Cross-breeding can help increase cow longevity

Strategies to improve cow longevity and fertility were discussed at a recent DairyCo cross-breeding event at Whitminster Inn, Gloucestershire. Aly Balsom reports

Cross-breeding should not be viewed as a strategy purely for grass-based dairy producers, according to DairyCo extension officer Andy Dodd. “Cross-breeding is suited to all management systems, be it low input, high input, or producers on a liquid or constituent contract,” he said.

And crossing does not have to mean a compromise on yield. “Californian data shows Montbeliarde and Scandinavian Red Cross Holsteins are not that far behind pure Holsteins in terms of yield.”

Breeds can be selected to improve a specific criteria, for example Brown Swiss have been shown to have lower cell counts, and Montbeliardes have excellent cheese-making qualities.

“The key is to have a clear plan of where you want your herd to be in 10-15 years and select breeds according to your system,” he said.

“For example, Montbeliardes may not be the right choice for block calving herds because of their 10 day longer gestation.”

Although the primary aim of cross-breeding is to improve certain herd characteristics, crossing also conveys advantages from improved hybrid vigour, Mr Dodd explained. “Californian data has shown hybrid vigour through cross-breeding can result in an up to 5% increase in production.”

New Zealand research has also demonstrated an 18% improvement in reproduction and health traits.

Cross-breeding in some form is appropriate to all systems, agreed dairy farmer Rob Harrison, Graystone Farm, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. “Be it crossing Holsteins to Friesians or out-crossing Holsteins, cross-breeding can improve returns from increased hybrid vigour.”

Crossing animals will also improve cow longevity, said Mr Dodd. “By selecting specific breeds, longevity can be bred into the herd, but cross-breeding will also result in animals living longer through increased hybrid vigour.”

As a result, many cross breeders experience reduced culling rates and a greater surplus of stock.

CASE STUDY: Montbeliarde Crosses, Neil Darwent, Frome

For dairy producer Neil Darwent of Lordswood Farms, Frome, Somerset, cross-breeding was a rescue operation for fertility.

“We traditionally bred Holsteins for a lot of milk and fertility consequently suffered.”While running a separate herd of 450 pure-bred Montbeliardes, Mr Darwent decided to cross the 130-cow Holstein herd with the breed.”Most of the milkers are on their first cross to Montbeliarde at the moment, but calving interval has already improved, moving from 435 days to about 390.” M

ontbeliarde produces a good beef animal too, so by selling beef-cross calves, the farm is also receiving a premium for its calves. Montbeliarde crosses have then been put to Swedish Red.

“We may cross these back to Montbeliarde or Holstein. The worry is that in the three-way cross we will lose the strength and robustness gained from the first cross.”We are using this herd for illustrative purposes, to see what works.”

Cross breeding does not mean the end for black and whites

Cross-breeding does not necessarily mean moving away from black and whites, said dairy farmer Perry Beard, from Manor Farm, Whitminster.

“We traditionally ran a block-calving herd of pure British Friesians, averaging about 6000litres a cow a year. But, after deciding to drive for bigger yields, I started crossing with Holstein.”

However, in doing so calving started to slip, so Mr Beard started to cross back to Friesians, while at the same time taking steps to improve dry cow nutrition.

Since then, fertility has improved. “At our lowest point, 50% of the herd was calving in the first five weeks of our block. After crossing, we now get about 70% calving in the same period.

“Cows are also lasting longer and are more efficient forage converters,” he said. Milk yield has also increased to 8000 litres a cow a year.

Moving forward, the farm will continue with a cycle of crossing to Holstein and Friesian in the 130-cow herd. “Cross-breeding could be the answer for Holstein breeders stuck in a rut,” he said.

“I never wanted a ‘Liquorice Allsorts’ herd, but it is possible to get the benefits associated with cross-breeding, while keeping a black and white herd and maintaining pedigree status.”