Genetic selection allows for dairy farmers to strive to create genetic improvement, leading to a more efficient, productive and environmentally friendly cow.
Genetic selection allows for dairy farmers to strive to create genetic improvement, leading to a more efficient, productive and environmentally friendly cow. COURTESY OF PDPW
    WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – No two dairy farmers have the same criteria for the perfect dairy cow.
    The idea of what might make the perfect cow of the future was the topic of discussion during the breakout session, “My Perfect Cow,” that took place at the Professional Dairy Producers Annual Business Conference March 17 in Wisconsin Dells.
    The discussion was moderated by Sauk City dairy farmer Mitch Breunig and included Steve Berland, co-founder of GenElite LLC, and Jon Schefers, with PEAK Genetics, as well as Dr. Juan Tricarico, of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, who appeared virtually.
    “There are many different perfect cows,” said Tricarico, referring to the session’s name. “There are probably as many perfect cows as there are business models. And, there are probably as many business models as there are dairy farms. The perfect cow is very subjective. Everybody will have a particular perspective on that, but there are some commonalities.”
    Tricarico emphasized the importance of genetic selection and the role it plays in the United States dairy industry as dairy farmers have been breeding with specific selection in mind to create the next generation of dairy animals.
    “Characteristics that we desire become more prevalent,” Tricarico said. “It is one of the components that has contributed historically to the U.S. milk yield increase and also to the improvement of natural resources and the reductions in environmental impacts. Another benefit is that the effects and gains are cumulative. The improvements we make today may not have an immediate impact but will build on each other and have impact as time goes by.”
    Schefers said he views efficiency as being a cow that produces a lot of milk so that the same amount of milk is produced from a smaller overall population.
    “My perfect cow of the future is high production with high components,” Schefers said. “I have a dream that the Holstein cow of the future has a 5% fat test with a 3.5% protein; she will have the components of a Jersey. When we look at all of the snips in the Holstein population and all the genetic markers in the Jersey, there is actually more potential in the Holstein cow compared to the Jersey. The Holstein cow isn’t even at the apex of where she can be.”
    Additionally, Schefers looks for his perfect cow to be a healthy animal that is an efficient converter of feed. He also looks for those cows to grow more rapidly, being ready to enter the milking population earlier in life.
    In 20 years, Schefers thinks the average Holstein herd will carry a 4.1% butterfat and 3.3% protein average with over 28,000 pounds of milk compared to 2019 averages of 3.8% butterfat and 3.1% protein with over 25,500 pounds of milk. He believes genomics will help expedite the progress for both production and components as well as for health and longevity.
    “I get really passionate about production because that is what drives efficiency,” Schefers said. “We’re making a lot of progress, particularly due to genomics, but we still have a lot of work to do, especially in terms of fertility.”
    Berland echoed the sentiments of both Tricarico and Schefers. He said despite the differences in everyone’s idea of their perfect cow, certain commonalities keep breeders headed in the same general direction.
    “If you think about your own herd, your perfect cow would be your highest producing cow, which can be defined as whatever cow produces the most dollar value of product given your milk market,” Berland said. “Add to that, she is at least 6 years of age, has never been in the sick pen, has never been on a cull list, and she has never been sworn at by you or your employees. You maybe have a cow like that in mind. If everyone came here with a picture of that cow from their herd, none of those cows would look exactly alike.”
    Berland expanded on those ideas, saying those cows produce a quality product that keeps dairy farmers in business. The cows that last in herds are the ones who have sound functional type with good mobility and sound udders. They are the healthy cows that are reproductively sound and have good dispositions, making them easy to work with. He said all of these things are dependent on both genetics and management.
    “We need to let the cow tell us what she needs to be a perfect a cow,” Berland said.
    Berland said in recent years more emphasis is being placed on health traits, globally, becoming equal to the emphasis placed on production in most countries.
    “It takes a substantial amount of work to develop and work toward these new targets and genetic traits,” Tricarico said. “Selecting for complex traits, such as the new feed saved trait, requires a lot of talent, research, data, technology and communication for it to be successfully developed and applied.”
    Tricarico said not only does the cow of the future need to fit productivity ideals but also meet the ideals of consumers as well, such as selecting for cows that naturally produce less methane gas as part of their digestive process.
    “There is a need to increase the focus on traits valued by processors, marketers and consumers,” Tricarico said. “We certainly can’t ignore farm-level profitability; however, our customers are asking for new attributes in the milk they buy. We need to listen and figure out what ones we can respond to.”