Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Cross breeding for fertility

Connacht Gold supplier Brian Reidy outlines to Darragh McCullough his plans for the spring breeding season and aim of maximum profits with minimum hassle

Last year's Know Your Grass Silage Quality competition winner Brian Reidy, Sligo, shows off his ATV prize, alongside Forage Systems' national sales manager Fionnuala Malone and Macra na Feirme national president Michael Gowing, at the launch of this year's competition
Last year's Know Your Grass Silage Quality competition winner Brian Reidy, Sligo, shows off his ATV prize, alongside Forage Systems' national sales manager Fionnuala Malone and Macra na Feirme national president Michael Gowing, at the launch of this year's competition
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

'I took over the farm 10 years ago, when I bought the cows from my dad and leased the 32ha farm from him. The herd has more than doubled in size in that time," said Brian.

"[Some] 50pc of the milk is contracted for liquid supplies so I operate a 30:70 autumn and spring calving system. At the moment I am milking 67 cows, with another 38 dry at the moment. It's just myself and a student on placement on the farm.

"I started cross-breeding three years ago, mainly because I wanted to tackle fertility issues on my farm. But I also plan to continue to expand cow numbers so I want a uniform, black-hooved cow that will be easily manageable by staff.

"I have about 55pc of the spring calvers calving down in less than six weeks. The most profitable herds have an 80pc rate, but we have already made progress and I believe that the first crop of crossbreds that will be calving down this year will improve that even more.

"The move into cross-breeding was a huge culture shift since my dad had put 30 years of breeding into the herd. It's certainly not something that I'd be pushing as the way to go for everybody. But I did think long and hard about it. At the end of the day, it came down to the numbers. I calculated that about 3pc of my income was coming from calf sales and about 4pc from cull cow sales. With over 90pc of my income coming from milk, I decided that milk is what I should be concentrating on.


"The first couple of crops of crossbred calves have all sold OK. We generally sell through the mart at a three-week stage but a local factory is giving €5 a head for ones less than 18kg and €10 for those over 18kg.

"They're going to a local factory that seems to be busy taking dairy bull calves in from everywhere. I have prepared myself, though, for the day that I might not be able to get anybody to take them off my hands. In that case, I'll ring the local knackery who will take them away for me. It's not ideal and I would much prefer to see a bobby calf market developed here like they have in New Zealand.

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"The average EBI of the herd is €77, which I feel is quite low, but when I was expanding over the last number of years, I was relying on buying in extra cows and I couldn't afford to be shelling out big bucks for the best EBI animals. What I focused on instead was affordability and disease status.

"But we're making good progress. My yearlings are €104 on average, and last year's calves have an average EBI of €127.

"I pick bulls on EBI focusing on fertility and milk solids, my fertility sub-index is €44 so we need to chose a bull with a sub-index over €100 to create a worthwhile increase. Even though most of my milk goes for the liquid trade, I am paid on the A+B+C milk solids system for 70pc of my total milk supplies. So it pays for me to focus on increasing the fat and protein levels of the milk. I'm careful not to focus totally on protein and fat percentages in the bull proofs and instead on kilogrammes of milk solids because I know of plenty of guys that got caught out going down that route. You could be using a bull with sky-high percentages but often their milk volumes were very low and you end up hammering the yield potential of your cows.

"I've concentrated on the New Zealand bulls from LIC [Livestock Improvement Corporation] that are available through Eurogene. I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand as a Nuffield scholar last year and I was blown away by the amount of data that they are generating on their grass-based sire programmes. The only disadvantage is that the EBI values are delayed for these bulls for a year initially so you end up working off their Breeding Worth scores. But it has worked out OK for me so far, with one of the bulls that I used last year ending up with an EBI of €284 this year.

"I find the heifers that I've bred from these bulls to be fertile. I'd like to see more emphasis on sourcing bulls from real grass-based herds here.

"Regarding the bulls for this year, I have selected six. More just complicates the job in my opinion, and I think six spreads the risk of a problematic bull coming into the system thinly enough. Two are genomic test sires and four are proven sires.

"I don't bother labouring over what bull should go into each cow. Inbreeding isn't an issue with the early stage of crossbreeding that I'm at. But it also helps simplify the system.

"When a cow comes in heat, I'll text the AI technician that I'll have her out the next day. I decided not to attempt DIY AI since I believe that the 200 animals that I would get to AI every year would not make me as skilled at the job as the technician that does hundreds every week. Again, I'm trying to prioritise what I need to focus on -- growing grass and maximising milk.

"I will have set up a protocol with him that he uses a different bull each day of the week. This is better than just using one bull one week and another the next because of the risk of it being a bad week for conception and I end up with no or very few daughters of a particular bull. A week could be bad for fertility for very simple, uncontrollable reasons, such as a poor spell of weather.

"Most of the bulls are retailing at €16-18 but our discussion group, West Awake, buys in bulk so we get a discount. I get a lot out of this group under the direction of Teagasc adviser Patrick Gowing.


"The first job will be tail-painting the cows in the last week in March. We'll scan any cows that aren't seen in heat after three weeks. At the same time, we'll synchronise all the heifers and serve them over the subsequent 5-6 days. My AI technician has an oestrus detector, which is a great tool for jobs like this when it can be hard to tell what animals are actually in heat and what ones are not. At this stage, we start serving the cows too and continue serving for the following nine weeks. After that, we introduce the bull and he's left to run with them until the end of July. We scan them at the beginning of October.

"It is a long breeding period, but, like the target for the first six weeks, we are making progress. This year I hope to reduce it to 14 weeks and next year we'll aim for 13 weeks.

"Breeding cows is something that a lot of people pour a lot of time into. But they also let it become an emotional thing. I stick to looking at the numbers and keeping it simple. At the end of the day, I'm just trying to reproduce profitable cows with the least amount of hassle."

Brian and Caroline Reidy farm near Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. He was a Nuffield scholar in 2009, when he studied 'How to Encourage Young People into Dairy Farming'

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