Using New Zealand genetics to produce the most efficient cow for a grass-based system has always made sense to the Tweedie family, and now a growing contingent of dairy producers are turning to them for bulls to introduce similar traits into their herds.
Gordon and Margaret Tweedie, and their son, James, sell 40-45 Jersey and Friesian bulls a year to about 10-15 buyers across the UK, most of whom run New Zealand-style systems. Surplus breeding females from their 310 cow, spring calving, pure-bred herd are also in demand.
With the herd achieving an average yield of 5,195 litres per cow at 4.7 per cent fat and 3.8 per cent protein, and with 70 per cent of their diet coming from grazed grass, buyers know the stock are produced from cows proven on a low input system. The 10-week calving block predicted for the 2018 season, with 77 per cent calving in the first six weeks, also highlights the continuous gains the herd is making in fertility.
Ask the Tweedies the secret to overall performance and genetics will come high on the list. Gordon and Margaret were among the first UK producers to embrace New Zealand genetics in the 1980s as part of a drive to improve grazing efficiencies. Since then they have remained firmly committed to using such bloodlines at South Dyke Farm, Salkeld, Penrith.
Even after losing 20 years’ worth of breeding in the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth, they were quick to serve bought-in stock with Kiwi genetics and buy-in New Zealand cattle where possible.
Gordon says the decision to continue with such breeding was easy considering the significant benefits they saw when first putting his Friesian herd to such bloodline in the 1980s.
He says: “We put everything to Kiwi genetics and we progressed quite quickly with their efficiency, fertility, ease of care and the way they grazed.”
The farm is ideal for a grazing set up thanks to its free draining soils and relatively low annual rainfall for Cumbria of 94cm (37in).
At South Dyke, 69 per cent of the total diet is from grazed grass and cows receive less than 0.5 tonnes of concentrate per cow per year.
Cows calve inside from the start of February, going out to grass as soon as possible. To maximise use of grass, the herd is generally strip grazed on 12-hour breaks down to a residual of at least 1,500kg DM/hectare (607kg DM/acre).
James says: “We find the cows are quite aggressive grazers so it is not a challenge to achieve those residuals. It is how they are designed.”
Numerous small paddocks, many of which are divided by drystone walls, means subdivision with electric fencing is not always necessary. This also helps with usage at the start of the season when stocking rates are lower.
At the start of the season 4-6kg of mineralised cake will be fed through the parlour, though this is stopped if grass growth allows.
Big baled silage may also be buffer fed in the paddocks at the shoulders of the year.
When it comes to matching the right cow to the system, the family is passionate about breeding quality, pure cows. The trio work together to select ‘well balanced’ sires which introduce the traits they want.
James says: “We are increasingly, looking at fertility, longevity and constituents and we always want bulls with good conformation.”
Three to four bulls from each of the two breeds are used annually, with easy calving sires specifically selected to serve heifers.
The Tweedies select all their own bulls and choose which cows will go to which sires using milk records and their knowledge of individual animals.
Gordon says: “We look through the cows quite a lot meaning we know their physical and production traits, so we can pick a sire which is appropriate.”
Gordon and James have been to the Republic of Ireland on numerous occasions to listen to research from the Teagasc research centre at Moorepark, Co Cork, which focuses on grazing systems with spring block calving. As a result, they are now increasingly looking at the Irish Economic Breeding Index (EBI) when selecting bulls, as well as the Irish Pasture Profit Index when selecting grasses.
The EBI is used together with the New Zealand breeding worth (BW) index to get a balanced view of sires. Both indexes look at varying traits which affect the profitability of offspring, such as milk production and fertility, and these are combined to create a financial index.
James is keen to consider the Irish figures as he believes these complement the family’s system. The EBI also has a higher weighting for fertility (35 per cent), compared to BW (14.1 per cent), which he believes is key to the success of the farm’s spring block calving system.
Two examples of typical bulls which have been used on the herd this year include Friesian bull Farside Accomplice and Jersey bull Okura Integrity. Both rank highly on BW and EBI. Accomplice has an EBI of €189 (£174) and a BW of 107, together with high protein, fertility and longevity. Integrity has an EBI of €192 (£177) and a BW of 192 with good milk production and solids.
James and Gordon believe using such sires has benefited the herd considerably, particularly when it comes to fertility.
It has taken a number of years to tighten the block having bought year-round calving cows when restocking in 2002. In the early days, this was achieved by pushing cows round. Now the focus is on selecting high fertility animals, paying close attention to heat detection and cow body condition. As a result, the 2018 block is predicted to run for just 10 weeks.
Buyers can be sure bulls and heifers are produced from the most fertile cows as the herd is only served to dairy semen for six weeks. British Blue semen is then used for the rest of the breeding period.
Gordon adds: “We only keep bull calves off what we consider to be the best cows based on milk records and conformation.”
The fact bulls and heifers are produced from cows which are proven on a New Zealand-style system was one of the reasons the Tweedies were first approached by a farmer in 2004, asking if they sold pure bulls.
Having sold one Jersey bull that first year, demand has since ‘snowballed’, largely due to word of mouth in the relatively small community of New Zealand-style farmers in the UK. They now sell about 20 Friesian bulls and 20 Jersey bulls a year, with a proportion going for cross breeding.
The family’s enthusiasm for breeding marries well with the bull side of the business, as well as making the most of the farm’s assets.
Gordon explains: “It fits well as we have quite a large area off the grazing platform, so we have a lot of grass for youngstock. Rearing bulls is a good use of the area.”
James agrees. He says: “It is something we have enjoyed a lot as it is nice to see how they turn out and we like rearing animals. We enjoy the stock side of the story.”
Bulls are reared the same as heifers and fed little concentrate after weaning to ensure they are ready to work on a grass-based system.
All stock receives two litres of calf milk replacer, twice-a-day, with concentrate introduced as soon as possible. Weaning occurs at about seven to eight weeks of age when calves are eating at least 1.5kg concentrate/head/day.
Bulls will then be grazed with heifer calves until July when they are split and grazed separately until the start of December. Males will then be housed and put on silage with about 1-1.5kg of concentrate per head per day over winter. Most will then be sold at 15 months to serve spring calving herds.
Overall, Gordon says breeding is a key interest for the family, with everyone gaining a lot from producing quality stock.
“We appreciate the quality of our cattle when we work with them. It is satisfying when people tell us we have a good herd,” he says.