Advice for dairy farmers: Beware of long term shortage of high-EBI heifers

There are early indications in this year’s dairy breeding of a swing to more beef breeds, and in some cases, more stock bulls.

Based on the price of beef calves, and the price of milk this year, this reaction from dairy farmers is understandable.

However, this could be a case of short term gain for long term pain, because there could be a shortage of high-EBI dairy heifers coming down the line.

For the past few years, many farmers had been setting a target of 30-40 AI-bred heifers per 100 cows to allow for expansion, culling and the sale of surplus stock.

Previously, only 16 AI-bred dairy heifers per 100 cows were being bred each year.

It takes about five AI straws to produce a suitable dairy heifer calving down.

Changing to a dairy stock bull to replace AI is not a wise choice.

The cost of AI works out at about 0.6 cent per litre of milk, including repeats.

A good quality dairy stock bull will cost over €2,000, and apart from his unreliability and the number of cows he can serve, there will be no financial saving, even in the short term.

Great AI choice

Farmers have a great choice of AI bulls now.

Some of the genomic bulls have been proven, and there is a vastly improved range of proven and genomic bulls available.

Farmers can now select bulls from the latest list with EBI over 300, which will breed cows with the potential to give them massive extra profit per lactation over cows bred from average stock bulls.

Moreover, they can select bulls that will improve traits that may be deficient in their own herds such as fertility, milk solids etc.

Fertility has been a major problem on dairy farms for decades and, as a result, over 40% weighting is given to fertility traits in the calculation of the EBI.


Another option that might suit some farmers with herd fertility problems is crossbreeding.

The main advantages of crossbreeding are improved fertility traits.

However, with the availability of EBI fertility data and with good management, farmers can improve fertility without crossing to other breeds.

Understandably, many farmers are slow to change from high EBI Holstein/Friesians, especially to Jersey crosses, because of male calf and cull cow values, and total crossing to other dairy breeds remain less than 5% (Jerseys about 2%).

The Holstein crossed to pure Friesian is becoming a growing trend, especially among farmers whose herds have become too extreme, and whose system suits good-yielding, fertile herds, with medium beef qualities.

Changes in EBI

The Economic Breeding Index (EBI) is being regularly updated and extra criteria added.

The weighting factors in the EBI are based on the Moorepark dairy farm system model.

This model is updated annually to reflect the latest projections on milk price and costs based on five-year projections.

More lactations are now included in the EBI.

Active Bull List

The ICBF publishes its top Active Dairy AI Sires regularly and it is being continually updated.

Due to Genomic Selection over the past few years, there has been a massive increase in EBI values, with more than 100 over 250, and many over 300.

These EBIs would have seemed unrealistic a few years ago.

There is a large increase in the fertility sub-index of the EBI, while the sub-index for milk volume has decreased significantly.

The current list contains a high proportion of Irish-bred bulls, compared to only two in 2001.

The Gene Ireland progeny test programme and the Genomic Selection technology are the main reason for this change.

Study the Active Bull list carefully (it’s on the web site).

Get the best possible advice on breeding policy for building up improvements to the herd that will deliver the best profit under conditions of proper nutrition, disease control and management.

Care should also be taken to avoid inbreeding.

With the high fertility indices of some of the Holstein/Friesians, farmers can develop fertile, high-producing Holstein/Friesian herds without changing from black and whites.

Despite the popularity of Jersey crosses, I think most farmers will wisely stay with the black and whites.

This will give them the opportunity to have pedigree herds as well as having valuable male progeny and cull cows. There is little doubt but that the Holstein /Friesian will remain the main dairy breed in Ireland.

Because of their relatively low reliability, genomically selected bulls should be included in teams of five, and fully proven bulls should be used on some of the herd. If using some sexed semen, a number of bulls should also be used.

As fertility remains one of the main problems in dairy herds, farmers should be choosing bulls with a high sub-index for fertility. Different farmers have different priorities for their herds.

While accepting the value of EBI and genomic selection, some breeders fear that enough attention is not being paid to type and production and that some of the characteristics such as excellent udders, production efficiency and feet, which have been built up over generations, might be diluted.

There are many situations on Irish farms where land is limited, and relatively high-yielding, fertile herds are best suited, if management is good. 

Even without land restrictions, some farmers prefer herd yields of 1,400-1,500 gallons of milk, with good solids per cow, rather than average yields of 1,000-1,100 gallons. So, when choosing bulls, “there are horses for courses”.

Sexed semen has shown promise, and with further developments, should be of growing benefit in the future.


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