Many suckler producers have veered away from using beef cross dairy cows, in favour of homebred continental replacements due to the perceived problems of the Holstein influence and to benefit from the health merits a closed-herd offers.
But if recent research is anything to go by, traditional breeding methods still stand the test of time.
Trials at Harper Adams Beef focus farm, Presteigne, Powys, show continental cross Holstein-Friesian cows are more efficient than their three-quarter homebred continental counterparts.
Beef farmer Pip Rogers, of Upper Heath Farm, changed his breeding policy several years ago. Previously, he bought British Blue cross Holstein-Friesian replacements to calve at 2.5 years of age. Instead he now retains Blonde cross Blue heifers and serves them to high index Blonde d’Aquitaine sires, with a focus on calving ease, growth and muscle depth.
The key motivators behind his decision to overhaul his three-way replacement policy were conformation, herd health and ease of management.
“We had a lot of problems with mastitis and feet. Also, the occasional calf can follow the dairy side, not the beef, and have relatively poor conformation,” explains Mr Rogers.
The transition has improved conformation considerably, and in a year when forage availability is lacking it has given Mr Rogers the flexibility to sell calves as stores or finishers and maximise cash flow.
But Simon Marsh, senior beef lecturer at Harper Adams University College, has been comparing the performance of British Blue cross Holstein-Friesian cows versus Blonde cross Blues cows at Upper Heath for the last year.
According to him the blueprint for a profitable and efficient beef enterprise is a herd of small-medium sized, milky suckler cows put to high index bulls. And trial results speak for themselves.
Last year Mr Rogers’ cows were weighed and condition scored after weaning, and calf growth rates were recorded regularly.
Bull weaning weights from British Blue x Holstein-Friesian cows last year were 312kg at 180 days, equating to a 200-day weight of 342kg and a DLWG of 1.49kg (see table 2).
When benchmarked against EBLEX’s top third of lowland suckled producers there is an evident improvement in performance.
“The average Daily Live Weight Gain (DLWG) and 200 day weights are some 32% higher than the top third of producers respectively, which is an excellent performance.”
Mr Marsh says the efficiency measure – and target suckler producers should be benchmarking themselves against this – is a 200-day calf weight that is equivalent to 50% of the cow’s live weight.
The efficiency factor of Blue cross Holstein cows at Upper Heath was compared with the performance of a Blue cross cow herd monitored by the Scottish Rural University College, and was 2% higher at 46.9%.
But what’s perhaps more interesting is the efficiency factor of Blonde cross Blue cows was in fact lower at just 40.4%.
“Blue cross Holstein-Friesian cows were 45kg lighter than Blonde cross Blue cows and in a lower condition score at weaning, however their calves were some 26kg heavier,” Mr Marsh points out.
So what’s the reason for the Blue cross dairy breed being more efficient? Mr Marsh says the improved daily liveweight gain are a result of the Blue cross Holstein-Friesians partitioning more feed energy into milk production.
“The Blonde cross Blues are bigger animals with higher maintenance requirements that will put energy into body condition rather than milk, resulting in smaller calves at weaning,” he adds.
To make up the shortfall in weight Mr Marsh says the calves from the Blonde cross Blue cows would have to sell for a premium of 24p/kg to compensate for lower 200-day weights.
“The calves out of the Blonde cross Blue cows would have superior conformation, which you will need to have, because they will have slightly lower sale weights.
“Putting a Blonde bull on a Blonde cross Blue cow will also result in the loss of some hybrid vigor, which benefits the lowly heritable traits such as fertility and calf survival. This would apply to all breeds, such as putting a Limousin bull back on a Limousin cross cow,” he adds.
While the exact financial benefits of having a closed herd is difficult to cost, for Mr Rogers the slightly lower performance has been far outweighed by improved herd biosecurity and better conformation.
“Blonde cross Blue cows have better udders and feet compared to the Blue cross Holstein cows,” which he says has eased management.
At Upper Heath the best pick of calves are sold post-weaning in suckled calf sales at Knighton market. The best heifers are kept as replacements and are reared to calve at 2.5 years of age.
Meanwhile the remaining bulls are intensively finished on an ad-lib ration, which is based on home grown barley and wheat, and a protein blend with an overall crude protein content of 14%.
At 15.4 months of age the bulls recorded a carcass weight of 436kg, which equates to a daily carcass gain from birth to slaughter (taking 24kg off for calf carcass weight) of 0.88kg, with an average grade of U+3, explains Mr Marsh.
This compares to the benchmark EBLEX target of a 348kg carcass at 14months old and a daily carcass gain of 0.77kg.
Meanwhile, last year’s heifer calves recorded a 208-day weaning weight of 305kg, equating to a 200day weight of 294kg and a DLWG of 1.28kg – 27% higher than the top third of EBLEX producers.
They recorded a carcass weight of 416kg at 15.5 months of age, equating to a daily carcass gain of 0.62kg, averaging R4L.
The next step will be measuring the performance of finished cattle at Upper Heath and comparing the their weights and conformation of the Blonde calves out of the Blue cross and Blonde cross cows.
Mr Marsh says the results already show Blonde calf growth rates from Blue cross cows is higher than those out of Blonde cross Blues cows.
However, he predicts that once sufficient slaughter data is available to analyse it’s likely conformation from the latter will be improved.
As well as analysing slaughter data Mr Marsh will be assessing calving ease and birth weight data.
“Ease of calving is paramount, because difficult calvings are going to result in calf deaths and difficulty when getting cows back into calf,” he explains.
Mr Marsh says there is often no easy solution for beef breeders looking to move away from Holstein cross breeding.
“In an ideal world you would create a link with a dairy herd that don’t use extreme Holstein genetics and have an input on the beef bull they use and buy all heifer calves.”
However, he says an alternative solution for suckler producers would be to combine native maternal genetics with a continental breed to avoid increasing cow size.
He says particular attention must be paid to using bulls to breed herd replacements within the top 10% of indexes for 200-day milk yield to maintain milk.
Other EBV “must” factors include scrotal size, negative calving interval, short gestation length and positive calving ease daughters.
Mr Marsh says sexed semen is potentially a “huge step forward” and should be embraced by beef breeders to increase the genetic female potential within their herd.
“This will allow breeders to gain access to high index bulls to improve hybrid vigour in their breeding programme and produce replacements with plenty of milk to maximise calf growth rates and maximise use of their terminal sire breed.”