Six years ago, a 250-year ban on importing cow genetics on to the island of Jersey came to an end. Aly Balsom speaks to two producers with varying views on introducing international genetics to the island breed

Choosing from many cow families across the world is something most breeders take for granted, yet until 2008, dairy producers on the island of Jersey were limited to using bulls produced on the island, which measures nine by five miles.

Ironically for the island that gave birth to the Jersey breed, a ban on imported genetics put in place in 1763 to protect trading, led to many farmers fearing for the future viability of the island’s Jersey cow population.

The ban had originally remained in place as farmers found their isolation created a unique selling point that was beneficial for export. However, the development of bull proving schemes around the world meant the Jersey island cow was quickly getting left behind, explains David Hambrook of Jersey Island Genetics.

“It was a numbers game. There just wasn’t the opportunity for large scale proving schemes on the island,” he says.

“The island did introduce a bull proving scheme, but it flat-lined in terms of genetic gain after 15 years. Around 2008, there was a group of farmers looking to invest in the next generation and they didn’t think there was a viable future without looking at global genetics.”

Yield in particular was a significant driver. In 2008, on average, the island Jersey breed was lagging behind the UK Jersey breed by 22% in terms of milk production. Many producers felt the island cow had hit a genetic “glass ceiling” and was unable to convert feed any more efficiently. Such a trait is particularly important on the island, considering feed has to be imported across The Channel, making feed costs for Jersey farmers one of the highest in the world.

Following several failed attempts over the decades to get the policy overturned, in 2008 the ban on genetic imports came to an end. Most dairy herds immediately took advantage of the new world of genetics available to them. However, two of the island’s 24 herds have chosen to continue just using island genetics.

The Perchard Family – Embracing imported genetics

Tom Perchard believes imported genetics have helped secure a future for the family business at La Ferme, St Martin, by driving yield increases and efficiencies.

Having been one of the first farms on the island to import genetics in 2008, the Perchard family has since witnessed a 650 litre a cow a year increase from similar feed inputs.

Improvements in cow conformation and commercial production traits have also opened a new export market and it is hoped this will help create an additional income stream for the business.

“We are on target to produce 6,000 litres a cow a year and I am 100% sure we wouldn’t have been able to do that without imported genetics,” says Mr Perchard, who runs the 280-cow Ansom Herd with his father Rob.

“When we just had access to island genetics, herd production seemed to be capped at 5,000 litres. We found it difficult to improve cow conformation to take us to the next level as there just wasn’t the consistency in Jersey island cows.”

As soon as the doors opened to imported semen, the Perchards implemented an aggressive culling policy to turn the herd over quickly. They have chosen to select for higher type sires from North America, Canada and Denmark. By choosing bulls that will produce deep, opened-framed animals with good udder support and more angularity to the island cow, they have consequently seen production benefits.

Mr Perchard says genetic improvement has not only driven a yield increase to 5,650 litres at 5.4% fat and 3.8% protein, but also promoted better feed conversion efficiency.

“We’re feeding pretty much the same diet of maize, grass and a protein supplement with a feed rate of 0.33kg/litre of cake, but we are finding that cows are responding better. The only difference is some addition of sugar beet pulp,” he says.

Cows are served two to three times with imported semen, then if they fail to conceive they are either served naturally or artifically inseminated to local island Jersey semen. These calves are then sold on at two to three days old. The farm has also started breeding their own bulls using their best island cows crossed with imported semen.

Mr Perchard says improvements in herd genetics means they plan to make the most of the new demand for animals from the island and export to the UK.

“Before, UK farmers had limited interested in the Jersey island cow as commercial yield figures weren’t good enough. Now we’re on a more level playing field to the rest of the world and we can produce an animal that people in the UK want to buy,” he says.

Barry Raven – Committed to using island genetics alone

Herd manager Barry Raven believes careful selection of Jersey island sires and improved feeding can help push cow performance without the use of international genetics.

By selecting the best of island genetics Mr Raven has already improved heifer classification and increased production. The 95-cow Blanc Pignon herd now averages 4,900 litres a cow a year at 5.18% fat and 3.74% protein. The aim is to continue to improve yields to 5,000 litres or more.

“The RJA (Royal Jersey Agriculture) has an abundance of semen to use and there’s a lot of bull families on the island,” says Mr Raven, who manages the herd for Mrs VC Le Cras.

“We’re proving the island cow can be improved without imported genetics. I’ve been able to breed better type animals which has been reflected by classification.”

The last batch of 15 heifers classified above average with two classifying VG. The herd also has about 10 Ex, with a cow recently classifying Ex94, which is the highest the herd has ever had.

“Our herd has good feet, legs and udders and I want to carry this on and also improve milk yields. I want a good-bodied animal with good length and width and I want a good-sized animal able to eat,” explains Mr Raven.

Mr Raven uses corrective breeding, primarily through the use of AI. He generally uses three to four Blanc Pignon bulls and one or two other bulls every year. “I realise I’ve got to be careful I’m not inbreeding. I do a lot of bookwork and sit down and look at different bulls.”

In recent years Mr Raven has decided to increase the number of home-bred bulls he keeps for breeding. “I select six cows a year to keep a bull out of. I used to keep one bull a year but I kept all three last year. That helps when you’re just keeping with the island breed,” he says.

However, Mr Raven believes improved feeding will also help drive herd improvements. He has already sought nutritional advice to help improve ration balance and has developed a feeding plan so bought in feeds to complement forage.

“We’ve also reseeded all of our own ground over the last seven years with high sugar grasses and clover. That’s helping to improve milk yields and intakes,” he explains.

Despite this, Mr Raven believes there is a limit to the amount of quality forage they can grow on the island due to location and because land availability for dairy is restricted by the potato industry. This means dairy farmers get land back after the potato harvest. This is one of the main reasons Mr Raven is against using imported genetics.

“I think you need to put better quality feed into imported cows otherwise you get fertility problems. That quality feed comes from the mainland so you are having to buy in more (which is costly),” he explains.

JERSEY ISLAND FACTS

The industry:

  • 24 dairy farmers ranging in size from three to 280 cows
  • 23 dairy farms supply milk to Jersey Dairies – a farmer-owned co operative
  • Jersey Dairies only takes milk produced by pedigree Jerseys
  • Jersey Dairies has recently called for more milk to be produced due to an expanding export market
  • Land availability for dairy farms is largely controlled by potato growers with the two industries involved in land swaps
  • All first lactation heifers on the island have to undergo compulsory classification scoring by HUK (Holstein UK)

Performance changes in the Jersey Island herd since introduction of international genetics:

  • A three-point increase in overall type score between 2011 and 2013 (77 to 80)
  • The greatest improvement has been in dairy strength and udder traits
  • A 15 to 20% increase in yields across first cross heifers
  • 2008 average production was about 5,000 litres a cow a year, now rapidly increasing to 6,000 litres
  • Improvement in butterfat
  • A 33% improvement in somatic cell counts on Danish-sired Jerseys

Read more about Jersey genetics in Ireland