CDCB Connection        November 2017




Connecting with Duane Norman


This month, we wish a very Happy 75th Birthday to Duane Norman, Technical Advisor, and CDCB Connection reflects on the gamechangers and future advancements for U.S. dairy genetics.


As you think through your career, what were the real “gamechangers” in dairy genetics?

Norman: It’s ironic to be asked about my career the week I celebrated my 75th birthday. I’d like to say I am quite proud of what our group at USDA’s Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory (AIPL) accomplished in the 42 years I worked there and as Research Leader for 24 of those years. Also, I am especially grateful I have been able to continue this effort with the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB).


As far as “game changers”, I think first about the impact of genomic prediction on the industry – it’s gigantic! It appears that use of genomics could double the genetic gains for Lifetime Net Merit; the exact amount remains unresolved because complete acceptance usually takes longer than necessary. For certain, genomics is here to stay. Critics might say that the U.S. delivered genomic evaluations too early (2008), before all the answers were known. I won’t apologize for that. Although early on the genomic bulls may have been overrated slightly, they were still better than the proven bulls available, so valuable gains were made sooner than in all other countries.

Genomics might be the “sexiest” topic in genetics today, but we should acknowledge earlier developments that provided U.S. consumers with the most economical and healthy dairy foods available. Cooperation across the dairy industry groups produced this success. Dairy Herd Information (DHI) provided the records needed by other organizations. The artificial insemination (AI) organizations and breed associations designed programs to promote improvements using the DHI records. Dairy records processing centers and breeds supplied the necessary pedigree information. Failure of any group to deliver would have eliminated all potential for AIPL and CDCB to provide highly accurate genetic evaluations.    

Indexes to select for overall economic merit were provided early and included the use of later lactation yield, protein, productive life and somatic cell score. The trait Cow Livability, added in August 2016, has tremendous potential to to impact dairy farm profits.

What do you see in the “crystal ball” for dairy genetics?

Norman: As more genotypes are added to the CDCB database, we will routinely uncover relationships between the DNA and functional performance, which will make animals healthier and more efficient. USDA researchers in Beltsville, Md., have already identified 11 haplotypes that result in lost pregnancies. Fertility will improve with pressure to reduce the frequencies of these haplotypes, as will be the case for all future recessives uncovered. Detection of new abnormalities will be forthcoming. One-by-one, these abnormalities and haplotypes would only have small detrimental consequences, but all combined would have a large impact on productivity unless monitored. As genotyping and sequencing costs decrease, more information will reveal the negatives.

The most significant step toward producing better cattle will come from using additional phenotypic information that is currently or will become available soon. Presently, large amounts of data are recorded in DHI but only a small percentage is used to produce genetic evaluations. A major thrust is underway to deliver more records for current and additional traits to the national cooperators’ database. Health traits from many herds across the country are being added to the database, and this new information will be extremely valuable to produce healthier animals.

The U.S. has a reputation for world-leading genetics. What is necessary to maintain that status?

Norman: Countries differ in government regulations. Sometimes it seems the U.S. capitalistic approach puts us at a disadvantage in obtaining data that is frequently mandated in other countries. However, the willingness of U.S. producers to take risks outweighs some of these apparent disadvantages.

To remain competitive, it is necessary that 1) our industry segments maintain (and hopefully increase) their cooperative spirit, and 2) the U.S. needs to aggressively raise dairy research funding to a much higher level than current. The return on investment is far greater than most realize, and CDCB will be soon preparing articles for this newsletter and industry publication, which I believe will be rather convincing.