What is in this article?:
- To be successful in the milk production business, you have to be able to recognize a good cow.
- These days, farmers use more than their eyes to tell them about a cow’s milk-making potential. They rely on extensive data about her pedigree and the performance of her mother and aunts and sisters. And now the sequencing of the cow genome—completed in 2009 by a team of 300 scientists from 25 countries—has opened a vault of new data and new possibilities.
Strength and dairy character
The revised standards emphasize more balance between strength and dairy character. “We’ve started to get people to think again that, yes, we want cows that produce a lot of milk, but we also want them to not kill themselves doing it,” Weigel says. “We want them to be able to maintain good health.”
Still, the ideal cow epitomized in the revised standards and in the show ring is geared toward a particular kind of dairying, in which cows live in large, open-stall barns and are fed a mixed ration that includes grain, forage, protein and mineral supplements. This is the dominant milk production system in the United States today, but plenty of cows across the nation and around the world live a different kind of life.
“Those cows are Ferraris,” says dairy farmer and UW-Extension agent Vance Haugen, describing the show cows at World Dairy Expo. “That’s wonderful, but I’m not going drive Ferrari on my back forty. I’d rather be driving my Jeep.” Haugen, who operates a pasture-based dairy farm, says he prefers cows with “a little more girth, maybe a wider muzzle so she can graze a little bit better. And smaller.”
Smaller is also better in Central America, says Ysidro Matamoros, an animal scientist from Honduras who brought a group of students to Dairy Expo. In his country, the average dairy herd has about nine cows that subsist on low-quality pasture and endure a brutally hot and humid climate. “She has to be smaller, because she has to dissipate a lot of heat,” he says. She also has to have some meat on her bones, literally. In Honduras—as in many places around the world—much of the milk comes from cows raised for both milk and meat.
What this means is that in an increasingly diverse global dairy industry, there is no ideal. One herd’s perfect cow might be a cull cow in a herd on the other side of the world.
The ability to find genetic markers for hundreds of discrete traits will continue to refine our ability to define perfection on a case-by-case basis. “The idea in the past was to look at what people thought the cow should look like intuitively. What they favored. What they liked to look at,” says Weigel. “Now you’ve got the data telling you what the cow should look like.”
But perfection will always be in the eye of the beholder. Brian Coyne says he will never forget that great Milking Shorthorn with the subpar udder that caught his eye during the national dairy judging contest. Nor will he forget his conversation with the Shorthorn judge in the final portion of the competition, in which contestants give their reasons for ranking the cows the way they did. Coyne dug deep into dairy-judging lexicon to explain why he picked that cow. He talked about her “decided advantage in dairyness, longer and cleaner head and neck and sharply chiseled top line.” But the judge wasn’t buying it. She pressed Coyne, asking how he would have rated the cows on udders alone. By that standard, he admitted, his first-place cow would have gone last.
“The judge gave me this funny look, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I started with my worst-uddered cow,’ and thinking, “I screwed this up really badly.”
Actually, he didn’t mess up much at all. He won the contest with the highest score in event history, and he did okay with the Shorthorns. The one he ranked first belonged in second place. She may not have been the perfect dairy cow, but she was a very dairy cow.