Dairy farming is too often a marginal business, so there is a need to drive profitability, and genetics is a great place to start.
Stuart Boothman, managing director of Cogent UK, says ‘genetics touch everything’ and hold the key to many of the challenges facing the industry, if farmers will embrace the technology.
Mr Boothman adds all the characteristics of cows in a high performing herd – milk production, longevity, fertility and calf quality, are heritable traits.
Selecting for these can therefore improve efficiency and drive profitability.
He says: “There is a need across the dairy industry to think progressively.
This starts with the use of sexed semen coupled with genomic testing to deliver economic and environmental benefits.
“There is no reason anymore to produce dairy bull calves, they have no value and no place.
Prevention is definitely better than cure and sexed semen now offers up to 97% gender accuracy so farmers can breed with the certainty of obtaining a heifer calf.
“Conventional dairy semen has become a by-product and a large percentage of our bulls are now only available as sexed semen,” Mr Boothman adds.
He points to genomic testing as the next stage in the process of breeding replacements only from the genetic elite, describing the gains to be made as ‘mind blowing’.
“Genomic testing creates a pyramid, where the top tier is mated to sexed semen
and everything further down is put to beef semen.
It will highlight the heifer calves which will be the most productive and which are the most profitable.
“The best of the genomically tested calves will outperform the previous generation by a large margin and within three generations, the difference in performance across the generations will be substantial.”
“There is a need across the dairy industry to think progressively“
When examining the results from genomically tested herds, benchmarking can identify the best individuals compared to standard profitability indices.
But Mr Boothman says this is only valuable to a point, because each farm is different and each supplies a milk contract which pays on specific criteria.
“We will benchmark the results of the genomic testing against a farm’s milk contract, because we are looking for cows which produce milk to best match the contract.
Every herd is different and ultimately, it is the milk contract which pays the bills.
“For example, if a farmer supplies a constituent contract we can look for those females which will give milk with high protein or butterfat.
We can rank the cows accordingly and then cut the line as required to give the desired number of females served with sexed semen, depending on the herd replacement rate.
“We can also identify animals which are carriers for BB kappa casein for farms with milk sold on a cheesemaking contract, or for A2 milk.
This makes it possible to place more selection pressure on the female breeding line to favour these traits,” Mr Boothman adds.
He believes the key to realising the full potential of genomic testing across the UK dairy herd will be increasing the level of adoption among dairy farmers.
He suggests this will allow more farmers to make better breeding decisions.
“Our early adopting farmers are now genomically testing all their replacements and this allows them to identify the bottom 10-20% of the cohort.
These are then sold as weaned calves because the farmers recognise it makes good sense not to incur costs of between £1,500 and £2,000 rearing these animals to the point of calving.
“For others, the solution for the lower quartile of the heifers will be to serve with beef semen, and here genetics can enable the farmer to increase the margins from his beef calves.
“It is important to move away from the mindset that beef is beef, because now 60% of the beef produced in the UK is from a dairy cow.
We need to become more sophisticated about how we breed the beef calf and produce a far more consistent product.
“Data from both genomic and progeny testing has allowed us to select for
calving ease, calf quality, colour, polled and gestation length, so this should enable the dairy farmer to produce a valuable calf which the supply chain wants.
“It is vital the industry comes together to break the disconnect between the dairy farmer who just wants a calf from his dairy cow and the finisher and processor who are looking for a quality animal which will finish to a high specification at a certain age and weight.
“Genetics hold the answers to allow dairy farmers to breed a beef animal which is exactly what the market wants,” Mr Boothman says.
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