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Monday 25 September 2017

The quest for the perfect cow: Next Generation Herd years ahead of national average

The Next Generation dairy herd showcased at Moorepark '17 are years ahead of the national average

Dr Donagh Berry from Teagasc addressing farmers at the Moorepark '17 national dairying event in Co Cork. Photo: O'Gorman Photography.
Dr Donagh Berry from Teagasc addressing farmers at the Moorepark '17 national dairying event in Co Cork. Photo: O'Gorman Photography.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

The elite of dairy animals were on display at Moorepark '17 last week in the form of the 'Next Generation' high-EBI herd.

The attributes of the ideal cow were pinpointed as: higher milk solids; longer lactations; longevity of production; reduced carbon footprint; excellent fertility and ease of care.    

After coming through a year of volatile milk prices, the main message from the Teagasc experts was the need for dairy farmers  to  develop 'resilience' through good infrastructure, strong breeding and firm finances.

"Fertility and longevity is key as it is all about driving the milk production per cow - we want to be achieving five and a half lactations per cow. On average at the moment we are achieving about four," said Dr Donagh Berry.

"If we were to expand that to around 5.5 lactations that is a 40pc increase in milk production. A mature cow yields 22pc more than a first lactation so you want to maximise that proportion of your herd."

He said that the easiest way to get more milk production per cow was selecting for survival or longer lactations.

The emphasis on milk production and fertility remains key in the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) rankings, said Dr Berry adding that a previous concentration on milk production had proved detrimental to fertility.

"If you select for milk production only you make big cows, that's logical. They have to eat more and therefore they produce more," he said.

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"You can see from the Next Generation herd which is around 10 years ahead of the national average that the cows are 15-16kg lighter," he said.

The genetic specialist warned health issues will prove to be a challenge.

"If we keep going the way that we are going with fertility getting better and better, the next biggest limiting factor to achieving 5.5 lactations per cow or maximising our milk solids per cow is health," he said.

Dr Berry said that in the past the fertility of the national herd was disimproving year on year as we were concentrating on milk production.

Since 2000 when the EBI was introduced they also began to concentrate on fertility as well as milk production and it began to go the right way.

"Heifers born the last few years are genetically very similar at a fertility level to where they were back in 1990. Yet they have a very large increase in milk solids," he said.

Farmers can swiftly see gains by breeding for fertility.

"The Next Generation herd is 10 years ahead of the national average with 92pc calving after 12 weeks compared to the national average 10 years behind," he said of the high-EBI Holstein -Friesian herd at the Dairygold Research farm in Kilworth.

Dr Berry described as 'a myth' that the EBI was "breeding the milk out of cows".

"Our increase in milk solids per cow is almost as fast today as it was 20 years ago except now we are also selecting for fertility and other traits," he said, pointing out 52pc of the milk composition in the cows is due to genetics.

"In the past 10 years that improvement in milk composition has been worth 1.5c/l.

"What the EBI is doing is increasing our revenue through milk solids, it is reducing our costs through reducing fertility and it is also improving the value of our milk and this is key for resilient systems," he said.

Now, with the emphasis on the environment and methane emissions a sustainable herd was vital.

"We don't hear it that much on the ground as farmers but I do believe there will probably be some restriction on it or it is definitely going to be talked about a lot in the future.

"It could become the next milk quota. The good news is the EBI is reducing the carbon footprint. For every €10 increase in EBI - and nationally we are growing by around €12 a year - we reduce our carbon output per kilo of milk solids by 2pc," he said.

It was highlighted that an analysis of eProfit figures has shown a €1 increase in EBI resulted in a €2 rise in profits per cow per lactation.

Crossbreeding

How the average herd can work towards achieving the standard of the 'perfect cow' was the topic of another Teagasc dairy expert, Frank Buckley.

"We know what the characteristics are - we want a moderate cow, high solids and good fertility," he said. "To achieve gains most rapidly the answer would be you should crossbreed."

A high-EBI Jersey X resulted in additional profit per cow each year to €100-150, with Jerseys renowned for having good solids.

"When you are coming from the average or less you are going to achieve in one cross somewhere between €150-200, or €100-150 going from elite up to crossbred."

Mr Buckley said the recommendation is that you then criss-cross between Jersey and Holstein-Friesian. "To capitalise on the characteristic of the Jersey I would suggest criss-crossing with pure Jersey," he said, as otherwise you reduce the hybrid vigour.

"Our high-EBI Friesian is the Norwegian Red with higher constituents. What the Jersey gives us is that unique aspect in the sense they are 50-60-70kg lighter but can eat 95pc of what a Holstein-Friesian would do at grass and will transfer that extra feed not required for maintenance into more milk."

Grass

In shoring up profits, the emphasis for farmers should be on delivering a blueprint to help them grow 16t DM/ha.

Dr Brendan Horan said to help drive stocking rates and reduce costs the target was to lift grass utilisation from 7.9t up to 12t.

"Based on the PastureBase data we are seeing this being achieved at farm level in some circumstances. So there is massive scope for further improvement in grass utilisation.

Each extra tonne of grass utilised on farm would be worth in the order of €180/ha. It is a substantial target at your disposal."

A priority area for investment that delivers high return or 'bang for your buck' is soil fertility, reseeding and grazing infrastructure.

"They cost relatively little to do but give a massive return," said Dr Horan.


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Farmers were urged to aim for 10 grass rotations throughout the season.

Michael O'Donovan said for farms to grow 30pc-40pc more grass it was essential to get the basics right with more investment in soil fertility, particularly lime, well-structured farms with paddocks and reseeded ground with perennial ryegrass and clover swards.

He said the grass production on a farm was determined by management rather than its location.

He warned a lot of farms were expanding on the back of costly imported feed.

The average farmer is achieving a net profit of €250/ha at 28c/l but 10 times that is achievable with the top farmers now hitting €2,500/ha.

"It is a challenging goal but it is there to be achieved," added Dr Horan.

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