The best of both - High performance crossbreds suit the system
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to breeding the best cows for your system, and Mark Button, from the south west of England, has a high performance herd of cows. He considers he's getting the 'best of both' in his Norwegian Red - Holstein crosses.
By Karen Wrigth
Mark runs a 980-cow unit on a mixed arable and dairy unit at Polshea Farm, near Bodmin, in Cornwall. The farm is within sight of Saputo's Davidstow Creamery, so production from this all-year-round calving herd goes for Cathedral City cheese.
In May 2015, Mark took a leap of faith and started cross breeding his pure Holstein cattle. "I wanted that extra vigour in the cows," he says, adding that inbreeding within the Holstein breed did give him concerns.
"We had bred the type of cow that suited our system - compact with good legs and feet, and with great udders. But we wanted to improve fertility and general health traits with a hardier and more robust cow. That was our main driver behind moving to crossbreeding."
Always striving to maintain progress, Mark looks to improve output while reducing overheads in his dairy business. "So more efficient, longer living and more fertile cows looked like the route ahead for us."
Five years later and Mark can see that this was a good move. He has a herd that suits his system and produces the milk quality required by his buyer. The breeding plan is simple – Norwegian Red sires are alternated with Holsteins.
The herd is now made up of 70% crossbred cows with 30% older Holstein cows. Yields average 9,200kg, at 4.2% fat and 3.5% protein, on three-times-a-day milking.
"We dropped about 500 or 600 litres in average yield, but fat and protein have each nudged upwards by 0.2%,"says Mark, who is a farmer director of DCD, the farmer group that supply all milk to Saputo. "This suits the more solids-based contract we now have for cheese production."
Cows are housed all-year-round and fed on a TMR, based on home-grown forages and cereals balanced with other raw materials. They are fed a flat rate of a kilo of wheat gluten at each of the three daily milkings.
The unit is heavily stocked with beef cross cattle reared to 18 months old, taking the total head of stock to 2,300 at any one time. Maximum use is made of the slurry with, usually, only 50 units of bought-in fertiliser applied on grass leys ahead of first cut silage.
Managed through Genus ABS' RMS service, the herd's breeding programme is based on Norwegian Red and Holstein genetics, simply zig-zagging from one to the other. No third cross is used. Any trait corrections can be made from sire choices within each breed. Sexed semen is used on heifers and some cows for replacements and the rest are bred to a beef bull.
"We considered introducing a third breed and tried a few Montbeliardes sires. But they were bigger, heavier cows and didn't add anything for us," explains Mark. Instead, after discussion with Genus ABS Hyvig adviser Liam Healy, they decided to keep with a two-way cross. This two-way cross suits their housing and milking system and are easy to manage.
"The two-way cross programme is effective, and simple," says Liam. "This is a high-input system. Mark wants a dairy type of cow that can promote fertility and health traits and improved efficiency."
Mark is reaping the benefits of the Norwegian Red's good fertility traits. "Our rolling pregnancy rate and submission rates are 26% and 75% respectively. And our crossbred cows are knocking about 30 days off the average calving interval as a higher proportion get in calf earlier. This reduces breeding costs, related labour input and improves the average daily yields. These are all factors that impact on our business efficiency," he adds.
Crossbreds at Polshea show much stronger signs of bulling and are far more prolific than the pure Holsteins.
"I anticipated this improvement, but I was surprised – and pleased – with the crossbred's tidy udders. This was something I was worried that we would lose as we'd bred Holsteins with good type."
Mark was also particularly pleased with the temperament of the crossbreds. "The heifers are far easier to milk and this is good news for our teams of milkers."
The overall advantages of this two way crossbred herd has boosted efficiency of an already successful dairy business. Mark considers his cows are well suited to his system. He is pleased with their high milk yields combined with great health and fertility performance. These all contribute positively to the longevity and sustainability of the dairy herd here at Polshea.