The use of a breeding programme has helped produce a more consistent batch of heifers at Upper Ley Farm, Gloucestershire, where the farm- specific breeding strategy is helping to produce a herd fit for the future.
For brothers Chris and David Webb, using a breeding programme to correctively mate cows and heifers is part of a drive to produce a more consistent herd of cows, ideally suited to their robot milking system. Having introduced robots to the farm four years ago, they quickly realised their breeding strategy needed to change. Up until that point, they had been focused on selecting for functional type and milk yield under the guidance of Cogent.
The robots placed greater emphasis on teat positioning and milking speed. With the 240-cow, 10,500-litre pedigree herd traditionally made up of a mixture of British Friesians, Holsteins and some Ayrshires, the Webbs wanted to further progress their strategy of breeding for a more uniform sized herd. This was something they had been working on for a while, but Cogent’s Precision Match breeding programme provided further scope to drive this forward.
David says: “You want peas in a pod. You want power and strength and, at the same time, longevity. If they get too extreme, they are not as mobile and do not suit cubicles as well. A more uniform herd helps with feed efficiency.” For the brothers, who have carried on the farming business from parents Gordon and Sue, using a breeding programme fitted well with their willingness to embrace technology and passion to produce a business fit for the future. As a result, two years ago they signed up to Precision Match and began working with Precision Match developer Neil Greggor, along with Cogent breeding adviser Martin Ley.
Neil started by evaluating the whole herd. He also analysed the herd’s AHDB Herd Genetic Report, which highlighted fertility was an area the farm could improve on. The whole Webb family, including Chris’ daughter Lauren, were then involved in establishing the herd’s breeding aims. Their criteria currently focuses around breeding for milk butterfat and protein, fertility, lifespan and chest width. Correct teat placement and long teat length are important to ensure efficiencies through milking robots. A variety of bulls are generally selected following discussions between the family, along with Neil and Martin. For example, six to seven bulls may be initially selected for heifers. This may then be condensed down to four. The aim is to choose bulls to correctively mate a high proportion of heifers.
The farm currently uses a selection of genomic and proven Holstein sires on cows and heifers, with some Ayrshire sires used on occasion.
These include DJ Brody, TW Goodwhone, Cogent Bill and DG Nafta, for example. The Webbs also started using Pinpoint heat detection collars on heifers about three years ago. This has given them the confidence to use sexed semen on maiden heifers, which has improved calving ease. This, in turn, has seen heifers get back in-calf quicker.
Neil says one of the main benefits of using the breeding programmes is in ensuring there is a low risk of inbreeding. He says: “It is easy to get lost, as there are so many bulls out there with similar pedigrees. To remember all those lines is almost impossible without a breeding programme.” Neil says inbreeding is a growing issue on a national scale, across many breeds. For example, the average inbreeding in Holsteins in Canada in 1992 was 3%. In 2009, this was up to 5.87%, which is almost the equivalent of mating with a first cousin once removed.
Neil says: “Inbreeding costs, in terms of reduced production and decreased health, and results in increased management pressure. Two of the easiest and most effective ways of controlling inbreeding are having greater genetic variation in the herd, as well as using a mating programme such as Cogent Precision Match.” Inbreeding increases the risk of introducing undesirable recessives, such as Blad, which causes deformed calves and short spine syndrome. The breeding programme protects against this. Although inbreeding is not an issue at Upper Ley Farm, the Webbs believe the programme provides an added ‘safety net’ against the possibility of accidently running into the problem at some time in the future.
David says: “We still have Goodwhone in the flask and Goodwhone heifers to serve. Without the programme, we could very easily put a Goodwhone on a Goodwhone daughter. The programme gives us the confidence to use the same bulls we have used before.” Chris says: “The programme lets us use the best genetics out there in a way which avoids inbreeding. It is a valuable tool to use to go forward on a progressive dairy farm.”
Cogent Precision Match evaluator Amy Hall-Brown explains how the breeding programme works on farm.
Why would a farmer choose to use Precision Match? A breeding programme enables a farmer to breed the ideal cow to suit their farm requirements. By assessing individual cow attributes, an animal can be correctively mated using the most appropriate sire. Using a breeding programme to understand individual animal pedigrees avoids inbreeding and the potential introduction of genetic recessives. The aim is to produce a genetically healthy, long-lived, uniform herd.
How do you initially evaluate an individual herd? Initially, we score all cows using 18 type traits, including stature, rump angle, udder depth and teat length. Unlike other breeding programmes, we also look at locomotion. For heifers, we use a ‘pedigree mating’, so we generate a type and production proof based on the pedigree of her parents. If a farmer gives us access to the AHDB Herd Genetic Report, we can also use this to establish where improvements could be made. If a herd milk records, we can use this information, but it is not essential.
Why do you choose to score locomotion? Locomotion is correlated to mobility, which is increasingly important to milk buyers. Locomotion is also highly correlated to longevity. It is the only trait which is directly correlated to the lifetime yield of an animal and its ability to walk. The difference in lifetime yield between an animal scoring one and an animal scoring nine, is 17,000 litres.
How do you choose appropriate bulls? We establish key breeding aims on a farm. For example, fertility, lifespan, milk fat and protein. We will then choose a selection of bulls to deliver these traits, while avoiding inbreeding in the herd and the introduction of recessives. The programme selects the best bull to use on an individual cow or heifer to correct traits we have identified.
Do you continue to score the herd? We score specific animals every three months. It is important to keep up with fresh heifers coming through and third lactation animals to see our breeding strategy is going in the right direction. We will also check if there have been any changes in milk contract requirements which might affect breeding aims.