Seeing science evolve in breeding has been thrilling for Spencer Hackett, who dairy farms with his wife, Stacey, and their sons, Christopher and Brook at Melarry Farms in Rice.
Genetics is a topic that has interested him for as long as he can remember. Like many breeders, he dreamed of his efforts to yield a bull who would become a proven bull for artificial insemination.
“Our cattle was never good enough,” he said.
But his fortune changed when genomic testing was introduced to the breeding industry in 2007. It has revolutionized breeding and it didn’t take him long to jump on board, he said.
Hacket said genomic testing reveals information about the genetic qualities of an animal. It allows the farmer to find out early on if a calf has the genetic makeup to become a good and high producing cow or bull.
Before, farmers had to wait and hold on to the calves they thought might turn out well for years before they would actually know.
“In the old system, we used to evaluate the animal’s performance within herd mates. The new way we’re doing things now, there is no way to cheat the system. You’re pulling hair and we’re letting the DNA of the animal tell how good she or he really is,” he said.
Hackett said under the old system, sometimes animals scored lower because of outside factors that had nothing to do with their genetics.
“Let’s say an animal calves by Christmas Eve and nobody’s there to help her. She struggled with birth. Nobody took care her of right away, so she gets a DA (displaced adomasum which occurs when the cow’s ‘true stomach’ is filled with gas and raises from the bottom to the top of the cow’s abdomen), she has mastitis. It doesn’t necessarily mean genetically she wasn’t a superior animal,” he said.
However, because her performance would have not been as good as the rest of the herd, the old system would have assumed she must not be any good, Hackett said.
“The new way says her DNA still says she could be the best cow in the barn. She just calved at the wrong time or she got pneumonia. That’s not her fault genetically. That’s our fault as manager of the herd,” he said.
How high a calf tests depends on what DNA it received from the sire and the cow. But even with good bloodlines, there is no guarantee that the calf will score high.
Hackett recalls a calf with great bloodlines who tested very high and was sold at an auction in Central Minnesota last year for $200,000.
“That heifer had a sister who was worth $1,000 because she didn’t get any of the good DNA from mom and dad. She tested low,” he said.
Each year, the herd at Melarry Farms and another herd Hackett works with, calve about 250 calves per year.
All the calves are genomically tested by submitting about 20 hairs, including the roots, they have pulled from each calf. Each sample is identified by the calf’s individual ear tag number and other information, such as gender, when it was born and who the sire and cow were.
“It takes about three weeks to process. We never know what we’ll get back, but it’s like Christmas when we get the samples back,” he said.
In addition to the two herds, Hackett is also partners with a 500-cow dairy farm in South Dakota. Hackett produced more embryos than the number of cows he has in his herd, and the South Dakota didn’t have enough.
Hackett said it was the embryo transfer veterinarian they both use that introduced them.
“I made him an offer that he gets a percentage of everything we made and he started putting them in. It just worked out really well and has been a good partnership,” he said.
Hackett said what led him to try genomic testing when it first came out was when a representative with Accelerated Genetics suggested he test a couple of his bulls just to see how they would do.
“We tested two bulls through them and they came back really high, much higher than what they had before (under the old system),” he said. “They took a gamble and said, ‘We are going to bring in one of these guys based on the new technology’ and he said, ‘You might want to call Select Sires and see if they are interested in the other bull’ because they were both in the top 10 of their breed at the time.”
Since then, Melarry Farms has produced many excellent breeding bulls and cows with great bloodlines.
Hackett encourages farmers to give genomic testing a chance. As a small farmer, it has allowed him to be financially stable despite the milk and crop prices.
However, he understands that sometimes agricultural science may deter some or some may have a hard time believing that a scientific test can tell better how good a cow or bull is.
“It scares a lot of farmers, I’m sure of it. But it’s not the holy grail. It’s just a tool to give you a better nucleus herd to work with to produce more, to make better offspring and try to be profitable and stay in the business that some of us like to do,” he said.
The Hacketts’ breeding philosophy is to make the next generation better.