Genomics are being used as an essential tool to improve milk yield, cow health and welfare and efficiency on a Cheshire dairy farm.
First impressions of Huntington Hall Farm are of an attractive country residence which barely resembles a dairy farm.
Looking across to the immaculate buildings and yard, the atmosphere is tranquil and there is hardly a scent of slurry.
Yet the farm is home to more than 1,000 animals comprising one of the best performing dairy herds in Cheshire.
Despite achieving impressive milk yields and a welfare record which is second to none, John Allwood is far from content to stand still.
He is constantly striving for improvement and views genetics and, in particular the use of genomics, as an essential tool to improve milk yield, cow health and welfare and efficiency.
He says: “We started genomic testing four years ago and we were probably one of the first farms to do this.
But initially we did not really use the results because we were not sure what to do with the data.
“More recently we have used genomics to find out which calves are in the lower end of the herd.
We need to keep all these animals in the milking herd at present because we suffered a TB breakdown last year and lost 100 cows from the herd.
But we will not be using them to breed replacements.
To help make the most of this genomic data, Mr Allwood works closely with experts from Genus ABS’ Technical and Genetic Services team to prepare a genetic plan, analyse genetic progress and set future strategic goals for the herd.
He now selects calves which he hopes will push the annual milk yield average from the current 12,000 litres per cow to 14,000 litres, a figure which his best cows are already achieving.
“The range of yields across the herd varies between 9,000 litres to 16,000 litres, so even the genetics in the bottom quarter of our herd are probably equivalent to the country average.
“We want to be able to find the calves we do not want to keep at the earliest possible age so we can have every youngstock stall containing the best possible genetics,” Mr Allwood says.
When he first started genomic testing, Mr Allwood thought the results would be more diverse, and admits he was ‘pleasantly surprised’ by how positive the outcome was.
He is already starting to think about selecting breeding heifers on the basis of other traits.
He adds: “So far our focus has been on milk production but the information is out there to allow us to make more informed decisions about a range of other traits including immunity and milk speed.
“As we are three times a day milking and we have a rotary parlour which is slightly below the capacity we really need, moving cows through the parlour as quickly as possible is very important for us.
We are already collecting data on the milking cows but genomics will help us select for this in the future.”
Moving away entirely from conventional semen to SexcelTM on all but 5% of the maiden heifers and using beef semen on the remainder has enabled Mr Allwood to meet his target of 280 heifer calves born each year.
SexcelTM is also used on the top 25% of the first lactation cows on the basis that the lowest quartile of the maiden heifers will be genetically inferior to them.
Genus ABS beef semen is now used for all other services because it makes economic sense, but Mr Allwood also believes the issue of the fate of bull calves on dairy farms is a very emotive one and something which he thinks the industry needs to address.
“We put three-quarters of our first lactation cows to Angus beef because we do not want any black and white bull calves on-farm.
Positive PR and animal welfare are paramount for us and sending three-week-old calves to an abattoir is a ‘no no’.
“Not only that, but if a bull calf costs us £3 everyday until it is three weeks old and then we sell them off-farm at £45, we are losing money,” Mr Allwood adds.
He thinks genomics will play an increasing role when selecting genetics for the beef calves, as buyers become increasingly selective.
He says: “We sell our beef calves to Meadow Quality and Buitelaar but they now only want to buy the animals which exactly fit the supermarket specification.
In the future I think there will be scope for us to use genomics to produce the calf which is exactly what the market wants and this will minimise waste.”
I think there will be scope for us to use genomics to produce the calf which is exactly what the market wants
One disadvantage of dairy herds using more beef semen has been an increase in the supply which has brought downward pressure on price, according to Mr Allwood.
“The beef calf price has crashed and this has meant we are re-evaluating our options to respond to this.
Now we are looking at whether we look to produce a calf from our cows every 13 or 14 months rather than every year.
“If we can identify these high yielding cows which are giving the same amount of milk over a longer lactation period, it makes sense to extend the calving interval if the revenue from calf sales has fallen.
We are already working to a voluntary waiting period of 60 days.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr Allwood adopts a similar scientific approach to every aspect of cow health and welfare at Huntington Hall Farm.
Reducing antibiotic use is a key objective and he banned the use of fluoroquins on the farm three years ago.
“We use selective dry cow therapy and now only 23% of the herd are receiving treatment.
We have an ongoing training programme for our staff so they have a thorough understanding of what we use and why we use it.
“We have implemented standard operating procedures for issues such as mastitis and lameness and we have an extensive vaccination programme.
Calves are selected which Mr Allwood hopes will push the annual milk year average up.
“We are also looking at heat abatement in the buildings and have already installed fans throughout.
We recognise heat stress is becoming more of an issue as we have these periods of extreme heat during summer.”
Mr Allwood believes responding to the threat of climate change is an opportunity as well as a challenge for the industry and he is seeking to minimise the carbon footprint of his herd as one of his key targets moving forward.
“I am looking to achieve more food for the same carbon footprint.
So currently each of my cows is producing 857kg of fat and protein combined per year and I would like to produce another 150kg per cow by the end of the five-year period, which is equivalent to 1.3 times its body weight,” Mr Allwood says.
Striving for constant improvement is evidently Mr Allwood’s ‘moving target’ and he accepts there is no single change which will enable him to do this.
“There is no one single action which will make the difference.
We are doing lots of little things to improve and we are always looking for the next one to focus on to allow us to be even better.”
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