Corrective mating helps boost cow longevity

Focusing on corrective mating could help dairy producers boost cow longevity and profitability, Debbie James reports


Cow longevity has doubled on a Shropshire farm seven years after a computerised mating programme was first used to match cows with specific weaknesses to sires that score highly in these traits.

The Holstein herd at Friend Farm had been averaging just three lactations and this poor longevity was affecting herd profitability as replacement costs increased.

Herd manager, Andy Offland, had been focusing on using high PIN Holstein bulls on the 360-cow herd, but could see that this approach wasn’t working. “We wanted the milk output so we went down the PIN route, but while we were getting lots of milk the cows just weren’t lasting,” he admits.

Longevity

In an attempt to improve longevity, he used a mating programme. This programme produced a mating list based on information from selected bulls each season, against a scoring system for every cow in the herd, taking into account traits such as teat placement, body depth and pelvic width.

Mating programmes correctively match each cow individually, identifying their strengths and weaknesses across linear traits to increase and improve the uniformity of the herd.

Mr Offland is convinced by the benefits. He said it has helped him achieve a balance of production and type and that it had transformed the way he now selects sires. The mating programme has become an important tool in his bull selection. “Cows are living longer and that helps our profitability,” he says. “We are putting power back into the cows and that is what is keeping them going.”

Bull selection

Price is a key factor in his bull selection so for the mating programme to work for him, there had to be a broad cross-section of available bulls. He sets his provider a pricing criteria, aiming for a cost average a straw of £15-18. “Some bulls are £25 a straw while others only cost me £10, but because we mix and match through the mating programme we are getting good looking daughters with the right traits.”

Within the breeding programme, Mr Offland aims to breed animals that can sustain high production over numerous lactations while maintaining a balance of production and type traits.

The mating programme has brought uniformity to the herd, aiding cow management. Mr Offland is also losing far fewer heifers than prior to undertaking selective mating. “Our heifer retention rate is a lot higher than the UK average,” he said. “We had been using bulls that were producing heifers that just weren’t up to scratch. It is now very unusual for us to lose an animal at first lactation. Every year we see the performance of our group of heifers getting better – it’s self generating.”

The herd is running at a 90% submission rate with a 41% in-calf rate at 100 days.

Milk output is improving too. Friend Farm is on a Tesco Wiseman contract and milk sold a cow is 8,600 litres, predicted to rise to 9,200 litres.

Rob Braithwaite, of UK Worldwide Mating Services, said the underlying ethos of mating programmes is to build a better cow, matching the weaknesses of cows to the strengths of the bull.

Effectively, a mating programme provides farmers with a semen manual to make their lives easier and save time, he explains.

“If we want a cow with udder width we have to select a bull with a comparable rump width. We have got to build the frame,” he says.

Another reason why farmers are turning to mating programmes is to avoid inbreeding in their herds.

Inbreeding

Inbreeding occurs when the sire and dam are genetically related to each other. Every cow and bull carries undesirable genes – known as genetic recessives – that can reduce health and productivity. Inbred animals have a higher than average chance of inheriting the bad genes from both parents.

Animals with high levels of inbreeding typically have lower milk production, more health problems, poorer reproduction and a shorter productive life.

While inbreeding in the UK is low at about 2%, that figure is rising and dairy farmers are being advised to take action to mitigate it.

Mr Braithwaite says inbreeding has a detrimental impact on a producer’s profitability by reducing production, longevity and fertility. It can also lead to genetic defects like complex vertebral malformation.

He said a good mating programme should not only provide this data analysis, but also give farmers clear independent guidance to help them select the right sire to avoid inbreeding.

The potential economic benefits associated with controlling inbreeding using computerised mating programs are substantial, he suggested.

Dave Martin runs a 230-cow Holstein herd in Cumbria. Avoiding inbreeding was a factor in his decision to use a computerised mating service because he believed it could be a risk to his herd. “We wanted to eliminate any chances of inbreeding and it made sense to use a system that guaranteed corrective mating,” he says.

Mr Martin had visited dairy farms in America where he had seen the results of this system. “American farmers have been using computerised mating a lot longer than we have so I could see the results they had been getting and was very convinced it could work for me. It made sense to be using it on our herd.”

His all-year-round calving herd at Lords Plain Farm, Kendal, has a yield average of 10,500 litres.

One of the biggest benefits he has noticed since adopting the programme eight years ago is heifer uniformity. This helps with his breeding decisions. “Once you get uniformity through the herd it is easier to make breeding decisions because all cows are at the same point,” Mr Martin explains. He says the quality of replacement heifers is now much higher because he is focusing on specific traits. Good udders, legs and feet have been priority traits.

Labour

Increasing pressure on labour resources is another reason why farmers are turning to mating programmes.

With increasing cow numbers and less available time, farmers say the service helps to narrow down the large numbers of sires available.

Mr Braithwaite says breeding decisions can be complicated, particularly on farms employing a lot of staff.

“As lives get busier and farmers milk more cows they have less time to spend choosing bulls,” he says. “There might be five different bulls in the flask and one bull has very good legs and feet. It is commonsense to use this bull on the cow with the worst legs and feet.”

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