Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Breeding Decisions: Matching a cow to the UK milk market.

Here's a more technical post, where I'll discuss some of the myriad breeding options facing dairy farmers.

Photograph: Tony Trasmundi Photography, http://trasmundi.com/

I really like the picture above, featuring two well posed cows, and some scruffy farmers (dad and myself). It illustrates nicely the variance in cow size within our herd. We have big Friesians like the cow on the left, little Jerseys like the cow on the right, and every size in between. But over time larger black and white Friesian cows have come to predominate our herd. This was driven by a very simple pragmatic reasoning. Our old herringbone parlour had large cow spacings, and we found that any smaller, more Jersey type, heifers could turn all the way round in their bail, causing many headaches during milking!

With the advent of our new rotary shed, where each cow has its own space, and can't turn around, crossbreeding the herd is now back on the agenda. Large Friesians are mated to Jersey or Crossbred sires (a bull that is already a mix of Jersey and Friesian), and Crossbreds or Jerseys are mated to Friesians. But what is driving this decision?

  My first crop of Friesian x Jersey calves.

In other farming industries the benefits of crossbreeding are well known. For years beef and pork farmers have crossed different breeds to add different qualities to their stock, which may be missing in individual pure breeds. In dairy the two most popular breeds are Jersey and Holstein Friesian cattle. Jerseys are renowned for the quality of their milk, giving a high percentage of butterfat and protein, whereas Holsteins are the daddy of the high yield world, where very high volumes of milk are king. For years the dairy industry in the UK has been focussed on paying farmers for volume over milk quality. A large liquid milk market and limited other manufacturing options drove farmers to milk ever bigger and higher volume yielding cows. But it is our belief that the market conditions in the UK in last 5 years have dramatically changed. More discussion of this will follow in a later post.

Diagram showing hybrid vigour. Credit: agresearch.teagasc.ie

More and more milk buyers are shifting towards paying farmers for kilograms of milk solids. In simple terms this is a unit of milk which accounts for both its volume and its composition of fat and protein. Many trials from around the world have shown that HxJ cattle produce more kilograms of milksolids than either of their parents breeds under the same grazing farming conditions. Not only this, but traits which otherwise have low heritability in pure breeds, like fertility and health traits, get an extra boost from the hybrid vigour of crossbreeding. This point is illustrated in the diagram above. When the genetics of breed A are combined with those of breed B, their offspring shows performance above that of their parent breeds.

So where's the catch? Well, smaller cows have less value for meat at the end of their lives. In a good year for beef, this can amount to hundreds of pounds in difference between a Friesian and a Jersey cow. The second point is that little black or brown cows are worth less in your average UK cattle market. For years we have tightened our calving block by selling cows that calve in late spring to other UK farmers who predominately calve year round.

Our hope is that as market conditions change, and more farmers become aware of grazing systems and the value of crossbreeding, that our crossbred cattle will command a better price in the future. But more importantly we think the value of cows that can produce high kilograms of milksolids from limited brought in feed, will far outweigh any loss in end value.

I hope this post has provided some food for thought, and I'm aware I have only scratched the surface on what can be a complicated discipline! In future posts we'll delve into more complex aspects of breeding and crossbreeding.

Every farmer has their own bias towards one breed or another, but ultimately the type of cow we milk, should be the cow that brings the most profit to our given system.

Until next time, keep grazing!


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