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25 July 2021

Reduce the risk of ketosis with genetics

Is ketosis draining your dairy herd profits? Besides optimizing management practices, you can rely on breeding to reduce the risks of ketosis and other metabolic disorders in your cows.

In recent decades, improving health is receiving more attention in dairy cattle breeding. A healthy dairy cow increases the profitability of your farm. On top of that, healthy animals bring greater job satisfaction for you and your employees. 

One way to improve the health of your dairy cows is to use the General health index in the NTM (Nordic Total Merit) index as a tool. This index covers early and late reproductive disorders, ketosis, other metabolic disorders, as well as foot and leg problems. 

Even though the heritability of health traits is relatively low, and the data is limited due to the small number of treatments, it is possible to breed for better health.

By focusing on improving health in your dairy herd, you establish a sound foundation for your business.


Extra data provides greater genetic progress

Back in 2013, Denmark started to analyze the milk recording samples for Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) and Acetone. A high concentration of BHB and Acetone (ketone bodies) in the milk indicates (sub-)clinical ketosis.

These traits have a high genetic correlation to ketosis but also to other metabolic diseases. By including BHB and Acetone in the indexes, calculations of reliability and heritability went up for the General health index and especially for the two sub-traits of ketosis and other metabolic diseases.

The data was included for the first time in November 2017, which made General health a better index. Finland started to analyze for BHB and Acetone in 2015 and Sweden in 2019.  

Extra data is being entered into the index all the time, so you as a dairy farmer can breed for fewer health problems in your cows in the future.

VikingRed cow

BHB and Acetone easy to measure

As mentioned earlier, a big problem when breeding for healthy cows is the low number of treatments and therefore data.

BHB and Acetone have a high correlation with ketosis, so using data from BHB and Acetone will help to reduce the number of cows with ketosis and other metabolic diseases. Furthermore, it is a lot easier to breed for BHB and Acetone than it is to breed for less ketosis.

For both VikingRed and VikingHolstein, the heritability of ketosis is only 0.01, while it is 0.15 for BHB and 0.05 for Acetone. For VikingJersey, the heritability of BHB and Acetone are a bit lower than for these two breeds. Less data is available due to a smaller population.

The high heritability of BHB and Acetone can speed up genetic progress so you will have fewer cows with ketosis and other metabolic diseases.


Positive trends for all Viking breeds

Both VikingRed, VikingHolstein and VikingJersey have a positive genetic trend for General health; VikingHolstein have had the largest genetic trend.

If we look at the level for ketosis and other metabolic diseases, VikingRed cows’ natural health stands out, and disease frequency is significantly lower compared to the other breeds:

  • VikingRed: 0.8% ketosis, 3.2% other metabolic diseases
  • VikingHolstein: 1.9% ketosis, 5.8% other metabolic diseases
  • VikingJersey: 2.6% ketosis, 12.5% other metabolic diseases
VikingHolstein cow

Yes, you can breed for less ketosis

For all three breeds there will be a significant improvement by using bulls with high indexes for the General health index.

In the table below you can see the effect for ketosis and other metabolic diseases by using bulls with a high index for General health for all three breeds.

As a bonus, you will also get fewer reproductive disorders, foot and leg problems by breeding for better General health.  

Here you can see the reduction in ketosis and other metabolic diseases for the cows when using a bull with 110 and 120  for the two sub-traits in the General health index (ketosis, other metabolic diseases), compared to the bull with 100.


General health index

EBV 110

EBV 120


Other metabolic diseases


Other metabolic diseases

















Text by: Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Product Manager VikingRed

Read more about the General health index
VikingJersey cow

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