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Mating strategies to maximize genetic merit in dairy cattle herds

Johnson, T., Eketone, K., McNaughton, L., Tiplady, K., Voogt, J., Sherlock, R., Anderson, G., Keehan, M., Davis, S.R., Spelman, R.J., Chin, D., Couldrey, C.
Journal of dairy science 2018 v.101 no.5 pp. 4650-4659
breeding, bulls, calves, cows, dairy cattle, dairy herds, decision making, farm management, farmers, farms, genetic improvement, genetic merit, heifers, teams, New Zealand
The genetic merit of a herd is a key determinant in productivity for dairy farmers. However, making breeding decisions to maximize the rate of genetic gain can be complex because there is no certainty about which cows will become pregnant with a heifer calf. In this study, breeding worth (BrW) was used as a measure of genetic merit, and several mating strategies were evaluated. These strategies included randomly mating whole herds to the entire bull team, excluding low-ranked cows from producing replacement heifers, and nominating high-ranked cows to the most highly ranked bulls. Simulations were undertaken using 4 bull teams generated from bulls currently marketed in New Zealand and a selection of New Zealand dairy herds. Average replacement heifer BrW was calculated for 1,000 iterations of each combination of mating strategy, herd, and bull team (scenario). Variation in resulting average replacement heifer BrW within scenarios was due to random sampling of which cows became pregnant with a heifer calf. Relative to mating the whole herd to an entire bull team, excluding the lowest ranked cows from producing replacements resulted in the greatest increase in average replacement heifer BrW across all herds and bull teams, with a gain of approximately 0.4 BrW point for each 1% of cows excluded. Nominating top-ranking cows to the highest ranking bulls in the team had little effect (0.06–0.13 BrW increase for each 1% of top cows nominated) in improving BrW of replacement heifers. The number of top bulls nominated had a variable effect depending on the BrW spread of the entire bull team. Although excluding cows with the lowest BrW from producing replacement heifers is most effective for improving BrW, it is important to ensure that the number of heifers born is sufficient to replace cows leaving the herd. It is likely that optimal strategies for improving BrW will vary from farm to farm depending not only on the BrW structure of the herd, the bull team available, and the reproduction success on farm but also on farm management practices. This simulation study provides expected outcomes from a variety of mating strategies to allow informed decision making on farm.