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Breeding Indices Aid Selection For Holstein Fertility

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The Holstein breed has had a very poor press in recent years, taking the brunt of the blame for the national decline in fertility. But according to Leicestershire organic producer, Wil Armitage, it is unfair to tar an entire breed with the same brush. “The Holstein still offers the widest genetic pool and if we use the selection tools now available and feed them right they will still give the best return on capital invested,” he argues.

Mr Armitage farms in partnership with his former boss and well known breeder Peter Dixon-Smith. Wil managed his renowned Lyons herd for 13 years before being offered the chance to take a greater stake in the business based at Keythorpe Lakes near Tugby. Following the dispersal of the original herd there has been a major change in direction with the conversion of the 312ha grass and arable unit to organic production. “We have been fully organic for 18 months and are steadily building cow numbers as our ability to produce home grown feed increases,” explains Mr Armitage.

At present he is milking around 250 cows and is able to produce the majority of his 7800 litres rolling herd average sold from a range of home grown forages and cereals including lucerne, red clover and triticale. “With high-priced bought in organic feed and milk prices falling we can only remain profitable if we maximise home grown feed levels,” he stresses.

In the main Mr Armitage has kept faith with the Holstein breed, albeit a less extreme version than he used to manage. “This farm is not suited to early turnout and spring calving so we need a higher yielding cow that can efficiently utilise a winter TMR system,” he explains. “We are using some Scandinavian genetics and we have a Danish Red sweeper bull to inject some hybrid vigour into our more extreme cows, but the bulk of our replacements are still black and white.” 

And it is the shortage of bought in replacements calving at the right time and with the right health status that puts fertility at the top of Wil’s list of selection criteria when he is buying his AI sires. “We are a block calving herd, producing most of our milk in the winter months to maximise the seasonality payments from our milk buyer, OMSCO,” he comments.  As a result Wil needs to load the front end of the block with heifers and try to have as many cows as possible calving back in the September to Christmas period. “To do this we need cows that are inherently more fertile that can calve back in the year,” he adds.  Although 7,800 litres sold is relatively high for an organic herd, Wil feels that you can still get good reproductive performance providing you have the right genetics and feed the cows well.  “In the last 12 months we have fed 2.3t concentrate a cow (35% home grown) and although our calving interval is 400 days, it should be better,” he admits. “We would like to be able to challenge the cows to produce more from forage but to do that you need a tighter calving block and that means better fertility.”

“In the past we have used bulls which have subsequently turned out to have a poor fertility index and that has been evident in the progeny. When you have maiden heifers struggling to conceive, then what hope is there for them as cows? Conversely we are milking some mature cows that calve down regularly and still produce 13,000 litres in a lactation, so there has to be a genetic element to it,” he argues.

Fertility indices have been available in the UK since 2005 and Wil uses them as his first selection tool when looking at new AI bulls. Calving interval and non return rates for UK proven bulls and converted values for imported sires are used to produce an index expressed as a financial value on the same scale as PIN and PLI.

“The range is +/- £10 profit per lactation which may not seem a lot but the genetic benefit of using successive generations of high fertility index bulls is cumulative and it does also have major knock on benefits  in the way that cows can be fed and managed more efficiently when they are regular trouble free breeders,” stresses Mr Armitage.

Within the top 100 PLI rankings 45 bulls currently have positive fertility indices and of these, seven are in the Top 10. Although the PLI formula now favours bulls with good management traits including fertility some of these bulls can transmit over 600kg milk which suggests good fertility and high yields are not mutually exclusive.

Having narrowed the selection down on fertility index, Will then looks for bulls with a maximum 300kg milk with negative SCC PTAs, positive percentages and a minimum +0.3 Lifespan. In addition to sound functional type he also wants bulls with positive chest width and a maximum 1.5 stature to prevent cows becoming too extreme. “We need cows that are robust and capable of producing milk from grass as well as TMR,” he stresses.

This breeding season one of the main AI sires have been the German Lukas son Leif who has a fertility index of +2.8 and is also a Top 30 PLI bull with exceptional lifespan and SCC indices. In addition he is using two high type Boss Iron sons- Cagni Iron Quasimo and Pine-Shelter Logan Iron, both of which have extremely good SCCs and positive fertility indices.

Although experimenting with Norwegian and Danish Reds Mr Armitage still feels that the Holstein will still give the greater production efficiency in any system not relying solely on milk from grass. “Now that we have the tools to identify the better fertility bulls then it should be possible to select those that deliver on both yield and fertility,” he concludes.


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