Dairy Herd Improvement

Navigating the Acronym Soup to Better Herd Management

Dairy Herd Improvement

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If you have dairy goats, you’ve probably heard of DHI, DHIA, and DHIR, in association with USDA, ADGA, and AGS. A quick online search shows that most of the DHI program focuses on cattle. Additionally, DHIA and DHIR both have multiple meanings. Throw several more acronyms in the mix and process looks complicated, confusing, and possibly expensive. Is it really worth it? 

To make sense of this acronym soup, I called Amanda Weber of Quaking Canopy Farm in Reno, Nevada. A certified DHI tester for 11 years, Amanda started her own herd on the program three years ago. She now has 50 does on milk test. Each monthly test requires an independent tester, someone who isn’t invested in your herd. Amanda runs a small, unofficial group of dairy goat owners in Nevada who test each other’s herds for the program, so they all have access to official testers. 

Acronyms

DHI Dairy Herd Improvement 
Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) — USDA program designed to help dairy farmers make better-informed choices on breeding and feeding based on testing and record keeping. It allows the USDA to calculate annual evaluations of cattle and goat genetics and production. The USDA processes milk test records and puts out an elite list, which includes animals that produce within the 95th percentile of the breed who also have relatives with strong production.

DHIA Dairy Herd Improvement Association 
Although sometimes used as Dairy Herd Improvement Assessment or Dairy Herd Information Association, in the goat world this acronym almost always means the association. Your DHIA assigns your herd code, provides training and certification to testers, and sends your results to a processing center. 

DHIR Dairy Herd Improvement Registry
Although sometimes used as Dairy Herd Improvement Records, the most common use of this acronym refers to the registry. This gets a bit confusing because it refers to the official herdbook registries for dairy goats (AGS and ADGA). You can be registered with one of the registries without participating in DHI and you can participate in DHI without having registered goats, but if you do both, you are eligible for special awards and recognitions. These can help you if you are selling your goats or charging for stud services. 

DRPC Dairy Record Processing Center
A dairy record processing center (DRPC) provides electronic processing of your DHI testing data according to approved rules and procedures. Sometimes the processing center and the lab are the same Some DHIAs assign a records processing center, some have a preferred one, but let you choose, and some don’t care which one you work with. 

After a single doe’s milk is first mixed or stirred, then weighed, then a sample is collected into a preservative-containing tube labeled with her identifier that matches the DHIA paperwork. Additional useful data provided in this process is protein and butterfat content of the milk collected as well as somatic cell counts (an indicator of mastitis) and other values that help a herd owner make decisions about feed and care of their does.

7 Steps to DHI Success

  • 1. If you belong to ADGA or AGA, contact them for a new herd application packet or download the forms from their website. If not, either join or skip to the next step.
  • 2. Research DHIA’s and test options in your area. ADGA provides a comprehensive list on their website. Look for membership requirements, and if they work exclusively with one lab and processing center or let you have a choice.
  • 3. Contact your chosen DHIA. Join, fill out member agreement, and pay membership fees if required. Receive your herd code.
  • 4. If your DHIA does not require or prefer a specific lab and/or processing center, research and select your own. Find out what requirements they have.
  • 5. Arrange for your first test day. Choose whether to do this with a standard tester/supervisor, as part of a testing group like Amanda’s, or on your own. If you choose “owner sampler,” you are not eligible for milk stars, but not registry awards.
  • 6. Enroll your herd with your record center. Your tester and DHIA can help you with this.
  • 7. Send your data and samples in and rest easy knowing you will now have accurate records of production amounts, fat and protein ratios, and somatic cell counts. 

Testing Day

On test day, Amanda’s certified tester arrives and they drink coffee and chit chat. When they are ready to start they record the time on their paperwork. Amanda uses a separate paper to write down milk weights, then transfers the info to the official forms to keep them neat and scribble-free. They milk four does at a time, using disposable gloves.

Milk is collected, mixed or stirred, weighed (pictured), and then a sample is taken. Photo from Quaking Canopy Farm

They strip out the first few squirts of milk into a separate container because those first squirts contain the most bacteria. After that, they spray the udder with disinfectant and wipe it clean with a dairy wipe or cloth. Now it’s time to milk the doe, either by hand or machine. They pour the milk into a separate bucket. This mixes the milk and gives them a standard container the scale zeroes out to the weight of. The tester then weighs and records the milk. After weighing, the tester uses a ladle to swirl the milk and take out a sample. She then pours the sample into a special tube with a preservative in it. She shakes the tube to dissolve the preservative and writes the doe’s name or number on the tube.

Rinse, Repeat, and Record

Amanda removes all milk from the milking machine and bucket, sprays the doe with disinfectant one more time, then releases that doe and moves on to the next one. They repeat this process until every doe in milk on the property has been stripped, washed, and milked, and the milk has been weighed, recorded, and sampled. Amanda and her tester then record their stop time, review the weights, and write everything on the official forms. The tester signs off on the forms then is free to go, but they usually drink more coffee first.

Careful paperwork is done to record IDs on each doe and their milk weight. Properly completed milk records are a reliable way to determine what a doe is actually capable of producing. Photo from Quaking Canopy Farm.

Amanda stores her milk samples in the refrigerator for up to seven days until she ships them to her DHIA along with the forms. The DHIA then mails her more forms for the next month’s test.

All Data Is Good Data

“When I first started,” Amanda told me, “I thought it was really important to get milk stars and have provable milk records on my goats through the registry. I didn’t even think about the dairy herd improvement components.” Now she realizes “The most important thing is how to, through dairy herd improvement, feed goats for milk production and breed towards or away from physical aspects that will contribute to higher production.  An example might be breeding for udder structure that contributes to an udder that won’t get soiled or knocked around because of location and attachment and therefore isn’t going to have higher SCC (somatic cell count) counts associated with orifices that get damaged or dirty because of location on the animal whenever you get your milk test results back.”    

Amanda now tells people that all data is good data because it helps make good, informed decisions. Working with that data allowed her transition from a Nigerian dwarf that produced 600 pounds of milk in lactation, to Nigerian dwarves that produce 1,200 pounds per lactation period. That’s worth braving the maze of acronyms and forms.

Originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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