2022 CDCB Meeting: Genetics Are Key to Dairy Sustainability

Written by CDCB

October 13, 2022

2022 CDCB Meeting: Genetics Are Key to Dairy Sustainability

The impact of genetic selection on dairy sustainability was explored with producers, dairy buyers, geneticists and 150+ genetic enthusiasts during the 8th annual CDCB Industry Meeting on October 5, 2022, in Madison, Wisconsin.

How precisely do genetics impact sustainability – both now and into the future? How do we communicate the contribution of genetic selection to dairy’s reduced carbon footprint? What other aspects of sustainability — such as animal well-being and methane emissions — can be addressed through genetics? These were just a few questions discussed during the session.

The 2022 meeting was opened by CDCB Chair Jay Weiker, who emphasized the importance of continued sustainability improvements for U.S. dairy to remain competitive in today’s marketplace. His message was followed by presentations and discussion panels that spoke to the role of and ongoing potential for genetic selection to enhance dairy stewardship.

  • Welcome by Jay Weiker, CDCB Chair
  • CDCB and Genetic Initiatives to Enhance Sustainability, by Kristen Parker Gaddis, CDCB Geneticist
  • Dairy Buyer Panel: Customer and consumer expectations for sustainability  
  • Role of Genetics in Sustainability and Animal Welfare, by Marilyn Hershey, Producer and Board Chair, Dairy Management Inc
  • Producer Panel: Genetic selection and sustainability
  • USDA AGIL Research Update, by Asha Miles, USDA AGIL Research Geneticist
  • Producer Perspectives: Genetics and Sustainability

The farmer commitment to animal care and sustainability echoed true as CDCB guests heard from producers with strong track records of caring for cows and land, and leading stewardship efforts.

Four producers shared their perspective on the synergies of genetic progress and sustainability. 

  • Marilyn Hershey of Ar-Joy Farm in Cochranton, Penn., is Chair of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).
  • Lloyd Holterman of Rosy-Lane Holsteins near Watertown, Wis., is past chair of CDCB’s Producer Advisory Committee (PAC) and one of the 2020 national award winners for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability.
  • Mike McCloskey of Fair Oaks Farm and Select Milk Producers is Chair of Sustainability Initiative, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
  • Bill Peck, Jr. of Welcome Stock Farms, Schuylerville, NY, is current chair of CDCB PAC.

“Genetic selection is an important tool for us as farmers to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Marilyn Hershey. “The people who buy our milk – they all have requirements. Their requirements on our practices are growing. To be proactive and put ourselves on the offense, in 2020 the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 across the chain – including farms, processing and packaging. This offense gives us control of the environmental narrative.”

Lloyd Holterman was an early adopter of traits like productive life and daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), sharing herd metrics that demonstrate precise and significant improvements on cow health and performance. Rosy-Lane emphasizes cows that live longer and are less susceptible to disease and illness. Genetic selection also supports the farm goal of producing 1.7 pounds of milk for every 1 pound of feed for the milking herd. Rosy-Lane has not used antibiotics on its milking herd for more than seven years.

“We have reduced our cow size by 200 pounds. It’s allowed for healthier cows that last and will continue to be productive both in milk production and reproduction,” stated Holterman. “Net herd replacement is the biggest indicator of herd profitability; our focus needs to be on DPR.”

Through improved genetics, reproduction, health, and diet, cows are more efficient than ever. “The goal of genetic gains toward sustainability has been a focus in the dairy industry long before this topic became front and center in the press,” shared Bill Peck. “Genetic gains have allowed for the largest factor of change for the dairy industry.”

Dairy farms continue to be challenged to do more with less and create greater efficiencies through innovation. “As stewards of the land and as a sixth-generation dairy farmer, my only obligation in life is that the seventh generation can choose. That we’ve built a profitable business that stays in business, so they can choose. That’s why I do it.” stated Peck.

Continuing stewardship is a responsibility to future generations, consumers and milk buyers. “We are committed to finding new, innovative ways to use genetics to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allow for greater impact in carbon reduction and work efficiently to find meaningful measurements,” shared Mike McCloskey through a video message.

“As leaders in sustainable practices, we are committed to working toward a net zero or net negative carbon footprint,” highlighted McCloskey as he challenged producers to use genetics to be productive, while producing less methane.
Dairy Buyer Expectations for Stewardship
Moderator Corey Geiger of Hoard’s Dairyman challenged the audience to be proud of dairy’s passion for and actions of stewardship, while understanding that “sustainability” is the language and expectation that connects with dairy consumers and buyers.

“Many of us pride ourselves in owning and operating multigenerational businesses. It is our goal to run a thriving enterprise to financially support our families in the near-term and to be outstanding caretakers over the long haul, so one day we have the opportunity to pass the family farm onto the next generation,” stated Geiger.

Brian Zook, Director of Dairy Sourcing and Sustainability for cheesemaker Bel Brands, started the panel discussion by addressing how dairy producers can meet expectations. “Lower carbon products – the carbon footprint story sells,” stated Zook. ”It puts products on shelves and creates buying power.”

Over the last three years, Zook indicated he has seen a 6.5 to 7 percent decrease in carbon footprint on the farms where they purchase milk, as recorded through the FARM Environmental Stewardship module. FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) collaborates with dairy producers, cooperatives, processors and industry partners to demonstrate the standards and practices on U.S. dairy farms. Zook also highlighted work by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and DMI in telling the story of environmental stewardship.

Mike Brown, Director of Dairy Supply Chain for Kroger, noted, “Diverse, value-added products, along with efficiency in processes, is what consumers are seeking. As we move forward, retailers and consumers want to see that the industry works together to address concerns.”

Brown also emphasized changes in consumer buying habits during the pandemic, with need for basic foods and protein sources front and center. He supports the use of genetic selection, indexes like Net Merit and longer-living cows with more production. “As dairy producers, be collaborative, follow industry standards and create efficiencies… Consumers demand healthy, well-cared for animals.”

The session wrapped with perspectives from Brian and Mike on genetic progress and sustainability. “Consumers are gaining an understanding of animal and land care and the story of efficiency on dairy farms,” shared Brown, noting the history of sustainable progress through fewer cows and the ability to produce more milk.

“Be a team, be part of the solution and reach the same goal. This will keep dairy on shelves and in the consumers’ hands,” summarized Zook.