4 August 1995



The switch to pedigree, high index dairy cows have lifted annual milk sales on one Cheshire dairy Unit. Jeremy Hunt reports

A CHESHIRE dairy units decision to switch from a flying herd to rearing its own replacements may not seem all that significant. But when there are 900 cows in the herd and youngstock numbers could reach 1000 head the real impact of the policy change becomes clear.

Later this summer Steve Barr, farm manager at Stretton Hall Farm, Malpas, will see the first home-bred heifers go through the milking parlour. It will be a landmark in a major farm management turn-about which began back in 1992 and within three years will have seen every one of the 900 commercial cows replaced with animals of high genetic potential.

And the move to pedigree, high index dairy cows – without an increase in herd numbers or any management changes – has lifted annual milk sales from 5.4m litres in 1992 to a 1995 figure of 6.4m litres.

"We believe our grassland management and feeding strategy is good and we use ADAS to make sure it stays that way," says Mr Barr. "But three years ago we just couldnt get averages above the 7200-litre mark no matter what feed or management changes we introduced."

The unit comprises three herds: Two of 360 cows each and another of 150 cows. All are milked three times a day throughout the year.

Simon Chantler, owner of Stretton Hall Farm, asked Mr Barr to study cow genetic index data from Edinburgh Universitys Langhill herd.

"The decision to change our herd was based on the concept established by Langhill that the higher a cows genetic merit the more profitable she was.

"Although we realised the move would be expensive, the potential net return from the increased investment was well justified. Our output a cow, margin over concentrates and net profits have increased dramatically," says Mr Chantler.

Faced with such a big operation, the next decision was how best to achieve a high genetic base from both a practical and financial point of view.

With a CGI base of about 900 in mind it came as rather a surprise to find, following information supplied by the Holstein Friesian Society, that the number of cattle available to meet that criteria was limited.

In fact there were only 1200 in the UK calving between July 1992 and December 1992 with the potential to meet that index parameter.

Stretton Hall Farm turned to Dutch genetics and, through Bram Van Dorps Oxon-based Europon business, bought 150 heifers, which were spread through the three herds.

"As soon as these cattle arrived it amazed me how every herdsman became switched on," says Mr Barr. "Milking commercial dairy cows had become just another job; with the new cattle our staff switched into top gear overnight."

The first 150 imported heifers calved between August 1992 and January 1993. They started to peak at about 30 litres and final lactation figures were over 7000 litres. The farms smallest herd was switched over totally to Dutch heifers, which soon achieved an average yield of 8000 litres.

A further 600 heifers were imported in two batches during 1993 and 1994 over which time it was decided that the farm business would further exploit its commitment to high index Holstein Friesians.

"We decided to rear enough heifers to enable us to offer around 250 head a year for sale as new calvers. We intend to sell through the regional club sale at Crewe and will have the first heifers there this summer."

There are now about 500 head of youngstock on the farm. One extra man has been taken on to assist in rearing and, apart from an investment in calf hutches, all stock is housed in existing accommodation. Some of the heifers are moved to a contract rearer from bulling age to a month before calving to alleviate pressure on buildings.

Calf hutches and a strict vaccination programme covering IBR and viral pneumonia have contributed to the low 2.2% mortality rate. The aim is to calve heifers at two years. The initial target bulling weight at 15 months of 320kg has now been increased to 340kg and the benefits of marginally more growth at that stage has already been noted in improved heifer yields.

The first Aerostar and Prelude home-bred heifers will calve this summer but already the herds improved performance is being charted. One of the 360-cow herds had an average yield of 6200 litres a cow three years ago. It is now over 7700 litres with 8000 litres of milk a day going into the tank.

"If there is one thing I have learnt about rearing calves it is that maximum forage intake to six weeks can only be achieved by feeding hay of the highest quality. And to maintain the young heifers frame development it is better to feed straw after the first six weeks to avoid ending up with dumpy types that all they have going for them is their service weight of 340kg," says Mr Barr.