire and Dam ID. As expected, over the past 7 years there has been a notable steady increase of both NM$ and Sire NM$, as seen in Graph 1.

Graph 1) Cow and Sire NM$ trend by year of birth

If you dig a little deeper and look at some of the traits that make up NM$, the emphasis on selecting for fat % has led to a widening gap between the fat and protein ratio. Graph 2 shows how fat and protein % have both increased, although, fat % has noticeably increased at a faster rate than protein.

Graph 2) Fat and Protein % trend by year of birth

The long-term trend of increased production, while reducing fertility, turned around in the early 2000’s. Even with increased production, fertility traits have continued on an upward trend. Graph 3 shows the trend in daughter pregnancy rate, heifer conception rate and cow conception rate. 

Graph 3) Fertility trait trends by year of birth

Below Table 1 provides you with the average genetic values and the average of the top 80th percentile for each trait based on the live cows and young stock in the AgSource database. 

By using the table, you can see where you rank for the traits you focus on in your breeding program.

Although, we see genetic improvements for production, fertility and animal health, we have also seen an increase in inbreeding levels for Holstein cattle. Graph 4 shows the trend for inbreeding % based on pedigree and inbreeding % based on animals that received a genomic evaluation.  Originally, the genomic inbreeding % was less than the pedigree inbreeding %, however for calves born in 2019 these percentages are now relatively the same.


Table 1) Current AgSource genetic averages for youngstock and cows
Graph 3) Fertility trait trends by year of birth

The trend shows an average inbreeding level of 8% for calves born in 2019, upon closer look into the distribution there is additional information that should be considered. Graphs 5 and 6 show the distribution of animals by different categories of inbreeding. Inbreeding levels less then 3.15% is considered low while inbreeding levels over 12.5% are considered high. There has been a significant shift in distribution in only 7 years. The majority (76%) of Holstein cows born in 2011 fell in the low to moderate category of 3.15 to 6.25 inbred, however Holsteins calves born in 2018 now fall in the moderate to high category (82%) which is 6.25 to 12.5% inbred. 

Graph 5) 2011 Holstein Inbreeding % distribution
Graph 6) 2018 Holstein Inbreeding % distribution

Avoiding inbreeding will become harder as selection of top cows and bulls in the Holstein population are made. However, there are steps you can take to manage it, such as using a mating program and keeping good animal identification records. You can use simple pedigree data, or a more complex version can take actual genomic results and look at potential genes in common between the sire and dam.

Evaluating your past breeding decisions

So what do these trends mean for your herd?

You can analyze your individual herd performance and comparisons with other herds using benchmarks generated from AgSource, or national benchmarks provided by the CDCB, when you use the Genetic Summary Report from AgSource. Each time you test your herd, and when new genetic evaluations are available (including genomic test results), the report is updated.  

The Genetic Summary report shows trends of a variety of traits, and also shows you how genetics express themselves in your herd in real-time performance. You can compare the use of conventional semen against sorted semen, evaluate how you are doing in terms of managing inbreeding and find out what the most prevalent genes are that exist in your herd – a key to managing inbreeding.

Make the right decisions today to reap rewards tomorrow!

Once you have evaluated your past breeding program, the next step is to take the lessons learned and plan for the future. By Using the Cow Selection Guide, Heifer Selection Guide and Progeny Selection Guide, you’re already on your way to making smarter genetic decisions.

The heifer selection guide obtains your NM$ value from CDCB (both traditional pedigree value or genomic value) and ranks the animals based on the NM$ value. For example, if you wish to breed the top ranked animals to sorted semen and the bottom ranked animals to beef semen this is an easy way to select the animals based on their genetic information.

The progeny selection guide takes it one step further and evaluates the cows that are currently bred and calculates an estimated NM$ value of the anticipated calf. Similar to the Heifer Selection Guide the animals are ranked by NM$ and placed into four groups (quartiles).  Depending on the herd size, quartiles are generated on certain age groups to account for genetic progress over time. The purpose of this report is to help the farmer to decide as soon as the calf is born if the animal should be kept as a future replacement or sold. Another use would be for screening animals that you wish to obtain a genomic evaluation on. By using this report to make decisions on newborn calves, you can save on feed costs and additional expenses related to housing and raising a calf that could be sold at a later date.

Just like the key to a successful 401k, in order for you to plan the genetic future of your herd, you must understand the current status and impacts past decisions have had. Proper animal identification and record keeping used in conjunction with AgSource genetic report tools will help you make sure your genetics are on track for success in your herd.