Balanced breeding is now a fundamental focus in the dairy sector, as breeders pursue the whole package. Rhian Price reports.
At Park Hall farm, Tarporley, a balanced breeding ethos has become the foundation stone for a profitable, commercial dairy system.
As the drive to increase milk yield continues, with cow numbers rising to 420 and milking increasing to three times a day, Neil Roberts' focus on the genetic merit of the Townhouse pedigree Holstein herd has never been more important.
The shift in breeding policy in recent years has been fast moving, says the Cheshire breeder.
"I remember growing up and people used to say 'we always breed for type and feed for milk'. But it is not as straightforward as that."
Although the focus to produce commercial pedigree animals with excellent conformation and high milk production has never faltered, the attention to detail on balanced breeding and management is now more important than ever.
"Balance should be the biggest word we use when breeding a cow – whether it's balancing out a cow's fault with selected breeding or maintaining a balanced conformation on an existing animal.
"We are always chasing milk, but we want cows to be well-balanced, consistent and long-lasting."
In fact, Mr Roberts believes poor breeding decisions made by farmers chasing milk yield alone has led to criticisms of the breed.
"Farmers used to select a bull purely on milk and never used to look at other traits.
"They selected a bull at 1,000kg of milk and thought it would bring their herd average up, but they had a lot of cows calving down that may well have given 8,000-9,000 litres as a heifer, but in the next lactation she fell apart.
"That's why you had dairy farmers slagging off the Holstein and looking at cross-breeds."
For this reason alone when it comes to sire selection, type and production are equal preferences.
Sires are selected within the top 3% of the breed and Mr Roberts prioritises bulls that are more than 150 on PLI and 2.0 on type merit.
In the past five years, he has started using sexed semen - a scientific innovation that 25 years ago didn't even seem possible.
It is a development that has helped the farm to boost cow numbers, while remaining a high-health, closed herd, and has been aided in recent years by a wider choice of sexed sires.
Heifers are calved at 22 months, having been served with two straws of sexed semen, with a conception rate of 74%. If they are still not in-calf they are given one conventional straw before being put in with the high-end pedigree stock bull.
Genetic focus is now aimed at producing animals to withstand management capabilities, rather than pursuing high-end genetics just for the show ring.
"Our goal is to make money. We don't want heifers too immature, as they need to compete within a herd environment," he says.
So far this formula is working. Compared with 10 years ago, milk production has risen from 8,900kg to 11,500kg a cow, but careful, balanced breeding, alongside a focused management policy, has meant his strive to reach 12,000kg a cow hasn't sacrificed longevity, with current lactations averaging 4.2 in comparison to a breed average of 3.6.
He says the rate of breed progress within the past 25 years has been colossal and trait selection is constantly adapting year on year.
In the past three years alone, health and fertility traits have come into play quite heavily, particularly since the decision was taken to house cows all year round, and Mr Roberts aims to select bulls that have a good fertility index and are negative for SCC.
"There's no point in chasing milk yield if you're going to start culling 35% of your herd every year. You have got to get the balance right."
Mr Roberts has also been keen to use recent technological advancements such as genomics. He has already tested 15 heifers and uses high numbered, balanced genomic bulls.
In the future all the sexed semen he uses on heifers will be sourced from young genomic sires, which will reduce costs, and he hopes genomics will help him to broaden the market for his home-bred pedigree bulls.
National recording has improved dairy traits
The Holstein breed today is very different to what it was 25 years ago, says Marco Winters, DairyCo's head of genetics.
"Historically, breeders were simply selecting for high production without paying attention to fitness traits such as longevity, fertility and SCC, and it caused problems for the breed relating to lifespan and fertility."
But in the past decade, breeders have become much stricter when selecting bulls on other indices and are now seeking more robust sires, not too extreme in stature.
"Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI) has become an essential breeding tool, encouraging farmers to pay attention to fitness traits without compromising milk production."
Studies conducted by Promar show herds within the top 1% for PLI are making an extra margin of £24,839 a 100 cows compared to average.
"We have certainly made massive inroads towards better herds for the future. In the past 20 years, yields have crept up year on year, improving by 150kg of milk an animal. Two-thirds of that is due to improvements in genetics alone."
Since the introduction of fertility index in 2005, fertility has improved in line with production, with many farmers now selecting bulls for high fertility.
"We are already seeing an improvement in first-lactation animals and we would expect to see significant improvements in calving index across the national herd by 2015."
Mr Winters says the single biggest breakthrough has been national recording, which has enabled the industry to identify and improve these key traits.
Since the introduction of SCC indices in 1998, farmers have been actively selecting for bulls with a negative SCC index. While in 1998 most farmers were selecting sires with a SCC index of +2%, last year this improved to an average of -10%.
In the future, Mr Winters says genomics, combined with data, will streamline the breed even further, making it even more efficient.
"Currently, 50% of beef comes from dairy herds and farmers could really capitalise on that by using carcass traits.
"More significantly, by looking at disease resistance in certain bloodlines we may be able to reduce the incidence of diseases such as mastitis and bTB."
Rhian Price on G+
- Fertility index
- SCC indices
- National recording
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