Rob Hall discusses how ‘right-sizing’ your breeding plan can add profit to your farm while helping you breed cows which are better for your business.

From 1st November 2021 Red Tractor has required all assured dairy farms to have a written breeding and management plan to summarise a farm’s breeding policy. The ultimate aim of this is to reduce the number of dairy bull calves born on UK farms, the euthanasia of which poses a huge reputation risk to the industry. This follows moves by some dairy processors to reduce dairy bull calves in their supply chain. However, this is also an opportunity to ‘take stock’ (pardon the pun) and review what calves are born on your farm and where they come from. Changes to breeding policies can drive big profits in dairy enterprises in the short and
long term.

Short term gains

Widespread use of sexed semen has been a blessing on many dairy farms – rapidly expanding the number of dairy replacements being born each year. However, it’s been a double-edged sword: “heifer hoarding” has led to the young stock rearing systems of many businesses being stretched to their limit. The impacts of overstocking are dramatic: higher disease rates, poorer fertility, greater mortality and lower feed conversion. Strain on the system is having a very real cost to many dairy farms.

Heifer rearing costs to calving are in the region of £1,500 and £2,200, with higher estimates taking account of fixed costs, opportunity costs and mortality losses [1]. Rapid inflation of variable costs like feed and bedding over the past year will likely be pushing these figures higher. A recent review of a 185 cow AYR calving Holstein dairy highlighted this – based on their culling rate, mortality rates, age of first calving and calving interval they need roughly 56 replacement heifers per
year including a 5-heifer contingency. Yet there were over 90 heifers being born each year on the farm, costing £170,000 to rear through to calving. This is a huge amount of capital tied up for two years with the hope of a few hundred quid profit when selling fresh calved heifers.

Identifying heifers with poorer genetics and selling them at a younger age reduces your total capital invested in heifer rearing, while lowering stocking rates and labour costs. Simultaneously, by getting rid of poorer animals the average genetic merit of the heifers increases.

Medium term gains

‘Right-sizing’ your breeding plan aims to balance the use of sexed vs conventional vs beef semen used on cows and heifers. Due to the overlap in genetic merit on most farms, generally 15-25% of milking cows should be getting sexed semen, and 10-25% of maiden heifers should be getting served to beef. The presence of conventional semen in any breeding plan should be carefully evaluated in light of contract requirements and increased pressure to reduce dairy bull calves. Re balancing semen use can reduce semen costs in some cases and helps cash flow by generating more saleable beef calves, fewer dairy bull calves, and only the required number of heifer replacements which all come from your best animals!

The sale of beef calves provides a welcome revenue stream, but the focus when picking beef sires should focus primarily on calving ease. Studies suggest that an assisted calving costs approximately £110 and a very difficult calving £350 to £400 – with the major costs being labour, an increase in the number of days open, death of cows and calves, and a higher chance of the cow being culled [2]. There is some fantastic work being done to improve the genetics of the UK beef herd to improve efficiency of beef production, but a dairy farm selling calves at a few weeks old should aim for healthy fertile cows and live saleable calves.

The average heifer doesn’t pay back its rearing costs until well into its second lactation. Poorer animals never will, and should be identified to remove from the breeding herd as young as possible.

Stock bulls have long been turned to as a solution for cows which are difficult to get in calf. However, it is rare for diary bulls to match up to the elite genetics available from AI sires. Considering they only produce ‘conventional semen’ and hence dairy bull calves, an easy-calving beef sires may be a better option.

Long term gains

Genetics play a huge role in the longterm profitability of dairy herds – the impact of improved genetics are cumulative and permanent. Once a farm has better cows, it will have better offspring, who will in turn have better offspring. However, this requires careful and focussed selection of superior animals and a plan for the future. The offspring from matings today will join the milking herd in three years, so a long term vision is important!

Selection indices provide the broad brush strokes for picking the best or worst animals, with careful evaluation of further traits filling in the detail. There are a wide range of selection indices available to suit different farming systems – developed using economic modelling of current and future market prices. For example, AHDB produce evaluations of PLI (Profitable Lifetime Index) for all year round calving herds, and different indices to suit the different business models of seasonal calving herds (SCI and ACI – Spring Calving Index and Autumn Calving Index).

Ultimately, each index is a balance of health and production traits which provide the greatest benefit within that farming system. Milk recording herds can access the free Herd Genetic Report from AHDB which is a good starting point to identify strengths and weaknesses of your herd which act as the base for a breeding plan.

Recent developments in genetics have produced more traits which cows can be selected for, and so more selection indices have been created to encompass these traits. Several decades of trials at the Langhill herd have made it possible to predict an animal’s feed efficiency and therefore carbon footprint based on their genetics. AHDB have included this within their new EnviroCow selection index which selects cows producing milk most efficiently. Similarly, the Dairy Wellness Profit (DWP) index produced by Clarifide includes a wide range of additional disease resistance traits such as calf pneumonia, milk fever and abortions to breed healthy animals with high lifetime profitability.

There’s plenty of data to show that selection indices do pay off – between 1980 and 2010 genetic improvement added £2.4 billion to the UK dairy industry [3]. Looking back just five years, cows now have 0.9 years more productive life, 8 days shorter calving interval and an additional 350 litres of milk! In just five years PLI added £634 million to the UK herd, and helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.4% per year [4]. Genetic improvements alone are predicted to reduce the carbon footprint of milk production by 20% over the next 20 years.