More efficiently produced, top quality, award-winning cheese is just one of the factors behind the increase in cross-bred cows in North West Wales.
While the primary objective when cross-breeding is to improve health and longevity, and reduce reliance on antibiotics the higher milk solids gained from cross-breeding is also an advantage.
This is particularly important in certain areas on the western fringes of Wales, where much of the milk produced goes into cheese making.
The farmer-owned dairy co-operative, South Caernarfon Creameries, produces 14,000 tonnes of cheese a year, comprising 40 different varieties. And farm liaison manager, Peredur Williams, says its 135 farmer members are being encouraged to follow a cross-breeding programme.
Mr Williams explains the payment a farmer gets for the extra milk solids can make a substantial difference, even when balanced against a lower yield.
He says: “As a milk purchaser, the milk benefit is that the solids are high and the balance between the butterfat and protein is particularly good for making high quality cheese. You also get a good and high yield of cheese from every litre of milk.
“It can make a substantial difference to the farmer’s income, even when balanced out with a lower yield.
"But some farmers say they want ‘milk in the tank, money in the bank’ while others want the whole package, the value from the calf, value from the cow and the value per litre. It is all about balance.”
Nearby Glynllifon Land-based College have begun a crossbreeding programme, precisely because they wanted that ‘whole package’.
Farm Manager, Rhodri Manod Owen, says the switch from a pure-bred Ayrshire and Holstein herd began in 2014 because they were looking for increased longevity.
They began cross breeding with a Norwegian Red, but realised a third cross was needed to maintain high hybrid vigour levels within the herd.
The Montbeliarde from France was chosen and that led to implementing a Procross-breeding programme, which uses Holstein, Viking Red and Montbeliarde breeds. The Viking Red is a Scandinavian breed combining the Finnish, Swedish and Danish red breeds.
Mr Owen says: “We are putting our faith in hybrid vigour to reduce production-limiting factors such as fertility, health and thus longevity. We are confident it will bring more advantages rather than disadvantages and provide us with a structured breeding programme and strong resilient productive cows.
“It is innovative, which sits well with us as a college. We want to have very good feet so we can reduce lameness, have a stronger immune system in order to reduce dependence on antibiotics. Historically our calving index has been a concern – at over 400 days with some of the highest yielding cows
“The first cohort of Norwegian Red crosses are yielding 7,000 litres at 4.21 per cent butterfat and 3.35 per cent protein with a calving index of 375 days. We will see other advantages obviously, but these alone will bring significant productive and financial gains in the short term.
“The third breed, the Montbeliarde, is quite a robust animal and very fleshy, so that at first appearance some look like beef cows. A pure-bred Monbeliarde can produce in excess of 10,000 litres, which is surprising when you see these large, beefy looking heavy cows.
“The production figures are excellent and they have good fertility, good general health and they strongly influence the solids in the milk, the protein and the fat. We know we can increase the solids in the milk.”
It is also hoped age at first calving will drop to 24 months, from the current 28-29 months, which should help increase longevity in the herd.
While the breeding programme is viewed as a long-term project, there are other changes taking place within the herd, in particular the move from all year round calving to block calving.
Mr Owen explains nothing has been brought into the herd for the past 10 years, so the plan is to take 40 replacement heifers through to the main herd each year. This means it will take time to achieve the desired herd of 200 Procross block calving cows by 2025.
Currently there are first cross Norwegian Red cross Ayrshire and Holstein milking in the herd and it is hoped the first 40 Procross heifers will calve down at 24 months in the autumn of 2020.
Mr Owen says the aim is to improve the business’ bottom line, and make it sustainable with the business having to make a profit despite its status as a college farm.