Herd replacement strategies post 2015

Published 3 April 14

With talk of a potential spike in European milk production post 2015, how could this impact herd replacement strategy? DairyCo’s Andy Dodd takes a closer look… 

It is noticeable that the countries touted to have their eyes most clearly on expansion also happen to be the ones we source most of our overseas replacement heifers from – Germany, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands.  So there could be several ramifications from this as we edge towards next year.

Firstly, it could simply impact availability of stock, and therefore cost. If these countries decide to retain more heifers to support their own expansion of milk production, then prices will rise.  This is fine while cull cow prices are favourable against those of close heifers, but we have already seen these ease through the first part of 2014 and there is no guarantee prices will hold up if beef supplies increase globally.

And then there’s the question of quality. Those breeding their own stock are going to retain the best, so lower quality will find its way on to the market…and there’s the growing focus on disease control. With aggressive programmes to reduce BVD, Leptospirosis, Johne’s and IBR gathering pace in many European countries, infected or inconclusive stock is more likely to find its way on to markets and into your herd unless you are uncompromising about vaccination and certification regimes.  With BVD costing UK farmers £61 million and Johne’s £31 million (CHAWG report 2012) each year, these aren’t problems you want to introduce if you have low existing rates of infection.

Buying in heifers also means their genetic potential can be unknown. If you are considering switching from a flying to breeding herd, or simply improving your herd’s genetics, then it’s possible to determine the genomic potential of your own or bought-in heifers through a simple DNA test. For around £25-£30, you will get a good indication of her genetic potential in terms of milk, fat and protein, but also lifespan, fertility and somatic cell counts: a worthwhile investment if you are considering breeding your own replacements. Genomically testing your heifers will also allow you to be more selective in your breeding decisions. It’s a technology now widely available for Holsteins through milk recording organisations and breed societies, and allows farmers to ensure they maintain the good traits within their herd and improve weaknesses.

This benefit can be further compounded if you use sexed semen on your heifers. With a typical conception rate 18-20% lower than non-sexed semen when used on milking animals, sexed semen is best used on the most fertile animals in the herd, so in particular maiden heifers.  But it’s still worth considering for milking animals. Overall, at a conservative estimate, you could aim to get around 40-45% of first-calvers back in calf to sexed semen. Of these animals you will get around 90% heifers from those that conceive.

Finally, genomic bulls are a great way of kick-starting a breeding herd. With a reliability of 65-70% (similar to genomically-tested heifers), they are attracting a lot of interest from farmers who previously only used proven bulls. The big reason is their genetic potential; they are the most advanced generation of bulls available. Our advice would be to use a proportion of these top young sires as part of your breeding programme. Some people are so converted to the benefits, that they have switched 100% from proven to genomic bull semen.