Those of us who have had our noses to the grindstone this calving season may not be aware of the new ADHIS indices which have just been released. Or if you’ve been looking at the new semen catalogues and wondering what ‘BPI’, ‘TWI’ and ‘HWI’ stand for – don’t worry, you’re not alone! At only a month old, we’re all still getting used to things.
This particular story began early last year, when ADHIS launched their ‘Longest Farmwalk’ – a massive effort to travel Australia and collect thoughts and opinions from dairy farmers about their breeding priorities. In light of these responses, the old APR index was quietly put to pasture. Three new and strong young bulls have entered the fray – and the best part is, these new indices are based on a solid combination of farmer preference and economic analysis, as well as scientific evidence.
So, what’s the point of having an index? Isn’t it a lot of fuss about nothing?
Well, actually, indices and breeding values are invaluable for helping farmers identify the most profitable bulls available. They do this by combining results across multiple traits into a single overall score. Let’s take for example Bull A. He is good for protein, poor for longevity and extremely good for fertility. Now try and compare him to Bull B, who is extremely good for longevity, average for protein and good for fertility.
It’s hard, isn’t it? And these are only three traits out of many. By using an index, we can combine individual trait performances into an overall score. This means figuring out how much we value each trait and then weighting the results accordingly. A breeding index is the tool we use to compare the genetic merit of different bulls and choose semen that we know will drive farm profitability.
This begs the question – how much do we value different traits and what exactly ‘drives’ profitability?
This is where things get tricky. There are some things we can all agree upon. Fertility is important for profit, and so are milk components and component percentages. Longevity, mastitis resistance and temperament are also key factors that most farmers want to see improved within their herds.
Opinions start to diverge once we move away from this patch of common ground. This is normal for the Australian industry – compared to places like New Zealand or Ireland, we have an enormous variety of systems in place. You can find everything ranging from 80-cow pasture-based organic herds to 6000-cow shed-based TMR systems scattered around our vast nation continent. Put 100 farmers into one room to talk about the perfect cow, and we often come up with 100 different opinions. This is even before we start arguing about the perfect breed. Pretty soon, someone’s thrown the first punch and bar stools are flying through the window.
This is the situation that ADHIS have had to wade through. What can we agree on? What do most farmers want? The only way of figuring this out was to ask farmers directly – as many as they could find that were willing to respond. By surveying farmers all around Australia and sifting through their opinions, ADHIS and scientists have defined the needs of three main farmer clusters. I’ll characterise them (broadly) below.
Firstly, we’ve got the production-focused farmers. The research shows that they tend to be a little older and rely on less labour than the other two clusters. In my experience, these guys are the ones who seek profit above all else, and are generally even-minded about the type of cows they milk. They’re passionate about other areas of farming, business-oriented, and aren’t very interested in poring over bull catalogues or chasing embryos. As long as their herd is headed in the right direction, they’re unconcerned about conformation past the point where their cows are functional and milking well.
If this type of farmer is you, your requirements are reflected in the Balanced Performance Index (BPI).
Secondly, the health-focused farmers. Their motto is: ‘hassle-free is the best way to be, and the best cow in your herd is the one you don’t see’. While profit is still essential, these guys are willing to sacrifice productivity a little in order to get ‘super cows’ – cows with higher mastitis resistance and higher feed efficiency. They focus on issues like lameness, calving difficulty and fertility. These farmers understand that healthy cows mean happy cows… as well as a stress-free farmer.
Is this you? If so, you should take a look at bulls ranking highly on the Health Weighted Index (HWI).
Finally, we have the type-focused farmers. These farmers tend to be younger than the other two groups and you can tell they’re into type as soon as you lay eyes on their herd. A stack of bull catalogues sits on their kitchen table. They can talk at length about tricky concepts such as ‘rump angle’, ‘thurl width’ and ‘dairyness’. Profit is obviously important, but what really gets them out of bed is their animals. They take a lot of pride in their cows, and are more likely than the other two groups to run stud or registered herds.
If you’re one of these, chances are you’re probably already deep down the genetics wormhole. Nevertheless, taking a look at the Type Weighted Index (TWI) might help alert you to what’s available in top conformation breeding.
So what’s the verdict? Well, as an independent voice, I can tell you that no single farmer group is ‘right’. We’re a free and lucky country – so everyone should be able to pursue which type of cow makes them happy. But we’re also a busy industry, so time and ease of decision-making are important factors for farmers.
The three new indices combine these considerations by making it easier for farmers to choose animals which fit their breeding objectives. By choosing bulls that rank highly on your preferred index, you can be confident that 1) you’re heading in the right direction genetically, and that 2) you’re picking profitable animals that are likely to suit your breeding philosophy. All three indices still include the areas which all farmers agree drive profit – the only difference is in emphasis between weightings.
(For farmers who want a little more finesse in their breeding decisions but don’t have the time for research, service providers have always been available to work directly with your farm. The important thing is to let them know what your preferences are and to find someone you trust to match you against your requirements.)
So, what type of farmer are you? I’d love to hear what you think about the new indices. Are people using them? What do our service providers think?
To see the Good Bulls Guides, they can be found online here. Hard copies can also be obtained from herd improvement centres and semen sellers (as well as your local friendly dairy extension officer).
For more information, a short video further explaining the indices can also be seen here.