Dairylink: Breeding strategies for delivering profit

9th June 2016

Dairylink: Breeding strategies for delivering profit

Cow type was a key focus of a recent visit by the Dairylink participant farmers to two farms in Co Down. Aidan Brennan reports.

One of the outstanding lessons from the programme so far has been the importance of cow type and the impact that this has on profitability.

There is a big range of genetics across the Dairylink farms, with smaller, more durable Holstein Friesian cows on Charles Clarke's farm in Cavan and Kevin McGrades farm in Tyrone, but much larger and higher-yielding cows on the two Down farms of Bill Brown and Nigel Corbett.

Breakeven milk price, on a c/l or p/l basis, is higher on the higher-yielding farms. This is driven by higher feed and veterinary costs but also lower-value output as fat and protein percent is lower in the higher-yielding herds.

These facts speak for themselves. Higher-input and higher-output cows may have been profitable when milk price was higher and more stable, but at low prices and high volatility there is now an acceptance from all participating farmers in the Dairylink programme that high-yielding cows just aren't profitable.

With this in mind, the group visited two well-run farms in Co Down last week. Beattie and Reggie Lilburn are milking 250 autumn-calving cows near Dromore in Co Down. Ten years ago, the Lilburn herd would have been averaging over 10,000 litres per cow, the main criteria around bull selection was yield and type and the herd was being fed over 4t of meal per cow per year.

"I loved the 10,000 litre cow and I still like cows with good type but I just can't afford to keep them. It's a hobby I can't afford anymore,” says Beattie.

So over the last 10 years the breeding on the Lilburn farm has moved away from yield and type towards breeding for fertility and solids, but still focuses on feet and legs. Beattie uses the PLI system to select the bulls, picking three daughter proven bulls, mostly from the World Wide Sires catalogue.

While the move has been away from using high yielding bulls, the herd is still a high-yielding herd producing on average 8,500 litres per cow at 4.13% fat and 3.28% protein (649kg MS/cow) from 2.09t of meal per cow.

Before picking bulls on milk quality, he rarely got over 4% fat and protein was always around the 3% mark. Achieving higher fat and protein percentages now means the farm qualifies for the solids bonus with Strathroy Dairies, which is worth about 2p/l every month, or about 10% of the milk cheque.

Improvements in fertility have been slower but are still evident. The herd used to be calving all year round but now calving starts in mid-August and lasts until about mid-March. Beattie's short-term goal is to bring it back to having all cows calved by the end of December – something which he says is achievable but will require a bit of short-term pain in culling later-calving cows.

Last year, just 12 out of the 250 cows were not in-calf, but this was over a prolonged breeding period. Veterinary costs are high on the farm, with Beattie's vet calling weekly to carry out routine checks and scanning – something which Beattie is slow to give up.

The next farm visit was on the farm of the current British Grassland Society farmer of the year winner, Colin Boggs, near Banbridge. Colin won the award in 2015 and will host a public farm walk in August.

Breeding policy on this farm was different to that of Beattie Lilburns. Colin has been using LIC genetics from New Zealand for many years and has a largely New Zealand Friesian herd now. This spring calving herd produces 6,095 litres per cow at 4.49% fat and 3.53% protein (503kg MS/cow) from 620kg of meal per cow.

Colin has a unique way of managing grass, preferring to pre-mow in front of the cows for every rotation other than the first. He reckons the increased dry matter intake and grass quality is what drives the production from forage (4,971 litres/cow) on the farm.

Fertility in this herd is good, with 7% of the herd empty last year, after a 16-week breeding period. Colin normally sells the late-calving cows in spring, but a salmonella outbreak last autumn plus higher than normal mortality rates over the last few months have meant that Colin is keeping all cows this year.

When it comes to picking bulls, Colin selects bulls from the LIC catalogue based on EBI as he feels this is more applicable to his system than PLI. Colin likes cows that have plenty of capacity and good udders. On the day of the visit, the herd was producing 28l of milk at 3.99% fat and 3.44% protein (2.14kg MS/cow) on 2kg of 16% protein meal per cow.

Take-home messages

Both farmers kindly shared their costs of production with the group and both were making a profit, even at current prices. This shows that where a breeding policy is focused on delivering traits that have a positive impact on profitability, and when combined with good management, profitability follows.

The group debated the pros and cons of the various breeding indexes being used, with some farmers using EBI while others used PLI and then more weren’t using any index, just buying the straws that the AI companies were selling – basically leaving breeding decisions up to the AI company.

This is a risky strategy as what is good for the company to sell may not be best suited to your farm, and it is this strategy that has led some of the farmers down the high-yielding route.

In simple terms, bulls should be picked based on fertility and solids. The debate around PLI or EBI is secondary – good bulls will rise to the top in both indexes. When making breeding decisions, farmers should buy the best bulls, regardless of what company they are from. By just buying from one AI company you are severely limiting your options.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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