Breeding modern, hard-wearing dairy cows is an ongoing challenge. Jeremy Hunt caught up with one family farm who are doing just that.
Balancing genetics on both sides of the pedigree to provide the “complete package” for profitable commercial milk production – that’s the aim of the Singleton brothers from Lancashire, whose Whytil Holstein herd has established a good reputation for breeding black-and-white cattle as herd replacements for other commercial dairy farmers.
While health, fertility and yield have a big influence on profitable lifetime production, type is a major factor in the way cows cope with the rigours of modern dairy systems, says Colin Singleton, who farms with brothers James and Andrew at Whitehill Farm, Goosnargh near Preston. “It underpins all the breeding decisions we make. The target is to produce the complete package,” he adds.
Their 180-cow pedigree Holstein herd is well-known for supplying freshly-calved heifers to commercial dairy farmers based on a breeding programme that relies on combining type, production and longevity.
“Longevity or wearability have never been more important as herd replacement costs increase. We aim to breed strong cows with size, but not huge cows. We want good production from durable cows that wear well and maintain good fertility. These are the traits that have never been more important to profitable milk production,” says Colin.
The Singletons believe their reputation for producing herd replacements – regularly offered through the ring at Gisburn Auction Mart in Lancashire – stems from the strength of the herd’s deeply-bred cow families. Every year they produce about 40 heifers for sale and retain the same number in their own herd.
“Commercial milk producers who come into the market for replacements need heifers with functional traits that will adapt to modern herd situations. Good legs and feet and sound udders have always been important as we’ve developed our cow families over the years. The fact we can produce equal numbers of heifers to retain at home and for sale hopefully proves the point,” says Colin.
The brothers are meticulous in their mating decisions and have developed a breeding policy that exploits the “consistent” high-type of Canadian Holstein sires.
“It’s all down to cow families on both sides of the pedigree and we try to undertake matings we believe will produce replacement heifers with the traits our commercial buyers need.
“We put bulls into two categories: dairy bulls and power bulls. By criss-crossing with sires of the two different types we aim to maintain dairyness as well as strength and stature in each new generation,” says James.
The brothers believe the challenge is to achieve the appropriate balance of genetics for every cow that’s served.
“It’s the depth of cow families of both the sire and dam that’s key to producing powerful, productive Holstein cows with the ability to last. Type is the number-one priority for us. We’ve long-established cow families such as the Lady Beatty family – now well into their 400th registration – and the aim is to complement the depth of breeding we have on the female side with bulls that have an equal depth of female breeding behind them.
“We’ve used many well-known bulls over the years, but we don’t follow fashion. Bulls have to have a pedigree that we can trust in terms of the cow families that have provided the foundation of their breeding,” says James.
Whitehill Farm carries 200 cows and 200 head of youngstock. The herd average is 9,500kg at 3.83% fat and 3.20 protein with an impressive cell count over the past 12 months of 133. Milk is sold to Arla on a Tesco contract.
“Some of our best families go back to cows that came into the herd more than 50 years ago. That depth of breeding and knowledge of what’s in the pedigree is crucial. We now sell about 30-40 freshly-calved heifers a year,” says Colin.
Among several cows in the herd that are 10 years old and over is a 100t Rudolph daughter from the Lady Beatty family that is classified as Excellent. And even the younger generation are clear proof of the production the herd is noted for. A first-calf heifer by Empire – and classified 86 – completed 200 days at an average yield of 40 litres a day.
“We like heifers to get to 30 or 40 litres but this heifer is outstanding. She’s held her condition all through and has a wonderful udder,” says Colin.
“Breeding modern, hard-wearing cows is an on-going challenge. There’s a big pool of genetics available to Holstein breeders and we try to ensure that with each generation we maintain type and production combined with longevity to satisfy ourselves and those who buy our heifers.”