Should dairy producers
opting to make better use of
grazed grass re-consider
which breed they are using?
Emma Penny reports
DO increasingly high merit Holstein Friesian cows suit grass-based milk production – or would producers be better to opt for dual-purpose breeds?
That question faced Pat Dillon, dairy specialist with Irish advisory body Teagasc, and based at its Moorepark research unit in Fermoy, Co Cork.
"With an increasing interest in grass and less intensive production, we wanted to find out whether the Holstein Friesian suited that system or whether there were better breed options," he says.
Currently, almost 550,000 straws of Holstein Friesian semen are imported into Ireland from Europe and North America each year. The relative merits of these sires are derived from progeny performance in systems which differ greatly from those used in Ireland, while the breed is only selected for dairy production, with little emphasis on beef production, explains Dr Dillon.
"With quota likely to be here until at least 2006 we need to know whether a dual-purpose cow would offer the best means of using resources on many Irish dairy farms. Some dual-purpose breeds have a more favourable fat to protein ratio and also offer the opportunity to increase the value of non-milk sales from the farm by producing higher value calves and cull cow sales."
To investigate the potential, Moorepark researchers and the Avonmore Waterford group began a trial comparing three breeds – Dutch and Irish-bred Holstein Friesian, Montebeliarde and Normande – looking at their dairy and beef characteristics under a grass-based system of milk production.
The trial has run for two years so far, with 29 heifers of each breed at the start of the trial, and 25 of each breed going into a second lactation. Average concentrate use over the first lactation was 760kg/head, and 580kg/cow plus 50kg DM/cow pressed pulp fed over the second lactation. All cows were at grass in mid-March.
Predictably, the Dutch Holstein Friesians produced most milk and highest fat, protein and lactose yields across both lactations, with the Montebeliarde second. Highest fat (4.03%) and protein (3.60%) concentrations were given by the Normande group, with lowest levels recorded by the Irish-bred Holstein Friesians.
Both dual-purpose breeds also gave high levels of proteins associated with high caesin content and consequently would give higher cheese yields, according to Dr Dillon.
Across both lactations, the Dutch Holstein Friesian lost most body weight and condition, while the Montebeliarde lost least. This may have impacted on fertility because both groups of Holstein Friesians had a longer calving to conception interval, greater number of services/conception and higher infertility rate a result of lower pregnancy rates to first and second service.
However, the Normande cows suffered most from lameness and foot lesions recording over 67% of lameness cases within the trial in 1996 and 55% of cases in 1997. "The reason for this is not clear as all genetic groups were housed together, but it may have been poor cubicle utilisation. We eventually resorted to housing a large number in a loose straw-bedded area," says Dr Dillon.
Mastitis results from the first lactation showed little difference between the groups, but last seasons data is still being analysed.
Male progeny from all four groups were reared as steers, with females retained as replacement stock.
All calves – for beef and replacements – were reared under a typical two-year system, grazing from early May to October, housed on ad-lib silage plus 2kg concentrate in the first winter, while in the second winter replacements were offered 2kg concentrate/head/day and finishing steers 6kg concentrate plus ad-lib grass silage.
At slaughter, Montebeliarde and Normande steers were worth £50 and £40 more, respectively, than either of the Holstein Friesian groups both of which came to about the same value.
However, Dr Dillon warns that these results should be treated with caution because of the small number of animals involved and some assumptions taken about carcass composition as animals are only just being slaughtered.
"With the same caution applied, it appears that the Normande and Montebeliarde are worth £145 and £126 more than the Dutch Holstein Friesian as cull cows, with the home-bred Holstein Friesians worth £76 a head more than the imported cows."
Relative financial performance of the groups (see table) should again be treated with caution as it is based on a small sample, urges Dr Dillon. Figures are based on a dairy farm with 181,840 litres (40,000gal) of milk quota – fairly typical of Ireland, where quota is usually the limiting factor in production. Opportunity cost of land was taken at £370/ha/year (£150/acre/year), while capital used varied depending on breed, as did replacement rate, which reflected fertility performance.
The values of milk, calves and cull cows reflects their milk production and beef merits, with milk price differing with composition. Figures are shown with an activated fat quota.
"These figures show that the Montebeliarde, Normande and Dutch Holstein Friesian all performed better financially than Irish bred Holstein Friesians."
However, he says that the reproductive concerns associated with 100% Holstein Friesian cows raises questions about the desirable level of Holstein genes in the dairy herd – a subject which is to come under closer scrutiny in Irish research.
"The Montebeliarde performed best and seems well suited to a grass-based system in both milk and meat production. However, there is a drawback. Semen is being imported from France, but is currently very expensive at about £30 a draw. There is a lot of interest in Montebeliardes and a lower semen price would probably attract far more producers to use it," says Dr Dillon.
But for producers who dont wish to use pure-bred Montebeliardes he thinks that cross-breeding could provide and answer. "The next step in the project is to look at cross-bred Montebeliardes – there may be a benefit of hybrid vigour which would lead to better health and reproductive benefits." *
Economic analysis of the four groups (with butterfat penalty)
Montebeliarde Normande Irish HF Dutch HF
Cows milked 32 34 34 27
Replacement rate (%) 20 20 24 33
Cull value (£) 460 479 410 334
Calf value (£) 150 140 100 100
Milk price (p/gal) 106.4 111.3 101.0 106.2
Receipts (£) 44059 43823 41014 40685
Margin (£) 24698 23571 20764 23901
Difference in margin (£) 3934 2807 0* 3137
*Difference in margin calculated relative to the Irish Holstein Friesian.
The Montebeliarde, Normande and Dutch Holstein Friesian all performed better financially than Irish-bred Holstein Friesians, says Pat Dillon.