Mining DNA Breeds Success

For Simon Vander Woude, sustainability—and farm financial health—boils down to doing more with less. His rapid adoption of genomic technology for selection in his breeding program  has allowed the Merced, California, dairyman to do just that and has shifted his production model significantly in recent years. “We’ve made every part of our herd more productive […]

Dairy

Mining DNA Breeds Success

For Simon Vander Woude, sustainability—and farm financial health—boils down to doing more with less. His rapid adoption of genomic technology for selection in his breeding program  has allowed the Merced, California, dairyman to do just that and has shifted his production model significantly in recent years. “We’ve made every part of our herd more productive […]

By David Jones

For Simon Vander Woude, sustainability—and farm financial health—boils down to doing more with less. His rapid adoption of genomic technology for selection in his breeding program  has allowed the Merced, California, dairyman to do just that and has shifted his production model significantly in recent years. “We’ve made every part of our herd more productive by using genomic-guided selection,” he says before listing a slew of benefits. “We produce more with fewer animals reducing our feed needs and our carbon footprint. We’ve bred a healthier cow that lasts longer in the herd, has fewer days out of production, and needs fewer antibiotics in her lifetime—which helps reduce antibiotic resistance potential. And we’ve maximized the value of all our animals, not just those in the milking herd.”

In 2012, Vander Woude DNA profiled everything under 12 months of age on the 3,200-cow dairy he runs with his wife, Christine, and their six children. It was a bold step considering most genomic work at the time was being used on herd sires, not heifers.

They used the results to select replacements and guide breeding decisions. Initially they focused on improving daughter pregnancy rate (DPR).

“A cow pays for herself in roughly the first 120 days of lactation. The rest of the time she’s—depending on feed and milk prices—breaking even or making us money. If we can get an extra one of those periods in her lifetime because she consistently gets pregnant that’s financially beneficial,” Vander Woude explains.

They quickly learned not to have tunnel vision with genetics. “We forgot to look at milk and components and we soon saw a drop there. We started selecting for those traits, too, and our milk recovered. It showed us how strong the correlation was between what the genomics predicted and what was actually happening.”

Two double-30-cow milk pits are used to milk 3,200 cows.

Cashing in on knowledge. Today Vander Woude breeds with laser accuracy. Armed with genomic predictions, he uses sexed semen to breed the top cows and heifers to produce the exact number of replacements needed. Elite heifers serve as IVF donors, further speeding already rapidly advancing herd genetics. Lower profile animals are used as embryo recipients or are AIed to Angus sires. The resulting beef cross adds  significant value. These strategies free up resources.

“We select for healthier cows that last longer in the herd. We’ve dropped our herd cull rate from 40% to 30%,” he says. The older cows produce more milk and Vander Woude now feeds 1,000 fewer heifers. At $2 each per day in feed costs, this saves $730,000 per year. Plus, the beef calves are worth $200 more from day one.

Using genomics has reduced the time it takes to effect change in the herd, too. All heifers are DNA profiled, and by 9 months of age their position in the herd is known. This knowledge allows Vander Woude to confidently breed young, otherwise unproven animals with sexed semen to quickly advance his genetics.

“I don’t cull many first-lactation animals. The tests are supposed to have about 70 percent accuracy and we’ve seen that proven out,” he says.

Vander Woude loves the dairy life, but it will always be a business. “When I looked at genomics, I sat
down and figured out how it could pay me back before I started. We came up with a plan, implemented it,
and it’s been successful. I rely on genomic information 100 percent to make my breeding decisions.” 

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