Maximizing Dairy Genetics for Distinct Results

If someone doesn’t look too closely, ZBW Genetics will show up on any map as a farm focusing on dairy genetics, but this isn’t the case in the normal sense. For owners Kevin and Barb Ziemba of Durhamville, NY, along with their son Mason, being slightly unique has become the norm.

Matching the Focus to Action

“With our farm, we focus on the novel or niche markets,” says Ziemba. “Some folks are show-oriented, some focus on genetics from a Total Performance Index (TPI) and Net Merit standpoint to put bulls in AI, and others target polled or red genetics. We try to do it all. We’re not married to one viewpoint of what the industry should want or what we like; we prefer to dabble in all sectors of those markets and interact with people looking for different types of cattle.”

ZBW Genetics dips heavily into bovine in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfers for their small group of approximately 40 females, which are split between their own farm and Retso Holsteins, a partner’s operation. The herd is predominantly Holstein and Jersey, with the cattle from Holsteins split about half red and white, and half, black and white.

“We make embryos and calves to market, and we do quite a bit of showing, including World Dairy Expo, and various national and state shows and events.”

Ziemba explains half of what they do at ZBW Genetics is marketing embryos, while the other half is putting them into recipient cows. They have an arrangement with a large third-party farm, which provides most of the customer recipient females for a handful of clients.

“Out of our little enterprise, we probably make easily 80 to 100 calves a year. Then we’re marketing embryos as a means of supplementation.”

Ziemba credits 16-year-old son, Mason, with being the mastermind of the cattle breeding enterprise, especially over the last couple of years.

“He lives and breathes cows/genetics, knows pedigrees on every animal on the farm, and probably every animal on everybody else’s farm in the whole U.S. and Canada.” He laughs. “We have a group text with Retso Holsteins, and it’s not unusual to read, ‘So-and-so is in heat. Mason, who do you want to breed her to?’ I don’t even bother to answer as I trust him on those types of decisions.”

Adding Extended Benefits to Genetic Philosophy

The ZBW Genetics philosophy views their dairy genetics as an equation consisting of genetic progress, selection accuracy and tendencies, and generation intervals. Ziemba likes the fact they’ve had success with younger donors, thanks to the Vytelle model.

“It allows us to capitalize on their genetics, maybe three to four months ahead of others with similar genetic profiles. It lets us be first to the marketplace on the female side, both with the polled genetics, but also some of our higher TPI or Net Merit donors. We’ve been able to successfully perform OPUs and get embryos from them, even at four to five months of age. That’s been fantastic.”

He believes this ability helps provide the foundation for their longer-term strategy. As an example, one of their March 2021 calves already has a calf on the ground. She’s currently pregnant herself, due in March 2023, and at 24 months of age, she boasts eight other pregnancies.

Ziemba likes Vytelle’s hormone-free IVF, as it makes the entire process more convenient and affordable.

“The holistic view of FSH free from the perspective of no hormones is fun to say, but the important part for us is the Vytelle model is straightforward,” Ziemba said. “We’re able to determine our cost at each of the three phases—embryo, pregnancy, and live calf. Removing the FSH cost is where my excitement lies. With some tweaking at the recipient facility, as far as stage and quality of embryo, we’ve reduced our cost per pregnancy by almost 60- 70%.”

Spreading the Word in Unique Ways

Ziemba is focused on genetics with their cattle, confident when they leave for a customer’s operation that they will do well. He knows if this happens, their name gets tied to the success somewhere down the road, creating brand recognition. And with this recognition, more clients will become interested in their genetics, whether aimed toward the show ring, a simple production perspective, or high genetic value in red or polled animals.

To spread the ZBW Genetics information, they make use of social media.

“I’m all about ROI, so the lowest denominator when it comes to spreading the word. Social media gets it done,” Ziemba said. “Plus, we like to do things a little different by posting pictures, pedigree information, and videos online. We try to host unique events too, not just run-of-the-mill auctions.”

They recently hosted and advertised a “tag sale” where they displayed 40 of their heifers with predetermined prices.

“We like to think we have our cattle in three boxes; the embryos we want to sell, the calves we create and hope to sell, and those we want to keep. And if we do sell those, we want a premium. So, for this event mainly consisting of the third box, we made it a ‘here’s the price and if you want her, you’re welcome to her’ event. It’s unique, protects our costs, gets our brand out there, and brings results, as we sold 13 for an average of $4500.”

The Cutting Edge Meets the Future

“Staying on the cutting edge is the exciting part of what we do,” Ziemba stressed. “The worst thing anyone can say is, ‘that’s what we’ve always done.’ That’s an automatic failure. I’ve seen so many people have success, bottle it, and try to repeat it over and over. Especially in genetics, it’s not going to work, as they progress all the time.”

He adds that direction also changes based on whatever metrics are present in the industry, including the cost of feed or the value of protein and fat. Staying ahead of these trends is the most exciting and important aspect of dairy genetics, as eyes and ears need to be open to what’s ahead.

Ziemba believes the future of ZBW Genetics depends heavily on what Mason decides to do. The family goal is to work together as a team and provide Mason with the opportunity to become the primary driver in the future.

“Our emphasis on genetics and the different ways people view them is going to remain constant. No one size fits all, and we understand this. It’s part of why we like being diverse. And we appreciate Vytelle’s role providing us with the conduit to make decisions and be flexible which allows us to focus on genetics in novel or niche markets.”

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