Constraints on farm labour and rising economic pressures on dairy units mean an independent herd assessment to help select the best cows for breeding, cut the number culled for poor legs, feet and mastitis, and save on costs could be useful.
Both milk buyers and the public find conformation defects increasingly unacceptable and dairy farmers are becoming more aware that cows of better type produce more efficiently and for longer, says Holstein UK’s type classification manager Meurig James.
“But producers shouldn’t view classification as a tool purely for the strict pedigree breeder. It provides an independent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the herd, while identifying individual cow strengths and weaknesses to help eliminate specific health and welfare problems in the herd.”
For those who have taken the route of extreme, angular cows with one focus in mind – producing more and more milk – Mr James says classifying is helping bring back a more desired type of cow in keeping with the demands of modern dairying.
“In some instances the extreme type of Holstein can work, but only with the highest level of management and nutrition. The more commercial producer is now shifting back to a stronger, durable, deep-bodied cow with the ability to average at least six lactations rather than three or four.”
Classification has a vital part to play in helping to select these attributes, he says. “The process includes 20 linear traits on a scale of 1-9, describing the degree of the trait rather than its desirability. These scores break down into four main areas – dairy strength (25%), rump (10%), legs and feet (25%) and mammary (40%), from which a final score is calculated for the individual cow.”
Dairy strength consists of a frame composite and dairy character and focuses on strength from the front end and heart region of the animal through to the front rib, adds Mr James.
The introduction of the new descriptive rump composite aims to combat any issues with high pins – which have been identified as potential problems in Holsteins – and consists of rump angle and rump width.
“An animal with more than one problem or a severe single problem can’t achieve the highest score,” he adds.
Where legs and feet are concerned, shape and quality must result in good locomotion and classification must take into consideration environment and management factors, he says.
The overall mammary score takes in the strength and quality of the fore and rear udder attachment, strength of the central ligament, and udder texture. “The quantity of udder in relation to the size of the animal, stage of lactation and time of inspection is also considered. The final score is then calculated from the four-point breakdown.”
Using these traits means producers can work at enhancing the longevity, health and welfare of the herd by identifying correct type traits.
“For pedigree breeders with a strong marketing emphasis, classification can be used to increase the financial value of the herd and, more importantly, the youngstock. In some instances, sale figures show classified animals average 100% more than non-classified milking animals, but commercial producers can reap similar benefits,” adds Mr James.
“Identifying the best families on which to use high quality semen to produce the best heifer replacements, thereby improving herd longevity, can result in financial benefit for commercial units.”
And classification could not be simpler when on farm, he comments. “On visiting, all first calvers are scored, with any other further females being optional, but all females must be individually assessed on concrete. We don’t need them to be clipped, led on a halter or to be full of milk.”
After classification, the producer receives an official classification score and a full assessment report on each animal, a herd report showing averages and trends together with a choice of three mating recommendations. “Producers can then link to the CDI website and WebMate program to locate the best sire available to suit the needs of the herd,” adds Mr James.
Running 700 pedigree Holstein cows on a commercial basis means Nick Cobb and family from Chalclyffe Holsteins, Dorset, require a management tool which offers what he terms an extra pair of eyes.
“We decided three years ago to increase the herd and move from half commercial and half pedigree status to being fully pedigree, but without the show marketing emphasis. To help with that move we opted to classify and use the scores as a major decider for breeding and replacement selection.”
And although he and his herd manager, Paul Crocker, enjoy the pedigree aspect of the herd in terms of breeding high scoring cows from specific families, the sole driver behind the herd is milk production, but from cows that last. “We’re breeding more durable cows, those with the legs and feet to walk well and last, with tight udders for reduced mastitis. And the scores achieved from herd classification help us manage this need. It also provides great motivation knowing you are milking good quality cows.”
The first part of the process is classifying calved heifers, and Mr Cobb is looking for heifers to score more than 80 points, with the national average being 79. “It’s likely heifers go up by a couple of points two years later, so when we have heifers coming through scoring 82, we know they are going to make good cows.”
With a desire to average six lactations, he is intent on reducing the herd’s four-year culling rate. “We are averaging 22%, but I would like to get that down to 18% and classification is helping us streamline the management side of culling cows. So, those heifers scoring lower than expected are put to a beef bull instead of a genetically superior Holstein, with the aim for the overall herd to average 86 points, with heifers averaging 83 points.”
Looking at the wider benefits of classification, Mr Cobb strongly believes classification should be viewed as a long-term necessity by the industry.
“As producers, we have to provide the highest welfare and traceability standards to consumers. For those producers who have identified a problem with either mastitis, legs and feet or even fertility, classification provides the assurance that something is being done to counteract the problem.”
*The overall mammary score takes into consideration strength and quality of fore and rear udder attachment, strength of central ligament and udder texture.
The heifer pictured above scored 86 on the day of classification based on her being a balanced heifer with good dairy characteristics, clean bone structure, good locomotion and a high, wide udder with good teat placement.