Cross breeding can improve herd health and fertility traits

Cross breeding to Swedish Red has resulted in a £57 a cow benefit and halved lameness and mastitis cases, according to Oxfordshire dairy farmer David Christensen.

Speaking at a recent DairyCo cross-breeding event hosted by the Christensen family at Kingston Hill Farm, Kingston Bagpuize, he said this figure was an underestimate of true cost savings, as calculations were based on first lactation heifers only.

“Ten years ago I asked the question why dairying was the only industry not to be hybridising. At the time I was dissatisfied by the way Holsteins were bred and it was at this stage I discovered the Swedish Red.”

The farm was complete British Friesian until 1990 when cows were crossed to mild Dutch Holstein. This was then followed by a generation of New Zealand Friesians.

“The question was where to go from there? Everyone could see the problem with pure bred animals – as we pursued yields health and fertility went down.

“You may lose a bit of yield cross breeding, but when you look at the other benefits from improved fertility and mastitis it is well worth it,” he said.

“I had infinite respect for how the Swedish Red were selected – they have a strict recording process where every cow treatment carried out on farm is recorded in a central database. In this way you quickly see which bulls are performing well.

“The primary reason for crossing was to get these genetics into the herd – heterosis was an added benefit.” And the breed is a complete outcross to the Holstein, optimising hybrid vigour.

The Swedish Red evaluation programme involves gathering of a range of data into a central database, explained Sarah Bolt, DairyCo extension officer.

“Information on calvings, culls, milk recording, AI-services and disease reports from the farmer and vet are fed into a central database to give a breed evaluation.”

The testing regime is way ahead of British testing programmes, said Mr Christensen. “Even in 1994 when the British index system was purely production driven, the Swedish index was made up of 28% health and fertility, 42% durability and 30% production.

“Although the Holstein has an amazing ability to convert feed into milk, the assessment programme is not joined up enough.”

So, nine years ago, Kingston Hill Farm began a test cross to Swedish Red. The 630-cow herd now includes 100 cross cows.

Cross bred cows are definitely more fertile, he said. “Holstein Friesians are averaging 56% non-return rates within 35 days and the Swedish Red crosses 63%.”

First lactation cross animals also have fourteen less lameness cases for every 100 cows than the rest of the herd.

“I expect these benefits are a result of the in-depth way in which Swedish Reds are selected, rather than the cross breeding effect itself – to get these results, choosing the right breed is essential,” he stressed.

And crossing does not have to be at the expense of yields. “Yield does make me tick and my aim is to sell 9000 litres a cow a year,” said Mr Christensen.

The herd currently averages 8822 litres a cow a year with heifers yielding 8335 litres a cow a year and Swedish Red x Holstein heifers, 8178 litres a cow a year.

Milk yield reductions from crossing are less than you think, said William Waterford, The Farm Consultancy Group. “An Italian trial showed Swedish Red x Holsteins averaged 9424kg milk, just 108kg less than the pure Holsteins.”

The benefits can also be seen from improved survival rate from birth till the end of first lactation. “One trial showed Holsteins experienced losses of 25.2% during this period, compared to 9.4% from Montbeliarde crosses and just 8.4% with Swedish Red crosses,” said Mr Waterford.

And on a farm where the aim is for cows to milk for 7-9 lactations; this is a key benefit to cross breeding for Mr Christensen.

The flexibility of cross bred cows is also key, he said. “I know if concentrate prices become too high, I can confidently move down the forage route and fertility will not suffer.”

The farm now has a structured three-way cross with all Holsteins in calf to Swedish Red and all Swedish Red crosses in calf to Brown Swiss. The farm may also try Montbelliarde at some point.

“We are not sure where we will go with the fourth cross – crossing back to a good quality Holstein could be an option for feed conversion efficiency and yields.”

CASE STUDY – Norwegian Red x Holstein

Tom Appleby, Apple Vale, Evesham

For Tom Appleby, Apple Vale, Evesham, cross breeding his herd of 250 Holsteins has been part of a drive to reduce costs of production.

“We made the decision to go more extensive, stop growing cereals, block calve and go organic in an attempt to reduce costs.”

And fertility was a big driver towards crossing the Holstein herd. “Fertility was our biggest drain on profitability – I felt with good management there was the potential to improve everything else with the Holstein, including grazing ability and feet, but whatever you did, fertility could not be improved.”

So the farm started crossing some of the herd to Norwegian Red as a test and now have 12 second lactation cross cows in the herd.

“We have seen big improvements in health and fertility among the cross breds – cow look after themselves and don’t need high inputs.

“I know if I wanted to I could feed more concentrate and get more yield and equally, if I didn’t they wouldn’t collapse; with the Norwegian Red you can achieve good yields and be extensive or intensive.”

So for the last 12 months, Mr Appleby has been crossing everything to Norwegian Red. After this, Jersey will be used in a three-way cross to enhance fertility further.

“Cross breeding gives you extra confidence in fertility. But getting the right breed for crossing is the key factor, followed by the advantage gained from hybrid vigour.”

CASE STUDY – Brown Swiss x Holstein

Michael Hussey, Cancourt Farm, Swindon

Although pure bred Brown Swiss are an important part of Micheal Hussey’s business, crossing a small portion of his herd has allowed him an insight into the benefits of cross breeding.

“We run two herds of 90 Holstein and 90 Brown Swiss and sell a lot of pure bred Brown Swiss, about 80% of which are for farmers looking to use them for cross breeding.”

Having nine Holstein cross Brown Swiss in the herd is a good example of what can be achieved from crossing and means Mr Hussey can speak from experience when selling bulls.

Looking at the two breeds on their own gives an indication of the qualities the Brown Swiss has to offer. “The Holsteins average 180,000 cells/ml compared to 110,000 cells/ml in the pure Brown Swiss. And this is alongside superior feet, legs and longevity.”

“Swiss are easy management cows, but you can lose yield on the pure breds. Crossing to Holstein gives the best of both worlds.”

And the Brown Swiss has the potential to produce good yields. “The North American Brown Swiss has been bred for milk traits and in the UK the Swiss averages more than 7000 litres a cow a year.”

* Some dairy producers are also discovering the merits of producing a dual-purpose breed. To find out how crossing to Fleckvieh can produce robust, low maintenance cow, click here.