Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Crossbreeding crux - two farmers discuss the pros and cons

With expert opinion divided on the merits of crossbreeding dairy cows, we discuss the pros and cons with two farmers

Crossbred debate rages on.
Crossbred debate rages on.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The debate on whether crossbreeding is the way forward for Irish dairy farming continues to rage.

Recent figures from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) show that there are little or no benefits from crossbreeding in herds with average EBI's over €170.

With little more than 6pc of the dairy herd containing any crossbreeding, farmers continue to eschew the option, despite Teagasc's insistence that it produces cows that are €200 more profitable.

"We've published internationally accepted papers that back up that figure. You just cannot ignore the value of hybrid vigour, and I'm still totally convinced about the economics of crossbreeding," said Teagasc's head of livestock research, Pat Dillon.

It's for this reason that Teagasc have just invested over €100,000 in a new purebred herd of Danish Jersey's, which arrived in Cork last week.

In addition, 50 high genetic merit New Zealand Jersey embryos are due to be born this spring, with another 100 due to be implanted this year.

"The purpose of these Jerseys is to close the gap (in the rate of genetic progress between Jersey and Holstein Friesian breeds)," said Mr Dillon.

The Teagasc head also denied that there was any conflict between the messages coming at farmers from the State body and ICBF.

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Teagasc research has looked at data from 40 dairy herds using crossbreeding over many years. It found that first-cross Jersey crossbred cows produced 25kg more milk solids, had a 7.5 day shorter calving interval, and 3.5pc higher survival rates compared with the mean of the purebred Jersey and Holstein-Friesian cows.

"This equates to almost €200 per cow per lactation more profit above the performance expected based on EBI alone," said a paper co-authored by Teagasc's Frank Buckley, Emma Louise Coffey, Donagh Berry and Brendan Horan for the Moorepark open day last July.

As a result, the paper advises farmers that a Holstein-Friesian sire needs to have an EBI of €450 to be considered superior to a Jersey sire with an EBI value of €250. "Crossbreeding must make an even greater contribution on Irish dairy farms in the future than it currently does," it adds.

The researchers also state that Jersey-Friesian crossbred cows last 227 days longer compared to the average of the parent breeds, equivalent to almost 20pc hybrid vigour.

However, the researchers also noted that the best available genetics must be utilised to maximise the benefits.

"A major portion of the ultimate success of crossbreeding will come from the additive genetic merit for different traits that bulls and cows transmit to their offspring (through long-term genetic gain).

"Heterosis alone will not guarantee success in a crossbreeding programme," the study concludes.

Sexed semen has potential to alter crossbred herds

One technology that could alter the fortunes of crossbred dairy herds is sexed semen. By using sexed semen, a farmer can chose to mate his cows with only enough dairy sires to produce a minimum number of heifers to cover the requirement for dairy replacements.

In many cases this would be less than 30pc of the herd, leaving the farmer free to mate the rest of the cows with an easy-calving beef bull that would produce calves that any beef rearer would be delighted to buy.

An added benefit is that it would be safer for heifers on their first calf, since female calves are generally smaller than males.

One of the reasons that sexed semen hasn't taken off is that the price being charged for the technology is high - roughly double the price for an 'unsexed' straw.

The reason for that is because a single company, Sexing Technologies, controls more than 90pc of the sexed-semen market.

With annual sales of $270m (€249m), the US-based company is making a lot of money from the revolutionary technology, but the era of almost monopolistic profits may be near an end, according to Bloomberg reports.

Competitors such as Wisconsin-based ABS, filed an antitrust lawsuit in 2014 accusing Sexing Technologies of monopolising the market.

That case goes to trial in August. ABS is also named in a case at the US Patent and Trademark Office with Sexing Technologies over the validity of each others' patents.

Meanwhile, Trans Ova Genetics, an Iowa company, starts trial this week in Denver after being sued by a Sexing Technologies subsidiary, XY, for breach of contract and patent infringement.

The irony is that it was a state body - the US Department of Agriculture - that developed the sex-selection process in the early 1990s.

XY, then a standalone company, gained control of the government patent and improved the system so it worked more quickly and improved fertility rates by lowering the number of cells that were destroyed during the process.

XY licensed the USDA patent and its own patents to other companies, including Trans Ova, ABS and Sexing Technologies. In 2006, XY and Sexing Technologies were in the midst of a contract dispute; a year later, Sexing Technologies owned XY. That's when the trouble began, according to court documents filed by both Trans Ova and ABS.

Sexing Technologies, which also has been buying patents from other companies including Monsanto, "was able to use its monopoly power to exact onerous terms from ABS, including unreasonably high prices, an 'evergreen' provision that makes the contract effectively perpetual," and limit research by a would-be competitor, ABS contends.

Sexing Technologies contends the ABS antitrust suit was filed "to pressure (us) into renegotiating the contract's terms," while Trans Ova is just trying to avoid being found liable for using the technology without a license.

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