Tips to breed a healthier cow that will last in your herd

When you can breed a cow that’s healthy and will get back in calf quickly, she’s on the right track to a long and productive life, believes producer Andrew Sanders.

Having won Genus’ longlife cow award last year and with a herd history that includes 86 cows that have produced 100t of milk in their lifetime, Mr Sanders knows what he’s talking about.

He believes careful bull selection using key breeding indices, along with good cow management, are the cornerstones to producing healthy, long-lived animals.

That, coupled with the fact his herd is closed and on the TB-free Isle of Man, also significantly help reduce disease challenge and promote cow longevity.

“To ensure a cow lasts she needs to avoid getting mastitis, have good feet and legs, calve well and get back in calf,” explains Mr Sanders, who runs the Sandisfarne Herd of 470 pedigree Holsteins with his wife Sue and sons Matthew and Julian (pictured above with his father).

To achieve these goals, the family has always put an emphasis on bull selection. In recent years they started using the DairyCo Herd Genetic Report to help select specific traits to promote longevity in their herd.

This breeding strategy means they currently have 40 animals of more than 10 years old and several at 17 years old. Herd cull rate sits at 12-15%.

Although in recent years the farm decided to reduce yields to 9,000 litres a cow a year and move to a lower-input system, many of their 100t cows were recorded at a time when the herd was yielding an average of 11,000 litres.

This proves high-producing cows don’t have to be shortlived when management is top-notch.

Mr Sanders says somatic cell counts is one area of importance when selecting bulls that will produce long-lived daughters.

Selecting for health

“We always choose bulls with a negative somatic cell count index – preferably with a score of more than minus twenty,” he says. “This means his daughters will be more resistant to developing clinical mastitis, and as a result will last longer in the herd.”

Foot health has also been vital to ensure cows last when housed on concrete. This area has become even more important since moving to a more grass-based system.

“Cows now also need to be able to walk long distances to graze, so we need good, hard, well shaped hooves,” says Mr Sanders, who has also started cross breeding to Swedish Red followed by Montbeliarde.

All bulls are selected for a positive feet and leg index and balanced for conformation. Udder conformation also rates highly and he is increasingly selecting for body condition score (BCS) index where possible, as he believes this strongly influences health and fertility.

“More recently we have been choosing bulls with a positive body condition index. I want her to carry more condition so she will calve in better and be less prone to disease.”

The aim is to calve cows at BCS 3-3.5 and ensure they maintain condition post-calving. This will help them get back in calf quicker and make them more likely to be retained in the herd. Selecting an easy-calving bull is also a priority.

Addressing health problems early is also fundamental to ensuring cows last in the herd. This will help increase the chances of treatment success, leading to a reduced likelihood of a cow being culled due to health problems.

To keep on top of new mastitis infections, the farm identifies cows with one milk recording of more than 400,000cells/ml with a leg band.

This means they can be easily identified, stripped and checked for mastitis during milking. Their milking cluster will then be manually flushed with peracetic acid post-milking to reduce the chance of infection spread.

When a cow is identified with clinical mastitis, she will be removed from the main herd and kept in a hospital group. The Sanders’ also carry out regular milk sampling with their vet to identify mastitis-causing pathogens on farm. This ensures the right antibiotic is used.

Over the summer, mastitis rates have sat at one for every 100 cows. However, this can increase to 40 cases for every one hundred cows in the winter.

The farm also aims to identify and treat the early signs of lameness, with any lame cows put in the hospital group to reduce walking times.