Genetic selection has contributed significantly to the improved productivity, efficiency and well-being of dairy cattle worldwide through collaborative, continuous improvement and technology adoption.
U.S. Dairy: Providing Key Nutrients, Efficiently
Milk production contributes significantly to meeting the nutritional requirements of the world population. Cattle produce 81% of the world’s milk supply.
U.S. dairy cattle produce four times more milk today than in 1945 and twice as much as 1970, per cow.Building up genetics and providing outstanding herd management are the keys to this superior production efficiency. The gains in total fat plus protein for Holsteins on Dairy Herd Information (DHI) since 1970 are shown below, along with the gain due to genetics. Genetic improvement has accounted for 62% of the fat plus protein increase in U.S. Holsteins over the last 50 years.
Increases in fat plus protein yield for U.S. Holsteins*
Total gain in fat plus protein, per decade (lbs)
Gain due to genetics (lbs)
Percent of the change attributed to genetics
*Cows in herds that participate in Dairy Herd Information (DHI)
The trend is similar for gains in milk yield. Since 1960, the average milk produced per year has risen from about 13,000 to 28,000 pounds of milk, per U.S. Holstein in DHI herds. In the figure below, the yellow-orange area shows the gain due to improved management, while the blue shows the gains through genetic potential. Management and genetics work hand-in-hand. Parallel improvements in cow nutrition and management allow the genetic potential to be expressed.
Influence of Management and Genetics in Milk Yield Gains
Foundation of Continuous Improvement
The remarkable increase in U.S. dairy productivity has resulted from activities founded more than 100 years ago. A critical step was the start of milk production testing in 1905. As the number of production records grew, so did pedigree recording and the opportunity to test progeny performance. Growth in breed association programs, the introduction of artificial insemination (A.I.), development of frozen semen, and more accurate genetic evaluation methods further advanced genetic improvement through the middle of the 1900s. The U.S. system became respected as the gold standard worldwide.
Since 2009, dairy producers worldwide have had access to high-ranking U.S. genomic sires – whose genetic evaluations are based on DNA markers the performance of their milking daughters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding to sequence the first cow sequenced, worked with companies to create early genotyping techniques, and pioneered the development of genomic evaluations.
U.S. dairy producers quickly embraced the genetic potential of these younger sires. For female selection, genomic testing has become an important tool for mating, culling and herd management decisions. The adoption of genomics further accelerated genetic and productivity gains. The table below compares the average yields of U.S. Holsteins on DHI in 1976 and 2019, and the expected yield in 2019 if there would not have been genetic improvement during that period.
Actual Mature Equivalent for milk traits and predicted M.E. absent genetic gains
Milk yield (lbs.)
Fat yield (lbs.)
Protein yield (lbs.)
Actual M.E. average in 1976
Actual M.E. average in 2019
Predicted M.E. average in 2019 absent genetic gains made from 1976 to 2019
For decades, milk and fat – and then protein – were the primary traits measured and evaluated. The U.S. breeding goals expanded in 1994 with the introduction of Productive Life and Somatic Cell Score. Calving and fertility traits became available in the early 2000s. Since then, more health and fitness traits have been developed, including cow and heifer livability, disease resistance, and feed efficiency in Holsteins.
This expansion in traits has resulted in a more balanced breeding approach that is demonstrated in the national selection index, Net Merit $. CDCB publishes Net Merit plus three variations for producers to maximize genetic progress across the balance of traits that drive herd profitability for their milk market and management system.
Genetic relationships, or correlations, also must be considered. As an example, production and fertility are negatively correlated in farm animals. If selection programs emphasize yield and neglect fertility, there will be a decline in reproductive performance. In U.S. Holsteins, pregnancy rate in U.S. Holsteins declined from 1960-2000 with the emphasis on milk yield. That trend slowed in 1994 with the introduction of Productive Life and began to reverse in the early 2000s when direct selection for Daughter Pregnancy Rate became available.
Relationship between Milk Yield and Daughter Pregnancy Rate in U.S. Holsteins