Specht helped dairy industry make faster genetic progress’

6/21/2014 7:00 AM

Jessica Rose Spangler


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. —— A lot of dairy farmers today don’t think twice when they need to find information. Their milk testing records are typically mailed within a few days after the milk tester visited the farm. When they need to breed a cow, all the bull data is easily searchable online or in a printed artificial insemination catalog from the stud company.

But it wasn’t that long along ago that dairy farmers didn’t have those luxuries — comforts that have become mainstream, in part, thanks to Larry Specht, professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State.

At the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show, Specht was one of three men inducted into the Pennsylvania Dairy Hall of Fame.

Specht was selected for the Hall of Fame award for his impact on sire data availability. He developed the Specht Report, which includes Sire-Son and Prefix reports. The report was started in the 1970s.

“His work made data-intensive sire operation accessible to dairy producers nationwide, an important step in improving genetics in the dairy industry. Those reports remain the basis for modern summaries,” a Pennsylvania Farm Show press release said regarding his honor.

Reflecting about his research, Specht said he uncovered several genetic trends.

“Animals are much closer together in genetic ability and if they’re given the same opportunities, they could show that,” he said.

He said it seems like outstanding cows “come out of the woods” sometimes, but “if all the other cows in the woods had the same management, they could be super cows too.”

Additionally, he found that type and production aren’t as closely linked as initially thought or desired.

According to an article by Chad Dechow of Penn State, “the Sire-Son report ranks a bull based on the average of his son’s predicted transmitting ability (PTA) for certain traits. The report has long been a valuable educational tool to demonstrate that the bulls with the best daughters are generally those with the best sons. Thought of another way, bulls with the best daughters are also those that are likely to have the best granddaughters.”

Dechow said that sometimes bulls don’t follow this trend and Specht’s reports help to pick them out.

While not originally part of the Specht Report, the Bull-Mother report was later created to determine how well the sons of a cow perform.

Dechow credited Specht’s creation of these reports for advancing the evolution of the dairy industry, saying that the average Holstein cow now produces 12,000 pounds more milk per year than she did 40 years ago, and 60 percent of that increase is due to better genetic selection. Technology continues to advance dairy genetics.

“I never saw genomics coming,” Specht said. “When we started talking about DNA and mapping chromosomes, I thought about it, but I never thought we’d be able to identify all the traits.”

Specht doesn’t know what’s next for genetic research, but he doesn’t believe it’s the end; maybe just a plateau while biotechnology forges ahead.

While Specht’s advancements in genetic analysis were critical to today’s dairy industry, they wouldn’t have been as easily or readily achieved without his first project at Penn State. When Dairy Extension chair Joe Taylor hired Specht in 1957, he was challenged with a lofty goal — to convert the punch-card DHI test records from across the state into a searchable and centralized recording system.

“It took three years instead of one to work all the kinks out and adjust to the new equipment,” Specht said. “It’s sort of like designing new equipment. It takes a lot of time to get to the feed.”

Specht made a goal for himself too — to get DHI reports back to the farms in one week versus the three or four months a lot of farmers were experiencing. His goal was eventually achieved once enough personnel were on hand to process the information, correct errors and “people realized this was going to work,” he said.

Today, the milk testing system has become so automated that many dairy farmers rarely experience having to wait more than a few days for their test results.

This speed up has also aided in genetic progress, much like the Specht Reports, because producers are now able to identify problem cows sooner, allowing them to either treat the problem or cull the cow. Prompt test results allow farmers to pinpoint the cows with superior component production and health traits, therefore allowing those animals to become the foundation cows of the next generation.

“AI is the biggest breakthrough in American agriculture since hybrid corn,” Specht said referring to a common slogan in the mid-1900s. “Data processing helped that. ... Computers are the key to getting that data today.”

Specht officially retired from Penn State in 1996, but “thankfully they let me keep an office here,” he said.

The bulk of his “retirement” has been devoted to an interest sparked by two friends. One friend showed him an old registration certificate from the now dissolved Harrisburg Registry Association that stated the registered animal was polled — something not recognized by Holstein Association USA until the mid 1960s after they took over HRAs records.

The other friend had a naturally polled cow in his barn.

So Specht set out to determine the history of the polled trait in dairy cattle. His research, published in 2008, discovered that one of the first major supporters of the polled trait came from Pennsylvania’s George Stevenson and he also helped to create the HRA. Some of today’s biggest players in the polled industry are also from Pa.

“I traced a lot of polled genetics,” mostly through hard-copy Holstein herd books, Specht said. “Reds kept popping up.”

That prompted him to start investigating the history of Red and White Holsteins as well. In 2010, he published a report detailing the origins of the Red and White Dairy Cattle Association, and he is currently assisting with the creation of a 50-year history book for their golden anniversary this summer.

“It’s kind of like digging for gold,” he said of his research. “You find a nugget and keep digging until you find where it came from. Sometimes there are no records. Sometimes you’re on the wrong road or it’s a dead end.”

When Specht originally came to Penn State, his position had one official requirement - to work at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. As of 2014, Specht has worked at 52 consecutive Farm Shows as part of the dairy committee and dairy superintendent.

In 1966, he also started working with the All American Dairy Show in Harrisburg as the general superintendent, a role he relinquished to Gene Schurman after the 2004 flood. Now, he still assists the show in whatever capacity needs filled.

Specht received the All American Dairy Show Image Award and has served as treasurer and a committee member at the show. He was also honored by the National Dairy Shrine as it’s Pioneer Award winner in 2008.

After growing up on a non-electric, 6-cow dairy farm owned by his grandparents in Roscoe, N.Y., this small-town country boy has made his mark on the dairy industry and has no plans of letting up.

“I’ll keep on going on as long as I feel good enough to do so,” he said.

Specht’s Polled Holstein History research article can be found at http://bit.ly/lancasterfarming_330.

Editor’s note: Specht’s research contributed to a two part-series on the polled topic published in September 2013 in Lancaster Farming. The articles can be found at http://bit.ly/lancasterfarming_331 and http://bit.ly/lancasterfarming_332.<\c> LS20140621_EDR_Specht1.jpg

Photo supplied by Penn State

Larry Specht


Photo by Charlene Shupp Espenshade

The 2014 Pennsylvania Dairy Hall of Fame inductees are honored at the 2014 Pa. Farm Show Dairy Show Supreme Champion pageant. From left are Pennsylvania Dairy Princess Lu-Anne Antisdel, inductee Larry Specht, inductee Richard Waybright, Agriculture Secretary George Greig, inductee Carl Brown, Pennsylvania Alternate Dairy Princess Danielle Varner and Pennsylvania Alternate Dairy Princess Brooke George.

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