Cattle breeding programs are as important to the small scale individual farmer with a single herd as the large farming company with many herds.

The objective of any breeding program is to improve the commercial production of farm stock. In genetic terms, this is done by fixing a high proportion of the genes responsible for desirable characteristics in a herd and getting rid of as many undesirable genes as possible. Once this has been achieved, the farmer will have a herd of good performers (good phenotype) and good breeders (good genotype).

The starting point in any breeding program is the selection of the animals from which to breed. This becomes the foundation stock. The criteria used to select these animals will vary according to the type of animal the farmer ultimately wants to have in his herd.

Characteristics that a farmer might look for in different types of cattle might be something like the following:

For Beef Cattle

  • birth weight
  • live mass gain
  • food conversion
  • carcass grades

For Dairy Cattle

  • milk yield
  • total solids
  • longevity
  • udder shape
  • speed of milking
  • good feet and legs

The ideal dairy cow is one with a high milk yield, good milk solids, a well shaped udder, a fast milker, good feet and legs so that she can travel to her food, and a resistance to diseases so that she will have a long productive life in the herd.

Decide on Priorities

Many farmers start their animal breeding program with a herd that has few, if any, good characteristics. The farmer or breeder has to decide which of the characteristics are the most important and select his stock to carry out his breeding program so that those characteristics are given priority.

If a farmer tries to change everything at the same time, he will not succeed and may end up with animals that are worse than his foundation stock. Once the farmer has decided on his priorities, he may have to sacrifice some less desirable characteristics. For example, he may be able to improve the milk yield of his cows but not the udder shape.

Dual Purpose Animals

The selection points for dairy cattle have nothing in common with those of beef cattle. This makes the selection and breeding of dual purpose animals almost impossible because there is a conflict of aims.

A program to improve the beef qualities of a dual purpose breed will result in losing the milking capacity of the cows. With dual purpose cattle, the strain (family line) within the breed is often more important than the breed itself. Some strains are good milkers and others are better beef producers. The old triple purpose cattle that were kept for milk, beef and work did not do any of these things particularly well.

There are a large number of possible characteristics or points for selection for different types of livestock.

Have a Clear Aim

It is essential to have a very clear ultimate aim in any breeding program. The farmer must keep in his mind the type of animal he is striving to produce.

Some selection points are related to each other so if the farmer selects one he will also improve the other at the same time. Other selection points are unrelated to each other while there are some that are antagonistic. This means that if you select for one point, another point that is antagonistic will be adversely affected.

Gaining a certain level of expertise about dairy cattle breeding does take a significant amount of learning, through study and experience; but a deeper understanding will also lead to greater sustainability and profitability on the farm.

The more a farmer learns and understands about breeding and selecting dairy cattle; the greater their capacity to improve their herd and ultimately every aspect of their farm management.