Changing a big part of a farm’s management system can be risky and often requires brave decision making. When it comes to cross-breeding, many farmers recognise the benefits but the perceived loss in yield puts them off.
For Gold Cup finalist Arthur Palmer, the decision to cross-breed was a carefully calculated move and one which has seen a rise in fertility, improvement in longevity and overall yields stay the same.
Up until 2006 the 400-cow herd at Oulton House Farm, Staffordshire, was 100 per cent Holstein and bred for yield. In conjunction with a Genus cross breeding programme, Mr Palmer cross-bred a handful of the herd to Swedish Red.
He says: “It was only when the cross-bred cows had reached their third lactation we realised how good they were. They had considerably less mastitis and lameness than their Holstein counterparts and much better fertility figures.”
Mr Palmer then started to investigate the performance of cross-bred herds in America, and the results were similar to his own findings.
With 40 per cent of the herd now cross-bred, Mr Palmer plans move 100 per cent of his own to a breeding programme where Holsteins are bred to the Norwegian Red, then the Fleckvieh and back to the Holstein.
He explains: “When up against the Holsteins, the cross-bred heifers do not give the same milk yield in their first lactation, but they improve with age. Heifers give about 26-28kg, rather than 30-32kg per day, however they will be back in-calf 30 days sooner than the Holsteins.
“The crossed cows get better as they age and once past their third lactation, yield just as well as the Holsteins. After three lactations, many Holstein cows are not around to produce milk, whereas we have crosses easily calving into their fifth and sixth lactation and giving 10,000kg.”
Their longevity also makes up for their lower yield, says Mr Palmer. The replacement rate for the Holsteins is about 20 per cent, while the cross-breds’ replacement rate is under 15 per cent.
The change in breeding coincided with a move from all-year-round to autumn block calving, and it is a combination of these two factors which has seen the calving interval fall from 425 days to 386.
Sally Lea, who has worked at Oulton House Farm for the last six years and oversees the calf rearing section of business, says the block calving system allows the team and management to be more focused.
Dairy semen is used for the first five weeks of the service period, with Aberdeen-Angus bulls and British Blue semen used thereafter.
Maiden heifers are out-wintered on a kale rape hybrid fodder crop from 14 months of age.
In the run up to bulling, a sample of maiden heifers are blood tested for their mineral status and bolused if there is a deficiency – but for the last three years they have not required it.
They also get 1kg concentrate per day for three weeks pre-mating, depending on grass growth, with the extra feed also helping to bring in the heifers for tail painting.
Maiden heifers are AI’d for four weeks, during which, 70 per cent of the heifers usually get in-calf and Aberdeen-Angus bulls are then put in for easy calving.
The cross-bred heifers are calving at 22-23 months old, with Mr Palmer noticing stronger bulling activity and an earlier age at first calving than the pure Holsteins.
The herd’s calving period currently lasts from August to mid-February, but the team is working hard to bring this down to four months as more heifers calve in at the start of block. Maiden heifers calve one week earlier than the rest of the herd.
Keeping things simple is the mantra at Oulton House Farm where calf rearing is concerned.
With the help of 20-year-old Harriet Tyler, who is on her placement year from Harper Adams University, some 200 calves have been born in the last six weeks with not a single case of pneumonia, scour or death, apart from one calf with bleeding calf syndrome.
About 92 heifer calves are currently on the ground, many of which are out of Holstein cross Norwegian Red heifers and sired by the Fleckvieh.
Calves are housed in a shed used for calving and hospital cows at other times of the year. As calving progresses and more calves are born, beef and bull calves are housed in a purpose-built poly tunnel.
Colostrum is fed for the first four days, with a 26 per cent protein milk powder fed thereafter. When the weather becomes colder all the new calves wear jackets to conserve energy for growth, rather than using it to keeping warm.
Before investing in a new mixer earlier this year, Ms Lea and the team used a 100-litre portable electric mixer to feed the calves.
“We had to make several trips to re-fill the mixer, which was hard work when we had so many calves in such a short space of time,” she says.
“In August we bought a Stallion 450-litre mixer. The machine mixes warm water and powder and milk is dispensed via a nozzle with a flow meter, a bit like a fuel pump. It requires less bucket carrying and the flow meter means the person feeding the calves that day can dispense the milk accurately.
“Arthur and I tend to manage things by eye a lot of the time, but if you have different members of staff feeding calves, it gives you confidence they are getting it right and ensures continuity.”
There are plans to put up a new calf shed in 2016. It will be designed so the feeder can be driven down one side and milk hosed out into troughs instead of having to go into the shed and disturbing the calves.
“We aim to maximise growth rates in the first eight weeks when food conversion is at its most efficient. Good nutrition is the key to healthy, well grown calves which, once their growth potential is unlocked, never look back. This has meant an age of 22-23 months at first calving is easily achieved,” says Ms Lea.
Calves have access to fresh water and starter pellets from day one – which are replaced daily – and they are weaned at about eight weeks when they are eating 2kg of starter.
Once weaned, they progress onto rearer nuts and wheat straw. After spending their first winter inside, they are turned out in March at six to seven months old with a small amount of feed to ease the transition to grass.
All calves are tagged and tested for BVD, and are vaccinated against lungworm before turnout. In their first grazing season they are wormed regularly and given access to the best grazing.
In the past, bull and beef calves have been sold through Market Drayton auction, but more recently have been sold for rearing to Meadow Quality at three to four weeks old.
However, the farm is currently under bTB restrictions, so calves are being taken to orange markets (where calves go directly to approved finishing units), most recently to Beeston.
“We would rather send our bull and beef calves away and get a slightly lower price than be overstocked and compromise heifer health,” says Ms Lea.
Cross-breeding also has its advantages when it comes to selling calves, she says.
“As well as heifers calving earlier, we can get a good price for young beef and bull calves. They seem to hit the ground running, with a nice shape and are soon up and sucking.”
The vitality and vigour of the cross-bred calves is easy to see, but good management also plays a part in heifer rearing.
Ms Lea says: “Right from birth, calf rearing is about unlocking growth potential and the right nutrition is key to this. You only get one chance to give the calves a flying start.
“If I have to stop and look at a calf twice, I automatically take its temperature. Even if it comes to nothing, it is better to catch a problem earlier than let it affect performance.”
At the moment calves are not weighed routinely, but are easily achieving 22-23 months at first calving.