Dairy cross-breeding is gaining momentum

We live in an age of change, and farming has not missed out on the steady march of progress.

Some farmers embrace change faster and more enthusiastically than others, but in the end they all move to new techniques and technologies. Many will remember when tractors were two-wheel drive, and regularly got stuck in the mud. Or when fencing stakes were routinely driven in by hand, when a good cow gave 1,000 galls a lactation.

The new farming technology is to be seen at shows and events which are hugely popular. When I go, I make a conscious effort to spend a good deal of time touring the smaller stands where technology is not metal and rubber but methods and smaller innovations. My eyes were opened at the Livestock Event last September by Geno, a business focussing on cattle cross-breeding.

Take a look at a herd of dairy cows and you may notice a subtle difference — instead of them all being black and white, you might see browns, reds, greys and other colours, a hotch potch that is normally only seen in a commercial beef herd. Commercial dairy cows are just beginning to follow pigs, poultry and sheep in going cross-bred. After a few hundred years of pedigree breeding, combining blood lines from cattle that are all registered in the same book, which, with the use of AI, has focused on a fewer number of bulls, cattlemen are looking for commercial.

The close breeding of black and white cattle concerned me in the ’80s with my own herd. I went part of the way to solve it using New Zealand Freisian bulls, but was not daring enough to breed cross-breds — even though one of my highest profit cows was a Friesian x Jersey. The embarrassment of milking a Heinz 57 herd was too great!

Why go crossbred? Combining the attributes of different breeds creates animals with fewer health problems, are easier to get in calf, cows which last longer, and dairy bull calves that will fetch a reasonable price in market. These facts take years to collect, as cattle are bred and evaluated, but at a Moorepark breeding forum last January Frank Buckley showed the results of a Irish trial initiated in 2004 which compared pure Holstein cows with pure Norweigian Red (NRF) cows and Holstein x NRF crossbreds.

The comprehensive trial showed a profit gain of €130 per cow per lactation, coming from better performance.

How to go crossbred? A two-way cross is made by using the new breed bull on your cow, rearing the heifer and then breeding her back to the original Holstein-Freisian. The next generation is crossed back to the same new breed. A three-way cross uses two new breeds, say NRF and Brown Swiss, Jersey, Fleckvieh, or Normande.

Trials show the three-way to be more effective in producing Hybrid Vigour, or Heterosis — the bonus that dairy crossbreeding producers can expect in addition to the positive effects of using top AI bulls within a breed. The effects of heterosis are the opposite of inbreeding depression.

The breeds used in a crossbreeding programme must complement each other well. Whether choosing a two-way or three-way cross, each dairy farmer should make a plan and choose a crossbreeding system that suits their facilities, climate, milk market, nutritional regime and management level.

Your choice of crossing breed, and bull, is made with the shape of your herd and the milk market you’re supplying.

While most farmers start their cross-breeding programme using their existing herd, others sell their pure bred cows and buy in cross breds, in order to save time.

Whichever way the change is made, it certainly is one of huge significance to the farming family.

There are few farmers who are not immensely proud of their breeding policy and the bulls they have used, going back many decades, and to suddenly muddy the waters takes courage, and a change of mind-set.

For the focus of the new breeding will be purely financial, and will be made with fewer supporting statistics than those provided by the breed society. Which is where the Geno business comes in, helping farmers make the best choice of cross bulls in a world dominated by pedigrees.

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