Backing The Best Of Each Breed In Spring Calving System

County Waterford dairy farm selects best genetics across breeds for spring calving system

Time to read: ca 9 min
“We used the highest ranking Norwegian Red sires for fertility for the first few years and made impressive improvements. However, now we look for more of a balance, and have used the young genomically tested sires who have made impressive gains in the past few years.”
Noel Griffin

By Karen Wright

An Irish dairy producer has realised that too much of one thing isn’t the right approach to breeding the best cows for his spring calving system, opting for a three-way cross to bring a balance of traits and boost performance.

Noel Griffin from Cappoquin started crossbreeding with Norwegian Red genetics on his herd of 80 black and White cows in 2003 in a quest to boost fertility.

“We’d gone down the production route – like many – of breeding for yield,” says Noel, “This was the typical trend, but over time it turned out to be at the expense of fertility, and other important traits.”

With 20% not in calf rates back in 2004, and a high replacement rate, Noel realised this was not sustainable – and particularly not for a spring calving herd. “We look to calve in a six week block,” he says. “Fertility is vital.”

The decision to start crossbreeding and introduce a breed renowned for high fertility coincided with him participating in a Moorepark project in 2004 with the Norwegian cattle organisation Geno. Four hundred purebred Norwegian Red cows were imported and integrated into spring calving herds to monitor their performance in Irish grazing systems. Noel took 10 of these cows into his herd.

He also selected the best of the breed’s sires for fertility to cross on to his black and white cows. Progress soon followed in his first-generation crossbreds with fertility improving and empty rates gradually fell over the subsequent generations to their current levels of four to five percent.

Realising that each breed brings its merits and the added benefit of hybrid vigour, Noel introduced a third cross – Jerseys – in 2008 to boost milk solids. “We’re paid for milk solids, so improving fat and protein production is probably as important as fertility,” he says, adding that he’s very happy with the three-way cross cattle he now has.

The addition of 28 hectares of leased land to the farm’s 94-hectare block and the decision to reduce the beef enterprise meant that cow numbers could be increased.

Noel, with his son Jack and nephew David Power, plus other family members full, now run 220 crossbred cows.

Calving starts on February 6, and close to 70% of cows calve in the first three weeks and are milked once a day. “This is purely down to labour, but it makes little difference to the total yields. After the first three weeks of calving, we switch to twice a day milking,” says Noel, adding that 93% of cows had calved by mid-March in 2023.

Early February also sees the start of their grazing season, which extends until late November, depending on the weather.

“Grass grows all year round here,” he adds. “It’s very mild and we can grow up to four kilos of grass per hectare of dry matter over winter. Diets may be supplemented with silage, depending on grass growth and meal is fed in the parlour, at a rate of 750kg a cow ideally, but if conditions for forage are poor, this can increase to 900kg a cow over her lactation.


While remaining committed to the three-way crossbreeding programme, they keep looking to improve key parameters.

“Yield of solids s important,” adds Noel. “That’s what we’re paid for.”

Average milk yields are currently 5,500kg of milk at 4.81% fat and 3.86% protein and 452kg of combined fat and protein. 1.1 million litres a year are supplied to milk cooperative Trilan.

“We’re aiming for 500kg of fat and protein, with 5% fat and 4% protein with the same inputs,” he says, adding that they look to further improve longevity from the current four and a half lactations a cow.

Average somatic cell counts hover around 128,000 cells/ml, and they recorded only 15 cases of mastitis last year. “We haven’t a problem here, and so we don’t need to over select for health traits. Norwegian Red sires all bring good health traits and we select low SCC sires in the other two breeds.

They stick to the crossbreeding programme, but sires within each breed are carefully selected to bring the best traits possible to the programme and to improve and correct any areas. Noel relies on his nephew David’s expertise here.

“We use the indexes from country of origin for sire selection,” adds Noel. “The Irish EBI value doesn’t reflect the true value of bulls outside Irish Friesian, particularly when it comes to young genomically tested bulls of other breeds. This mainly comes down to numbers on the database.”

Using the Norwegian Red TMI, they look for sires of this breed with a breeding value (BV) of 120 for milk percentages, with 100 being the average, positive values for fertility and keep a keen eye on stature and body depth.

“We want cows of medium size – 520kg is ideal for us, but with good body depth to achieve high intakes of forages. We don’t want cows who are too tall or frail as they won’t last in our system.”

New Zealand black and white sires are selected for milk solids, good udders and body capacity and positive index for fertility.

In the Jersey breed, the best sires for milk quality without compromising milk solids are picked. “We spent 15 years building up yields of milk solids, so we’re careful that we don’t let this slip,” he adds.

“We used the highest ranking Norwegian Red sires for fertility for the first few years and made impressive improvements. However, now we look for more of a balance, and have used the young genomically tested sires who have made impressive gains in the past few years.”

With the empty rate at or under 5%, he knows the herd is probably as fertile as it can be. “We increased culling rates in 2023 as we had quite a few older cows in the herd, and we brought in 70 heifers. This was a one-off – our replacement rate is usually 16% to 18%.”

Despite not selecting a sire using the EBI data for 10 years, the herd’s most recent  EBI score, published in January 2024, is an impressive €253, which puts it in the top 1% in Ireland. “As soon as our heifers join the herd the EBI improves, so we’re moving in the right direction,” adds Noel.

With typically 10 sires across the three breeds in the tank, David matches sires to cows, going through each cow’s records and making the best match to maintain the herd’s ideal cow and improve uniformity. He will tweak his breeding decision ‘on the day’ if necessary.

Swing to more heifers

Noel and his team took the decision to breed more heifers and sell the surplus back in 2022. In 2023, 180 cows – about 80% - were bred to dairy sires, with sexed semen used on 65% of animals in the first three weeks of the breeding period and on all maiden heifers.

They have invested in Nedap collars to aid heat detection and ensure inseminations where at the ‘ideal time to maximise conception rates, and the AI technical visits the farm twice a day in the main breeding season.

“We started on a smaller scale and bred 32% to sexed semen in the first year, then doubled the following year, and have achieved the same conception rates.

“We then sold the surplus heifers and have had repeat purchases, and another farmer is taking his first step into crossbreeding. It’s working well so far, but if the market for heifers dries up, we can switch back into producing more beef calves. Crossed with Belgian Blue and Charolais sires, these calves have a good value.”

And if Noel ever needs reassurance in the merits of his choice to use Norwegian Red genetics in the mix, he can look at the data from a small group of 28 purebred cows he’s built up from the original 10 cows who joined the herd 20 years ago.

This purebred Norwegian Red cow produces the same amount of fat and protein as the herd average, but have a lower somatic cell count. “And one of our oldest cows in the herd is in this group. She’s 13 and has an average calving interval of 366 days and somatic cell count of 34,000. She’s calving this spring and starting her 12th lactation, and she’s also produced quite a few good daughters. She owes us very little indeed.”