Genetics

A Minnesota dairy farm family is using leading edge technologies to improve the genetics of their dairy herd.

Brad Nosbush and his brothers David and Leroy own and operate Nosbush Dairy near Fairfax, Minnesota. Their father started milking cows at the farm in 1955 and the sons formed a family partnership in the early 1980s. They have slowly grown their dairy herd from 50 cows in the early 1990s to 650 registered Holsteins today. They also farm about 1,200 acres of cropland. The dairy has always been focused on improving genetics to improve health of cows and milk production. About four years ago, they began taking a more precise and detailed look at those genetics than ever before.

In 2011, Nosbush Dairy began running genomic tests on each of their cows to secure data on a number of health, production and other factors for each cow. A DNA sample is collected and analyzed for markers for genes that are known to affect various traits. This testing led to a new focus on using genetic information to improve their overall herd and a business opportunity. “We had one female that ranked # 8 in the world for NM$, and several others that were in very high category,” said Brad. Genomic testing gives producers information about specific genetics of each cow with a number of traits, ranging from health; structural traits such as feet, legs and udders; stature; and milk production traits such as total milk production, protein content, and many others. The results of the testing allow farmers to rank cows in their herd based on the factors that are most important to their operation, said Dr. Brett Kroeze of Pipestone Veterinary Services.

“Each farm has its own priorities and makes decisions based on different criteria,” he said. “We are first and foremost a commercial dairy,” said Brad. Important traits to Nosbush Dairy are cows with low stature, very good health, and high production ratings. They also began identifying the top rated cows with traits desired by other commercial dairy farms. Female calves born to those highly-rated cows are kept in the milking herd, and high ranking male calves are sold to AI studs. Revenue from calf sales to studs help cover costs of the testing and new technologies the dairy is using. One of the new technologies that Nosbush Dairy is using, working with Dr. Kroeze from Pipestone, is in vitro fertilization (IVF). Pipestone veterinarians visit the farm to aspirate ovocytes, or unfertilized eggs, from cows with the genetic profile that the Nosbushes want to increase in their herd. The ovocytes are sent to a company that fertilizes the eggs. Once embryos have developed, they are sent back to the dairy farm for transfer into a cow. This process allows farmers to more quickly increase the genetics of their herd to meet their goals for herd health and other criteria. Nosbush Dairy started working with Pipestone in part because they offer IVF and embryo transfer services on farm locations. “The on-farm services are important to us. There are other companies that offer the same services, but we would have to take our cows to their location,” said Brad. “For biosecurity reasons, we didn’t want to take the best cows from our herd where they could come in contact with many other cows, then come back to our own herd.”

The Nosbushes and other dairy farmers are just getting started with IVF and embryo transfer programs and already see the potential of the technologies. However, Brad emphasizes that IVF is just one small piece of an overall genetics strategy for their dairy farm. Because of the higher cost of IVF process, it is reserved for only the highest rated cows. “We will still see the biggest production gains through selecting the right sires and doing a good job managing our existing AI (artificial insemination) program,” he said. “IVF is just one piece of the puzzle.” Dr. Kroeze agrees the IVF and other technologies need to be analyzed closely by farmers to determine how they can best fit into their management practices and budget. Pipestone began offering IVF services in 2014, working with a company named Boviteq. They have started working with several dairies and beef producers. “This is a new area that we see as offering a lot of potential for beef and dairy producers looking to increase there genetics,” said Dr. Kroeze. “More and more are looking at the importance of their herd’s genetics and these technologies are a way to be ahead of the curve.”