Dairy experts are at loggerheads over what is the ideal cow for Irish farms in the future. Crossbred cows are easily the most profitable, despite the fact that the farmer will often end up getting the bull calves shot, according to well-known dairy farmer Michael Murphy.
"Crossbred herds are the most naturally suited cow for an Irish grass-based system," the Cork-based farmer maintained, despite the fact that the bull calves from his crossbred cows were often completely worthless, and he relied on the local knackery to shoot and dispose of them.
Mr Murphy, who runs dairy farms in Ireland, Chile, New Zealand and the US, admitted that having to shoot worthless bull calves could be psychologically damaging to a farmer.
"Most dairy farmers really like their animals and their whole training is to keep their animals alive. It's better to leave the job to the knackeries. But farmers should not get hung up on the value of the bull calf."
However, the call for more farmers to consider crossbreeding has been slammed by the CEO of the country's biggest dairy society. A switch to crossbred cows would decimate the Irish beef industry, ruin farmers' cash-flow and create massive problems in years to come for production levels and access to land, according to the Irish Holstein Friesian Association's (IHFA) Charles Gallagher.
"Crossbred cows will only sell as canners for maybe €280, while you'll be lucky to sell the bull calf at all," he said. "This would have terrible consequences for January and February cash-flow on a spring- calving farm in the months when it is needed most.
"And you can't fatten a Jersey, so it would be a disaster for the beef industry if we switched wholesale to Jersey crosses."
Mr Murphy has claimed that a 100ha dairy farm would generate €46,000 more a year from a herd of crossbred cows when compared to a typical Holstein Friesian herd. He based this assertion on a combination of research from Teagasc, New Zealand and his own observations of dairy cows around the world.
"In comparison to Holstein Friesian, crossbred cows are up to 20pc more efficient feed converters, have lower veterinary bills and are probably the most fertile dairy cows on Earth."
The Cork-based farmer said that much of this information has been generated by Teagasc. "But it seems to have been lost," he said.
"Even if you look at a herd with some crossbred cows, they will always be the first up to the parlour every morning. They're a lighter animal and the black hoof is a harder hoof."
He pointed to New Zealand, where the proportion of the national dairy herd made up by crossbred cows has jumped from less than 30pc to more than 50pc in the past 10 years.
"This trend continues at pace," he said. "Research has shown that there's one-and-a-half times the amount of work associated with a Holstein Friesian when compared to a crossbred. Part of this is a massive difference in vet call-outs. I'd say there'd be an 80pc reduction in veterinary visits by switching to crossbred cows."
However, Mr Gallagher queried the figures quoted by Michael Murphy.
"I'm sick of people quoting these figures from other countries. The trials that compared Holstein Friesians and crossbreds in Ballydaigue were very questionable. Average merit Holstein Friesians were compared with high merit New Zealand genetics," said Mr Gallagher.
"ICBF have shown that farmers can increase the EBI of their cows by €40 a head by careful selection with the Holstein Friesian breed. This type of breeding programme is cumulative in contrast to crossing where the hybrid vigour is diluted with every additional cross made after the first one," he said.
He also noted that farmers could avail of the hybrid vigour effect by breeding their animals to purebred Friesians. "This has the added benefit of leaving a good value bull calf," he said.
The IHFA boss also suggested that switching to cross-breeding would reduce milk output per cow. In order to maintain production levels, he said that extra cows requiring extra land would be necessary.
This was part of the reason, according to Mr Gallagher, that less than 2pc of all the straws used on the dairy herd last year were Jersey, indicating that crossbreeding was not popular among Irish farmers.
Despite this, Michael Murphy insisted that the crossbred was the cow that was best suited to so-called golf-ball grazing systems.
Michael Murphy will present his views on crossbreeding and its role in the expansion of the dairy industry at the Positive Farmers Conference in Limerick this Thursday and Friday.
For further information, contact Lori Fitzgerald at 066 713 9118 or 087 668 0899.