Urgent need to revisit UK breeding programmes

Reduced summer grass growth and winter forage concerns have highlighted the importance of feed intakes and conversions on dairy farm profitability and have demonstrated the need to review current breeding programmes in the UK.

This is according to Sean Chubb, LIC Pasture to Profit Farm Consultant, who believes the UK needs to revisit its approach to breeding and focus on the efficiencies of the cow.

“Although most UK farmers have accepted extreme size is not suitable for UK conditions, many farmers still place a high emphasis on stature. Yet, you only need to consider at how liveweight versus production efficiency equates. Look at the recent RABDF Gold Cup winners at Leen Dairy – their cow’s average mature body weight is 517 kg and they are producing excellent results.

“Bigger cows may produce more milk, but they also need more feed. I truly believe it is the time to really consider what we want from the future UK herd.

“Herd improvement is all about generating and retaining better animals in your herd. Four principles drive this: the bulls you use, the cows you retain, the calves you rear, and herd reproductive performance.

Commenting on what this means to farmers on a practical level, Sean adds, “It is only possible to identify your best cows if you milk record – a minimum of four times per year spread across the lactation Multiple lactations of information builds a more complete picture. The only way to check genetic gain is going in the right direction is to keep milk recording.

“Once that is established, ensure you use the best bulls over your best cows to get your replacements. It’s key to understand what you need in your herd as different traits have different heritability,” he explains, saying it’s best to focus on the most important traits first before focussing on others.

“Whatever profitability index you use, target the top-ranking bulls.  It can take 25 years to breed out a bad decision. Get good quality advice, talk to other farmers, and go online – a small investment in time can make a long-lasting impact on your herd.

“When selecting bulls on traits, understand how that trait is calculated (for the index you use) and what it means for your herd.

“Reproductive performance is the key linking all of this together, allowing you to maximise genetic gain. Top reproductive performance allows you to apply greater selection pressure to the cows you cull, the calves you keep and the bulls you use.

Because this is such a big topic and bearing in mind it’s an all year-round process, Sean splits herd fertility into eight core management areas. All need to be considered for an effective breeding programme.

“Whatever your breeding goals, use the best bulls over your best cows. Secondly, look at your calf and heifer management and monitor young stock live weight targets at key times. This will determine the age of 1st calving and impact the rearing cost of it as a replacement.

“Your calving pattern plays an importance role – if you are block calving you need to be disciplined for long term improvement. Limit late calving cow numbers by addressing the underlying causes. No more than 13% of the herd left to calve after week six of calving.

An area that Sean believes needs more improvement is body condition scoring, “Take an all year-round approach to body condition Body condition at calving is key for the recovery, lactation performance and future fertility. Nutrition goes hand in hand with this.

“Heat detection systems need to be addressed and AI practices need to always be at optimum times. If you are running a bull make sure it is tested as sound and healthy, you have enough for your herd size and swap if necessary.

“I’ve highlighted the need for data to monitor performance If you don’t already have systems in place to record information, implement them now. It’s important to build historical data – to identify the limitations of your business. Once you have the data, implement a ‘plan, do, review’ process.

“Most of all, keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate it, otherwise there’ll be a temptation to avoid it. Regularly monitor performance and have a clear plan with shared goals for optimising key performance indicators. Driving profit from more efficient cows, and maximising pasture growth with better utilisation, will give you a strong foundation to improve on in future.”

For more information or advice, please contact LIC on 01725 553008

 

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.