The commercial dairy industry is not looking for tall cows and the Norwegian Red can help with that. Crossbreeding to Norwegian Red bulls can moderate stature, increase fertility and health plus achieve competitive component production.
In 2014 25,000 first lactation Norwegian Red cows at 27-30 months of age were measured and averaged 53.3 inches (135.4 cm) for stature. Thirty years ago the average stature of a first lactation Holstein heifer was taller than this at about 55 to 56 inches (140-142 cm) and now there are many around 60 inches (152 cm).
So what’s wrong with bigger cows?
Data and dairy producers alike indicate that the Holstein population has gone way beyond the optimum for stature to the point that this is a problem for Holstein cows in most commercial herds.
At the 2015 Holstein National Convention, Alta’s Nate Zwald addressed the issue of whether we need cows with more stature.
“Nobody wants the cows bigger than he has already, and most prefer them even smaller. Bigger cows not only have problems fitting in standard barns and milking systems but also cause higher costs for rearing and maintenance requirement,” said Nate1.The desire for taller cattle and desire for “improved” type/exterior traits that are highly correlated with stature from a relatively small portion of the breeders (but the most influential breeders) around the world are continuing to produce tall cows. Most of the major breeding companies are indicating that they have programs in place to stop this increase in stature in Holsteins but in reality progress is slow and perhaps is leveling out in the genomics era.
Three experts weigh in on stature
The East edition of Progressive Dairyman, October 19, 2015 (pages 94-95) published an editorial summarizing the newest research findings about stature. Below are quotes and data from this editorial written by Dr. Mark Boggess, Director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Dr. Kent Weigel, Chair of the Department of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin and Dr. Mike VandeHaar, Professor of Dairy Nuitrition and Metabolism, Michigan State University.
First, they shared data from 5,700 Holsteins in a study2 led by Dr. Mike VandeHaar at Michigan State University indicating an almost zero genetic correlation between metabolic bodyweight and milk yield. “This means selection for larger body size is not necessary to genetically improve high milk production” and point to net profit as a more suitable goal than high milk production.
Second, more importantly they say, “the genetic correlation between metabolic bodyweight and gross efficiency (defined as the proportion of total energy intake that is devoted to production of milk and formation of body tissue) is -0.28, indicating that cows with a genetic predisposition for larger body size are less efficient in terms of feed utilization.”
Third, in contrast, the genetic correlation between energy-corrected milk yield and gross efficiency is strongly positive at 0.66, so that selection for higher milk yield will increase the gross efficiency of feed utilization. “Consequently, ending the trend toward selection for larger body size should be a priority in the short term, and if and when we achieve this objective, our selection programs should continue to focus on higher milk yield and improved production efficiencies as primary goals, with smaller body size as a secondary goal.”
Finally, Dr. Vanderhaar, Dr. Kent Weigel and Dr. Boggess also point to management and fitness issues in bigger cows such as “reduced reproductive fitness, increased injury and lameness, wear and tear on facilities and housing, and increased safety issues for cows and human handlers, all of which combine, making the selection for ever-larger cows clearly an unsustainable practice, particularly for the Holstein breed.”
Breeding to moderate stature
Many commercial dairy producers would agree with Sean Mallet, a 1,450-cow, organic dairy producer in Twin Falls, Idaho. Here are some quotes from his article in the 2-2015 issue of genoBULLetin:
“I like to have my mature animals weighing around 1,250 lbs (567 kg) versus a 1,500-lb (680 kg) monster-of-Holstein who eats 65 lbs (29.5 kg) of dry matter per day.”
“I’ve been using Norwegian Red semen since 2009. We were looking for a third breed to come out of our 2-way Holstein x Jersey crosses. We’ve eliminated the Jersey breed and now breed back to either Norwegian Red or Holstein, based upon stature. We have a number of 3/4 Norwegian Reds and they’re looking really good.”
Have you considered downsizing your cows for their welfare and yours? It’s seems like the perfect time to try crossbreeding with a breed like the Norwegian Red — bigger is no longer better.
1Schneider, S. (2015, September). Just How Big Will the Holstein Cow Become? Holstein International, 10-13.
2USDA-AFRI National Institute of Food and Agriculture project 2011-68004-30340.
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