SCC84: Genetic selection and mating strategies to improve the well-being and efficiency of dairy cattle

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

SCC84: Genetic selection and mating strategies to improve the well-being and efficiency of dairy cattle

Duration: 10/01/2013 to 09/30/2018

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

A well-developed data collection system has helped to facilitate large gains in the genetic potential for milk yield and composition in dairy cattle (AIPL-USDA, 2012). There is an unfavorable genetic relationship of yield with cow fertility (VanRaden et al., 2004) and health (Shook, 1989). Dairy breeders have also placed heavy selection pressure on udder and body conformation. Selection toward improved udder conformation has helped to maintain udder health despite large increases in milk yield (Philipsson et al., 1994). Unfortunately, selection for greater angularity (Dechow et al., 2004) and body size (Becker et al., 2012) has led to further declines in cow health and fertility. Unfavorable correlated responses to selection for yield and conformation have led to more recent efforts to include fertility and health related traits in a total merit index (Cole et al., 2009). Genomic evaluations have been available for most traits since 2009 and are expected to further increase the rate of genetic progress by providing accurate genetic evaluations for animals shortly after birth (VanRaden et al., 2009).

While dairy cattle genetic selection programs have been successful, several challenges remain. Selection for important traits such as feed efficiency and resistance to mastitis or other diseases is conducted in an indirect manner, if at all, due to a lack of phenotypic records for such traits. Advances in genomic selection may create opportunities to develop genetic predictions using resource populations that have more complete data recording than is feasible in the commercial cow population.

Current genetic and genomic selection tools are largely focused on improving the within-breed additive genetic merit of dairy cattle. There is growing interest in capturing advantageous non-additive genetic effects through crossbreeding (McAllister, 2002). Crosses of Holsteins with foreign (Heins et al., 2006) and domestic dairy breeds (Dechow et al., 2007; Heins et al., 2008) have resulted in milk, fat and protein yields that are competitive with pure Holsteins and fertility levels that exceed Holstein.

A potential consequence of intense genetic selection is loss of genetic diversity. A germplasm repository has been developed to help guard against potential losses of genetic diversity (NAGP-USDA, 2012). Such efforts are, by their nature, ongoing and require continued oversight and development. Genomic selection also provides potential to develop mating strategies to limit inbreeding (Pryce et al., 2012).

This effort will address these issues by facilitating the sharing of data in order to develop and recommend optimal mating strategies for dairy producers to maximize additive and non-additive genetic merit. Additionally, the committee will focus efforts on the capturing of phenotypic data for novel and economically important traits, contribute to the refinement of national selection indexes, and provide input to the National Animal Germplasm Program dairy collection.

The primary stakeholders for this project are dairy producers, artificial insemination companies, and dairy breed association personnel. The success of this project will result in more efficient and sustainable production of dairy products to the benefit dairy producers, consumers of dairy products, and the environment. The well-being of dairy cows will also be protected as we continue to select for enhanced efficiency.


  1. Share data and results from research on crossbreeding, inbreeding, and non-additive genetic effects in order to develop and recommend optimal mating strategies for commercial dairy producers
  2. Exchange research results that will allow for refinement of USDA economic merit indexes
  3. Capture phenotypic data for novel and economically important traits to elucidate their genetic regulation and potential for genomic selection
  4. Coordinate with the National Animal Germplasm Program Dairy Committee to optimize its dairy collection

Procedures and Activities

1. An annual meeting will be held to exchange information on research at individual stations, to identify areas of collaboration among committee members, and to discuss the most pressing research and outreach needs. Researchers will discuss strategies to capture novel phenotypic data in order to facilitate genomic selection for economically important traits, strategies to improve non-additive genetic merit, and coordinate the development of optimal mating strategies for commercial dairy producers.

2. Committee members will advise USDA on potential changes to national economic merit indexes.

3. Committee members will serve on the Dairy Species committee of the National Animal Germplasm Program Dairy Committee. Committee members will evaluate the status of the dairy collection and advise the National Animal Germplasm Program to optimize its dairy collection.

4. Committee members will facilitate the development of a national dairy genetics workshop that brings together different segments of the dairy genetics industry to discuss strategies to ensure continued genetic improvement in the dairy industry.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • The committee will work with the Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory at USDA to develop an updated Lifetime Net Merit formula and related genetic selection indexes
  • The committee will develop and recommend optimal mating strategies for commercial dairy producers that incorporate the use of crossbreeding and genomic evaluations for both bulls and cows
  • The committee will coordinate with the Dairy Committee of the National Animal Germplasm Program to optimize its dairy collection and monitor the genetic diversity represented in the repository
  • The committee will lead the development of a national dairy genetics workshop entitled Advancing Dairy Cattle Genetics: Genomics and Beyond to be held in 2014. The workshop will be intended for all industry stakeholders including dairy producers, bull stud personnel, and dairy genetics researchers.
  • The committee will exchange ideas and results related to the development of phenotypic databases that are intended to facilitate genome-wide-association-studies and the genetic regulation of both novel and economically important traits
  • Outcome/Impact 6; The committee will discuss topics that need to be communicated to stakeholders through popular press articles and similar outlets

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

1. Committee members will disseminate research results and updated information through professional society meetings, articles in the popular press, outlets such as DAIReXNET, and workshops

2. Representatives of related industry groups will be invited to attend and participate in annual committee meetings

3. Committee members will serve as advisors to breed association and related industry groups


The recommended Standard Governance for multistate research activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a CSREES Representative.

Literature Cited

AIPL-USDA. 2012. Bovine genetic trends menu. Accessed Feb. 26, 2013.

Becker JC, Heins BJ, Hansen LB. 2012. Costs for health care of Holstein cows
selected for large versus small body size. J Dairy Sci. 95:5384-92.

Cole JB, VanRaden PM, and Multi-State Project S-1040. 2009. Net merit as a measure of lifetime profit: 2010 revision. AIPL Res. Rep. NM$4(1209). Accessed Feb. 26, 2013.

Dechow CD, Rogers GW, Cooper JB, Phelps MI, Mosholder AL. 2007. Milk, fat, protein, somatic cell score, and days open among Holstein, Brown Swiss, and their crosses. J Dairy Sci. 90:3542-9.

Dechow CD, Rogers GW, Sander-Nielsen U, Klei L, Lawlor TJ, Clay JS, Freeman
AE, Abdel-Azim G, Kuck A, Schnell S. 2004. Correlations among body condition scores from various sources, dairy form, and cow health from the United States and Denmark. J Dairy Sci. 87:3526-33.

Heins BJ, Hansen LB, Seykora AJ, Johnson DG, Linn JG, Romano JE, Hazel AR. 2008.
Crossbreds of Jersey x Holstein compared with pure Holsteins for production,
fertility, and body and udder measurements during first lactation. J Dairy Sci.

Heins BJ, Hansen LB, Seykora AJ. 2006. Fertility and survival of pure Holsteins
versus crossbreds of Holstein with Normande, Montbeliarde, and Scandinavian Red. J Dairy Sci. 89:4944-51.

McAllister AJ. 2002. Is crossbreeding the answer to questions of dairy breed
utilization? J Dairy Sci.85:2352-7.

Philipsson J, Banos G, Arnason T. 1994. Present and future uses of selection index methodology in dairy cattle. J Dairy Sci. 77:3252-61.

Pryce JE, Hayes BJ, Goddard ME. 2012. Novel strategies to minimize progeny
inbreeding while maximizing genetic gain using genomic information. J Dairy Sci.95:377-88.

Shook GE. 1989. Selection for disease resistance. J Dairy Sci. 72:1349-62.

VanRaden PM, Van Tassell CP, Wiggans GR, Sonstegard TS, Schnabel RD, Taylor
JF, Schenkel FS. 2009. Invited review: reliability of genomic predictions for North American Holstein bulls. J Dairy Sci. 92:16-24.

VanRaden PM, Sanders AH, Tooker ME, Miller RH, Norman HD, Kuhn MT, Wiggans
GR. 2004. Development of a national genetic evaluation for cow fertility. J Dairy Sci. 87:2285-92.


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Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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