There are mixed opinions when it comes to breeding cows for grazing-based, spring-calving systems, so Keith Davis has devised his own genetic programme to suit the farm, philosophy and milk contract. Ann Hardy reports.
Keith Davis is single-mindedly focused on producing milk solids. As the manager of Lord Bledisloe’s 1,000-head herd at Lydney Park Farm on the western flanks of the River Severn, Gloucestershire, he says both his management and breeding policies have one objective in mind.
Everything about the 607-hectare (1,500-acre) business has guided the system towards producing milk solids, from the preferences of its owners to its large blocks of uninterrupted grazing land.
Today, it does this to good effect with its cross-bred herd which is milked just once-a-day, produces most of its milk from grazed grass and yields an average of 345kg fat plus protein per lactation. Mr Davis hardly gives a thought to the volume of its production.
He says: “We are lucky here because we are effectively on a purely solids contract. A lot of people are on semi-solids with a base price for litres and extra for fat and protein.”
Selling milk to Wyke Farms where it is destined for cheese production, he explains he pays a haulage surcharge because he is ‘outside their area’.
Mr Davis says: “The more solids we can get into a litre, the lower our surcharge will be.”
Also claiming to be philosophically opposed to transporting water, which is ‘just transporting waste’, he says the cows and the system are specifically designed for low volume.
He says: “We do not want volume, because on once-a-day milking, it puts too much strain on the udder. We want our cows to peak at 1.8kg fat plus protein per day, but we do not want them to peak at more than 20 litres.
“Our cows peak at about 20 litres and have a lactation of about 4,000 litres. A Holstein giving 1.8kg fat plus protein would peak at about 25 litres and give 4,500 litres.”
With this is mind, the Jersey cross Friesian has become the mainstay of the herd, gradually taking the place of the Holstein which has been bred out of the system since the switch was made from the intensive, high-input operation in 2008.
“We started the switch by serving heifers in 2007 to a New Zealand Friesian,” says Mr Davis, who worked closely with overall estate manager Gavin Green during the transition and was guided by the NZ Breeding Worth (BW) as a genetic index at the outset.
Mr Davis says: “Profitable Lifetime Index [PLI] was the prevailing breeding index at the time, although it was not for a grazing system, but more the traditional UK system housed for five months a year.
“In 2012, we moved away from BW towards the Economic Breeding Index [EBI] from Ireland, because we felt it was better suited to Northern European climate and milk contracts.
“We knew BW over-valued protein for the UK payment system, but we also saw limitations of EBI, which we thought was too strongly focused on fertility.
“I was not convinced of the science behind the real profit-drivers in the Irish index, so I was not completely happy to base my breeding on this alone.”
As a member of the AHDB Dairy board, Mr Davis was well placed to argue in favour of the need for a tailored UK breeding index to suit grazing-based, spring-calving herds. His voice was one of many which was heard and eventually led to the development of the UK’s Spring-Calving Index (£SCI).
He says: “I knew the index would be researched with the UK’s profit drivers and climate in mind for a spring-calving herd.”
Today, he chooses his sires on the strength of £SCI, but has not abandoned EBI and BW altogether. He says: “Like many of the grazing-based guys, I would like to see young genomic bulls from New Zealand on the £SCI list.
“I understand NZ genotype data is not supplied to the UK, so the only way we can judge NZ young sires is on their BW. If these young sires were on the list, the £SCI would be the only index we would use.”
With the main shortlist of sires made on £SCI, it is then a case of seeking out bulls with the highest percentage and kilograms of fat and protein and looking for negative litres of milk.
Mr Davis says: “We will then look for low somatic cell counts in the breeding index, as milking once-a-day tends to push up cell counts, and we want a negative maintenance figure.”
This, he believes, will keep the size of the herd stable at a mature weight of about 500kg which ‘will do less damage to grazing ground and in challenging conditions’.
His ultimate cow, he says, is 75 per cent Jersey and 25 per cent Friesian, with genetics largely obtained from New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and the UK.
“I do not think any other breed would give us these solids on once-a-day milking,” he says, remarking almost everything is produced from silage and grass, with only 225kg concentrates/cow/year.
Semen price is said to have plummeted since the system switch was made, with the highest genetic merit bulls costing less for the grazing unit than with the intensive herd.
“With the old herd, we had tight constraints on semen price, but here, we average £10/straw for exactly the bulls we want.
“It is a reflection of the fact grazing-based people are fixated with costs and those with pedigree Holsteins sometimes are not,” he believes. “And it demonstrates there are large margins to be had in the semen market.”
The outcome of the breeding policy is cattle with good feet, good fertility and high quality milk, which walk well on tracks, are easy calving and hardy in difficult conditions.
Asked about their profitability, he says it is the system itself which drives profits.
Mr Davis says: “Even when we had Holsteins out there, finances started to come right. We just knew we had to have different genetics to make it work properly.”
Budgeting for a profit this year, even in the face of a drop in milk price, he is reluctant to divulge his costs of production per litre, but says his employers are happy with business performance.
He says: “This farm is run like a tenancy. It pays rent to the estate and is a very high rent. If we can pay more than the market rent and still make a profit, my employers and their farm advisors are happy with that.”
For Mr Davis and the team, he says there are added advantages, including better staff motivation, more day-to-day variety and time off when the whole herd is dry, which is well-timed for Christmas.
“I was more stressed before, because we were always trying to keep staff motivated.
“This year, our herdsmen Tim Thompson and Pawel Wegelewski both went home to New Zealand and Poland, respectively, for Christmas. They both enjoy the system and setting their own targets and as long as they hit them, I do not mind how they get there and the whole team is happy.”