Herd management and nutrition lag behind genetics

Modern Holsteins have huge genetic potential, but herd management and crucially nutritional knowledge haven’t kept pace with genetics and have led to massive failings on many farms.

That was the damning indictment from David Beever, recipient of this year’s RABDF Princess Royal Award for services to the industry.

Speaking after the presentation of his award, Prof Beever said there was still much to learn about feeding the modern Holstein cow, but he believed correct nutritional management held the key to overcoming long-term fertility issues.

“The US model of simply feeding high-yielding cows more and more doesn’t work. They don’t have time to absorb all the nutrients from the feed and the diet’s potential is wasted and becomes slurry. Cows then lose excessive levels of body condition which, as everyone acknowledges, leads to poor fertility.

“And it’s not just the cow that suffers because of poor nutrition. There is growing evidence that how cows are fed leaves a long-lasting impression on their calves. Feed a cow poorly during pregnancy and her calf will fail to reach its full potential in its productive life.”

While in recent years Prof Beever has been associated with mixed-ration feeding, he said he felt more could be done to make the most of grazed grass. “The key is to understand when grass is the right feed and how to use it. In many cases spring grass isn’t the right feed for freshly calved cows because it is low in fibre and high in protein, in this instance buffer feeding can help improve grass use by increasing overall fibre levels in the diet and slowing grass’ progress through the cow.”

The industry has been forced to focus on producing milk at any cost and has been led down a route which has resulted in excessive replacement rates because cows fail to last, he added.

Seeking to explain the problems, Prof Beever said there were too many poorly-qualified people in the industry claiming to be nutritionists who understood little of what was needed to feed modern cows. “There is no doubt there are some good people in the industry doing good jobs, but there are many which aren’t and to improve things there needs to be recognition of the value a good nutritionist can bring and possibly regulation or accreditation of nutritionists.”

Additionally he said there needed to be more funding given to research to ensure the industry didn’t get left behind again, as it had been in its nutritional knowledge. “Having worked in research I know the trouble there can be in getting knowledge onto farm, more must be invested in both the research itself and knowledge transfer,” he said.

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