The Role of Genetics in Cow Mobility

DNA helix

Genetics and breeding have an important role in controlling lameness levels in dairy cattle, and should be considered in an overall herd breeding strategy alongside the more traditional traits such as milk yield and SCC.

The physical characteristics of feet and legs in dairy cattle are fairly heritable, meaning that long term improvement can be made, simply by selecting superior bulls and cows to breed from.

Breed societies and breeding companies acknowledge the value of good feet and leg conformation and now routinely include them as traits as part of conformation assessments on cows. Being able to measure and subsequently produce genetic information on feet, legs and locomotion traits, we now have the ability to pick bulls, which improve these traits as part of the overall breeding improvements within a herd.

Selection of cows to breed from can take a slightly different approach. Since we know that several genetic factors can influence mobility, such as poor overall conformation, abnormalities of feet, legs, locomotion, increased risk for conditions such as arthritis, and even susceptibility to conditions such as sole ulcers. It is therefore recommended that chronically-lame cows and those with a history of mobility problems - such as badly-deformed feet or having suffered from sole ulcers - should ideally not be used to breed herd replacements from.

While great advancements have been made in the productivity of the modern dairy cow through genetic selection, in some respects developments in cattle husbandry, housing and the facilities or technologies used on dairy farms have not kept pace, resulting in problems such as less than optimal cow comfort levels or nutrition. So for immediate, short term improvements in mobility, it is advisable to look at improvements in herd management, cow comfort levels and nutrition. Genetic selection for good locomotion and feet and leg conformation, however, has an important role to play in long term reduction of lameness levels and careful consideration as part of the overall breeding improvement within a herd is therefore recommended.

The Profitable Lifetime Index (£PLI) represents the financial improvement an animal, is on average, predicted to pass onto its offspring. This index also includes feet and leg conformation and locomotion as a component trait. Genetic indexes such as this can help to improve mobility in a herd by addressing the genetics of the cows.

Like all genetic indexes

  • PLI is calculated from actual performance where available.
  • PLI takes account of family relationships as well as the level of performance within the herd in which the animal is kept.
  • PLI irons out the effects of different levels of input or management.

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