Keith and Mark Birkett believe the dairy industry often fails to realise the potential offered by other breeds and crosses including their own three-breed ‘pro-cross’ style system.
Switching from a pure Holstein dairy herd to a ‘pro-cross’ style three-way crossing system using Holstein, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde breeds, has overcome a string of health-related problems in the existing herd and boosted the bottom line for a farming family in Morecambe, Lancashire.
The change has seen average milk yields rise from about 7,500 litres with black and whites to 8,200 litres with the cross-bred animals managed on basically the same system, as well as real benefits in fertility with 65 per cent of cross-bred cows holding to the first service at AI compared with 50 per cent with pure Holsteins, says Keith Birkett.
He says overall health of the herd has increased greatly with mastitis cases down and virtually no calving problems.
The running of the dairy herd is in the hands of Keith and his elder son Mark, while younger son Richard concentrates on tractor driving and field work. There are also two other full-time employees.
Their farming business is based at White Lund Farm, Morecambe, which was taken over by the family in 1893. Mark is now the fifth generation of his family to farm and is hopeful one or both of his two sons will make a sixth generation.
The dairy herd is 340 strong with about 300 milking at any one time. Run as a closed herd breeding all its own replacements, the farm now carries about 700-head of cattle.
Keith says: “This farm has always had a dairy herd, originally with Shorthorns then British Friesians plus a few Jerseys. All the milk was bottled on the farm and sold direct from the farm to the public. My first experience of cross-bred cattle were some Friesian cross Jerseys.
“Like most others, we started crossing our Friesians with Holsteins about 30 years ago, but in our case ran into a string of health problems. Almost instantly we noticed their feet were soft, though they had definitely got more milk which we wanted.
“They just seemed to bring a whole new range of health problems including more mastitis, lameness, infertility, cows not lasting as long, cows going down and not getting up and twisted stomachs.
“After about 20 years, we decided we wanted to do something else and initially asked our breeding advisers about crossing with Jerseys.
An adviser said the best option would be a Swedish Red cross Holstein. This is going back about eight years and we dropped the bulls we were using to use Swedish Red across everything.
“We believed the Swedish Red offered us a more hardy and longer lasting animal with good health traits and good feet. They were also one of the highest yielding dairy breeds in the world.
Mark says: “I started doing some research into cross-breeding in dairy cattle and found the pro-cross system which is widely used in America and Holland. The system uses a combination of three dairy breeds producing good all round dairy cows.
“We already had some three-quarter Swedish Reds which had shown no drop in milk production and their milk had better components than our Holsteins. We had already started using some Montbeliarde semen and had bought a Montbeliarde bull to add some strength and value into our bull calves and cast cows.
“Our system is now using Holstein, then Swedish Red, then Montbeliarde and back to the Holstein. It works best to use the Swedish Red before the Montbeliarde to keep cow size down a little. We also like to use some red and white Holstein blood, simply because we like to have red and white cattle.
“This is giving us good dairy type cows which will give us at least four lactations in the herd instead of the two to three lactations we had from our Holstein cows.”
The dairy herd is managed on a conventional rotational summer grazing system out both day and night and stocked at about 0.4 cows/hectare (one cow/acre).
Winter housing is in cubicles with a trough-fed base ration of 50:50 grass and maize silage plus brewery by-products and flat rate concentrate in the 24:24 herringbone parlour.
The herd calves all year round with heifers calving down at about 24-27 months. The herd has routine veterinary visits every month and is nearing the end of a BVD eradication programme.
Marks says: “Overall, the cross-breeding system is working well and we are seeing real benefits from heterosis or hybrid vigour. However, I am looking at other breeds in case we need a different cross in the future.
“We have tried using a little semen from some of the best bulls in the Normandie, Fleckvieh and Norwegian Red breeds. The Normandie could be a substitute for the Montbeliarde and is higher on milk components and good on fertility. The Fleckvieh is more of a muscular animal which could give us better bull calves and cast cows to sell.
“The Norwegian Red is very close to the Swedish Red and is part of a programme bringing the Norwegian and Swedish Reds together with the Danish and Finnish Ayrshire. Collectively, they are becoming known as Viking Reds.”
Keith and Mark agree the three-breed pro-cross system is working well for them and is sustainable. They also believe strongly much of the dairy world does not look beyond the black and white Holstein type animal and fails to recognise the potential of other breeds and crosses.
Mark says: “It is not just a matter of yields, but of how much profit you are making. It is not the milk in the tank but the money in the bank which counts.”