Continued tight margins in dairy are driving an increasing interest in cross-breeding in order to produce cows that are more robust.
The low milk price means some farmers are moving away from high-producing cows simply because the costs associated with their management are too high, explains Wes Bluhm of Geno UK.
“More farmers are looking for hardier, sturdier cows. There are some big issues concerning fertility and longevity that dairy farmers are trying to overcome, but more are realising that it is possible to get everything right in one package – high production, good fertility and longer-lasting cows.”
Mr Bluhm says hybrid vigour used to be considered the main benefit of cross-breeding, but it has gone much further than that.
“Dairy farmers can look at a range of breeds and find the one whose traits best complement their own herd or their own system,” he adds
“Anyone who is considering cross-breeding and is unsure of what breed to choose should make a check-list of the improvements they are looking for in their cows and base their selection on that.”
Marco Winters, head of genetics at AHDB Dairy, advises farmers considering cross-breeding to consider bull selection carefully.
“It’s one thing finding out what the differences are between the breeds, but then it’s important to look at the bull differences within the breeds,” he says.
“Farmers should check out the AHDB Dairy rankings for all bulls from which semen is being marketed in the UK. These rankings compare all bulls of all breeds directly, so it’s a good starting point for any dairy farmer considering cross-breeding.”
Stewart and Clare Davies, Malpas, Cheshire
- 150 cows
- Uses: Norwegian Red and Fleckvieh
- Higher-value calves
- Average yield: 9,600 litres at 4% butterfat and 3.5% protein
- Cell count: 70-90
- Two calves by three years old
A huge improvement in fertility and the lowest cell counts the herd has ever achieved are just two of the benefits listed by Stewart and Clare Davies since they started a cross-breeding programme with their cows at Malpas, Cheshire.
It’s almost 10 years since the first red and white genetics were used on Holsteins in this 150-cow herd, which has an average yield of 9,600 litres.
“We were running pure Holsteins and there were four of us working on the farm. But when that was reduced to two we found we were working harder and harder and poor fertility in the herd was a big problem,” says Mr Davies.
“We were producing plenty of milk, but the cows were getting bigger without our even trying and we were facing a 600-day calving index and a calf every two years. We had to do something.
“I’m certainly a lot happier farming now than I was 20 years ago.”
Swedish Red semen was used initially, and although udders were not good on the cross-breds there was a marked improvement in fertility. Those first cross-breds are now milking with their seventh calf.
“They produced a calf every year and it got to the stage that the eldest cow was gaining a month every year so we had to hold her back a month before we served her.”
But it was the switch to using Norwegian Red semen that has had the biggest effect on the herd. The Norwegian Red x Holsteins are now served with the Fleckvieh. The first Fleckvieh-cross heifer gave 9,800 litres as a two-year-old and produced its second calf before her third birthday. She is currently giving 32 litres a day.
“We’re not breeding princesses, we’re breeding workhorses. The Norwegian Red crosses aren’t big heifers when they come into the herd, but by three years old they’ve produced two calves,” says Mr Davies. “They are vigorous by nature but have an easy temperament. I would describe them as voracious feeders from the day they are born.”
Fat and protein have steadily improved since the Davies started cross-breeding, with an average of 4,100 litres produced off grass.
“Our herd is more productive in terms of overall income, compared with what we were earning milking Holsteins. We are now at about 4% butterfat and 3.35% protein.”
But it’s the cell counts that continue to impress. “For the past three months we have been running at between 70 and 90. We’ve never achieved such consistently low cell counts – and it’s a lot to do with the cross-breds and their constitution,” says Mr Davies.
“Our cows are healthier. We don’t use antibiotics as much, so that’s a big saving. All milk producers will have to start using fewer antibiotics to meet our milk contracts.
“We may not be producing quite as much milk as we were, but we are producing more saleable milk. We don’t have to discard milk and always have plenty to feed to calves.”
Jonathan Scott, Hanmer Mill Farm, Whitchurch, Shropshire
- 260 cows, including 200 Fleckvieh-crosses
- Average yield: 8,500 litres at 4.5% butterfat and 3.6% protein
- Simmental x Fleckvieh calves making £425
- Calving index: 359 days
Shropshire farmer Jonathan Scott reckons his business has saved £10,000 a year since switching to Fleckvieh-cross cows.
He has had the vet out only once to treat a sick cow in the past four years, the herd’s calving index is 359 days and a cow has recently held to service just nine days after calving – and 15 days isn’t unusual.
Last year he increased the size of the herd by 60 cows and his annual vet bill fell by £7,500. He reckons the improvement he has gained in the herd’s calving index is worth £350 a cow. The mid-October cell count was 96.
He runs a flying herd of 260 cross-bred cows at Hanmer Mill Farm, including up to 200 Fleckvieh-crosses. The herd’s average yield is 8,500 litres at 4.3% butterfat and 3.6% protein. The herd runs three Simmental bulls with the cross-bred calves regularly making £420 apiece at three weeks old.
“You don’t need to sell many of those to buy in a replacement heifer,” he says.
Mr Scott used to run 150 pedigree Holsteins, giving an average of 10,000 litres. He began the switch to cross-breds four years ago and after a visit to Germany imported 60 Fleckvieh-cross in-calf heifers.
“The Fleckvieh is the second-most-popular dairy breed in Europe. The best cows in Germany are giving 13,000 litres and there are cows milking into their teens. When I went to Germany, what impressed me was the easy way of the life the farmers had.
“This is a beef animal with a dairy udder – and they really can give some milk. Of the 60 I imported four years ago I’m still milking 55. We have a herd replacement rate of 10-15%, but I visited German herds that were as low as 7%.”
Mr Scott says he now runs a flying herd because he describes the value of calves out of Fleckvieh cows as “phenomenal”.
“We hardly ever jab cows with Estrumate and if a Fleckvieh-cross produces twins she doesn’t go backwards after the calving. We are stopping tubing dry cows and are having no problems. It’s the ease of management of these cows that’s the biggest advantage, but they have to work hard and they do.
“We had fresh fourth-calvers out at grass in mid-October giving 45-50 litres a day and I can see these cows easily achieving 10 lactations.
“People fear they will devalue their herds if they cross-breed but if the value of my herd is £60,000 less when I retire because I have cross-breds rather than pure-breds, I have only a £2,000-a-year cost to offset against all the benefits.”
Martin Shere, Bideford, Devon
- 130 cows
- Spring block-calving system
- Average yield: 6,000 litres
- Fleckvieh crosses – also using Norwegian Red
- Fleckvieh x Holstein calves selling at £360
A block spring-calving system in Devon introduced Fleckvieh genetics into a black and white herd with the aim of breeding cows that were suited to a “simple system”.
“Holstein cows run on a system such as ours tend to milk off their backs instead of looking after themselves. We’ve found the Fleckvieh cross-bred cows hold their body condition but don’t sacrifice anything on production,” says Martin Shere of Bideford.
The Fleckvieh crosses have fitted in well as the farm has moved more towards spring calving. Norwegian Red semen is now being used on the first Fleckviehs crosses – but Mr Shere says the first-crosses are his ideal cow.
The 130-cow herd has benefited from the improved fertility of the cross-breds – something Mr Shere says is critical for his spring calving system.
“This is the first year we’ve really blocked up the whole herd for spring calving and we had no problems in achieving that. We had about 80% of the cows confirmed in-calf within the first six weeks. We wouldn’t have expected to achieve that with Holsteins.”
The first of these three-way crosses are now coming into the herd and are in-calf to black and white.
Because the Fleckvieh is a more beefy type of cow, Mr Shere can afford to put them back to a black and white to produce a little more dairyness, while still breeding a cow that suits the system.
Mr Shere says although he is producing a little less milk, compared with pure Holsteins, the cross-breds bring advantages in their stronger constitution.
“Because these cows thrive and don’t lose body condition during a lactation we’re definitely producing milk more economically than we did when we were milking Holsteins.
“And the calf value is higher: we’re selling Fleckvieh-sired bull calves at up to £360. Compared with black and whites, if you get a heifer calf it’s a bonus. If you get a bull calf it’s not the end of the world in terms of the income it adds to the lactation value,” says Mr Shere.
The herd’s average yield is just under 6,000 litres, using just under one tonne of concentrate.