Like many dairy farmers Andrew Gilman wants to get the best possible performance from replacement heifers to help finance herd expansion and genomic testing is assisting this. Simon Wragg reports.
With a clear plan in mind Andrew Gilman is set to expand his current 200-cow herd by another 100-head in the next three years.
Mr Gilman farms in partnership with his parents, David and Lesley, supported by his wife Lyneth, and a team of three full-time staff at Statfold Farm, near Tamworth, Staffordshire.
Based on a 650kg cow giving 35 litres:
The 162-hectare (400-acre) grass and arable farm has been tenanted by the family since 1900 but adding extra acres in the future is unlikely; developers rather than dairy farmers are driving the demand for land locally.
He explains: “The herd is housed all-year-round on sand cubicles and fed a total mixed ration diet based on grass and maize silage. We grow 100 acres of feed wheat, but this is sold off the farm as affordable by-products can be sourced locally.”
Feed, evidently, is not a restricting factor on expansion for the herd which averages 10,500 litres/head at 3.90 per cent butterfat and 3.25 per cent protein. Milk is sold via Arla direct to Asda.
With support from the family’s landlord and bank, plans for extra cubicle housing and a dedicated heifer rearing yard have been agreed. Loan capital will be financed in part by accelerating the genetic potential and, therefore, milk production, from progeny of both bought-in and home-bred replacement heifers.
“I believe in the science behind genomic testing rather than pedigree classification which, to me, can be too subjective,” he says.
Over the past 14 months, Mr Gilman has been working with the herd’s vet, Rose Jackson, of Derby-based Scarsdale Vets, to test all replacement heifers at an early age.
Using a hair sample from each calf collected by Mr Gilman and sent off by Scarsdale Vets for analysis in the US by gene specialist Clarifide, DNA data is used to profile a heifer’s predicted performance. The process uses historical information from both dam and sire bloodlines collated by breed societies and bull studs.
Miss Jackson explains: “Testing costs £32 per sample and for this client there’s a consultancy fee of £50/month for specific breeding advice. The aims of the breeding programme agreed between Andrew and myself is geared to 20 per cent on Profitable Lifetime Index, 20 per cent on increases in milk fat, protein and total solids [individually] and 20 per cent on fertility.”
Currently, commercial DNA profiling of this type is restricted to Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss breeds which have the largest data sets available to analysts, she explains. “Although I see this being of greatest financial value to commercial herds, it does unfortunately exclude cross-breds currently due to a lack of data.”
Results come back in a report which uses a traffic light system to identify which heifers are most likely to fulfil the producer’s aims.
Those highlighted in green offer the most genetic gain and could be considered for more costly sexed semen; amber as possible choices for dairy or beef semen; and reds as those to be sold or used as recipients of beef semen or fertilised embryos.
To accelerate genetic progress rapidly at Statfold Farm, the top 75 per cent of green flagged heifers are put to sexed semen from unproven bulls which have been DNA profiled but as yet have insufficient daughters to be evaluated fully within bull stud proofs, says Mr Gilman.
“Aside from meeting our production goals we favour those with a negative score for stature; we do not want to breed big, rangey cows.”
The next 15 per cent of heifers listed according to genomic ranking are put to beef bulls, and the bottom 10 per cent considered for implanting or beef semen.
This new regime comes at a cost. Aside from genomic testing, sexed semen carries a £10/straw premium typically and – according to industry research – carriers a lower rate of conception.
However, the investment is offset by reducing the number of low value dairy bull calves born, an improvement in heifer performance when in-milk, and better long-term herd fertility, it is suggested.
Miss Jackson adds: “In conjunction with genomic testing, changes to dry cow therapies, reduced mastitis [latterly down to 16 cases/100 cows], better heat detection and AI have improved overall fertility within this herd. Typically, 2.7 doses of AI are used currently for each conception – better than the national average.”
All heifers and cows are presented to the vet two weeks after calving to check they are cycling properly as part of a routine herd health visit. Any out of sync begin a course of injections to kick-start the fertility cycle.
Mr Gilman adds: “We begin AI at 42 days after calving. Heat-time transponders are used to highlight which cows are cycling and the most appropriate time during the day to implant semen.”
Universally, dairy advisory bodies both in the UK and USA admit it is hard to pin-down actual cost/benefit calculations for genomic testing and its impact on an individual farm’s margin from milk production.
But Mr Gilman is philosophical on the impact.
“The plan is to have all the large-scale investment needed to increase milk income made within the next two years and for the herd to be in a position to finance the repayments.
“For me what has also been important is I have always wanted to be in a position to buy semen rather than be sold it which is why we have used a [genomic] service which is not tied to supplying AI.
“I do not take the decisions on breeding alone; I see it as being a joint decision. I ask Rose for her advice on bull selection as we are both clear on what the objectives are and the potential long-term benefits to the herd.”
It is not just genomic testing which is improving herd health and production at Statfold Farm.
TMR diets are being improved by allowing dry ingredients to ‘steep’ in water before mixing with maize and grass silage, says Mr Gilman.
“It produces a moister feed and cows appear less able to ‘sort’ ingredients at the feed fence.”
Feed trough space is lined in the base with a hard plastic liner enabling easier cleaning out when required.
“We have also been trying out advice from a recent meeting about not raising voices while managing cows during routine tasks and milking.
“We try not to stand in the huge blind spot to the rear of a cow when moving animals but remain in their vision by standing to their side.
“It appears to have had some impact after just a few weeks. Our relief milker commented cows enter the parlour more easily than before. Reducing any stress on the herd is likely to have a positive impact.”