In defence of the Jersey Cross cow

The negativity about Jersey Cross cows has more to with the state of the beef trade than it does with the breed's genetics, argues Diarmuid Foley

Bad press: The growing negative sentiment towards Jersey Cross cows is unjustified, says Diarmuid Foley. Photo: Roger Jones
Bad press: The growing negative sentiment towards Jersey Cross cows is unjustified, says Diarmuid Foley. Photo: Roger Jones

Diarmuid Foley

I attended the recent Moorepark open day and viewed with considerable interest the research results delivered at the event.

As a farm advisor, active dairy farmer and cross-breed advocate, my faith in the cross-breed route has been tested in recent times. I should hasten to clarify that it is not the system but rather the growing negative sentiment that has me wavering.

I remember attending a Moorepark open day back in 2008 and the Jersey-cross cow that delivered on hybrid vigour was the focus of great interest.

There were numerous stands promoting cross-breeding on that day but this year it was very different. The cross-breeding stand was away from the main centre of the activity and I actually felt slightly intimidated walking up to the stand for fear I was seen.

However, after listening to Frank Buckley of Teagasc delivering his presentation on crossbreeding, my confidence and faith were restored in the knowledge that the same merits still exist. They are still the cheapest converters of grass to milk, have higher fertility performance compared to their Holstein Friesian counterparts and are a lower maintenance cow. However, what has prompted the recent negative sentiment, namely the bull calf, is a problem.

Sexed semen use

The more recent negative press surrounding the Jersey bull calf has seen a reduction in the use of Jersey sires in the 2019 breeding season.

Unfortunately, the negativity is as much a reflection on the sorry state of the beef trade as it is on the breed of the calf.

One suspects that if beef prices recovered to an acceptable degree the problem would abate. Most readers will recall previous beef slumps when calves could scarcely be given away.

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However, there is no sign of beef prices doing any favours anytime soon so the discussion around the slaughtering of calves rumbles on.

One possible solution lies in the use of sexed semen which could play a vital role in alleviating the problem and thereby protecting the generally positive image of dairying going forward.

While the sexed semen trials resulted in a lower conception rate to first service compared to conventional semen, there is still a strong argument to promote its usage.

The demand for sexed semen is growing but at a very slow rate. If a significant demand did exist, well then, the hope of having a sexed semen machine here in Ireland might become a reality.

Maybe it is time for our co-ops to be out front in promoting and funding the necessary equipment to provide sexed semen for their suppliers. It is a fact that farmers with the crossbred cow are producing milk the way the co-op's want it, high in butterfat and protein and low in water.

Hauling water around our country roads is costly and does little for the carbon footprint.

First Cross Jersey Cow

The first cross Jersey cow is every bit as 'shapely' as a Holstein cow if not better. She is smaller in stature and holds body condition score better than her Holstein Friesian counterparts.

In common with all cows she likes good dry land but all land is not good and dry and it is where ground conditions tend to be heavier that she comes into her own. I should however stress that going beyond the first cross can lead to an extremely narrow cow that isn't so pleasing on the eye and her offspring are no better.

It is critical to our healthy clean green image that more export markets are opened and the slaughtering of calves is avoided at all costs. The correct breeding policy will greatly assist in this regard. Slaughtering calves has tainted New Zealand's dairy image and we must avoid repeating the same mistake.

Ceasing cross-breds not an option

Ceasing to use Jersey genetics isn't an answer. I have yet to meet a farmer who has regretted the decision to crossbreed his herd to Jersey genetics.

The only thing that will prevent him from using Jersey sires going forward is the problem of the bull calf. It has been proven that the reproductive performance of the national dairy herd has improved as a result of crossbreeding. The historical decline in herd fertility has been linked to animal selection based mainly on milk volume production.

This has had a negative consequence for the economic performance of pasture-based systems due to the requirement for compact calving.

We are still a long way off our fertility targets in terms of six- week calving rates, calving intervals and overall pregnancy rates, so are we making the right decisions in terms of our future breeding strategies?

High EBI Holstein Friesian herds producing over 520kg of milk solids will see limited if any improvement in performance from crossbreeding but they are elite herds and far from the national average.

There is of course a place for both systems but if we can deal with the bull calf issue, crossbreeding will have a major role to play in the future of the Irish dairy industry.

Differing profitable systems do exist but whatever cow type you have or chose to have, milk must be produced in the most sustainable way possible. I believe the cross-breed system is well up there.

Diarmuid Foley heads up farm advisory services at O'Sullivan Malone, accountants and registered auditors. He a registered agricultural consultant and member of ACA

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