Dairy Farm Innovation Visit to Somerset and Devon was a Huge Success

October 6, 2022

A group of dairy farmers from Northern Ireland accompanied by CAFRE Dairy Advisers David Mackey and Conail Keown took part in a very successful recent Farm Innovation study tour to look at innovations in cross breeding in moderate to high yielding dairy herds in the south of England.

Cross Breeding in Dairy Herds

Crossbreeding is practiced in the majority of livestock production systems including beef, sheep, pigs and poultry, but dairying in contrast is dominated by pure breeds – predominantly the Holstein which has been used widely from the 1980s because of it’s ability to produce large volumes of milk.  The Holstein breed has revolutionized milk production but it has also been associated with declining fertility, health and longevity.  While dairy crossbreeding is the norm in lower yielding grass-based production system such as New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, the problems of the Holstein inspired scientists in the USA to examine the potential for crossbreeding in moderate to high yielding dairy herds – the results of which inspired CAFRE to develop a Farm Innovation Visit to the south west of England on the subject.

At the end of August the first group of 20 farmers went on a 2-day trip to Somerset and Devon and visited five herds that have successfully implemented crossbreeding over the last 10-15 years.  The farm visits were arranged in association with Viking Genetics and Genus Hyvig and those on the trip got the opportunity to hear the first hand experiences of the host farmers.  None of the farmers visited regretted their decision to go down the crossbreeding route, and David Mackey, the CAFRE Dairying Adviser who organized and led the trip said “that they all talked about the invisible cow” – a cow whose number isn’t familiar because she goes into calve at first insemination, doesn’t have any mastitis or lameness problems, gives a reasonable amount of milk, calves regularly every year and sticks around in the herd for up to a lactation longer.  However, while highlighting the merits of crossbreeding, Andy Dodd, an independent breeding consultant who had formerly worked at AHDB cautioned on the seriousness of such a decision highlighting that the changes to the £PLI index have much improved the functional traits of the Holstein breed.

All farms visited had started with a herd of Holstein cows and “dabbled” with crossbreeding at first, serving a small number of cows with an alternative breed and waited to see how the crossbreds did in their first lactation before committing to it any further.  Had they to make the decision about crossbreeding again, all those visited said that they wouldn’t have dabbled but would have just gone “whole hog” instead.  The representatives from both Viking Genetics and Genus agreed that the greatest benefit came from the first cross.  Each of them favoured use of the Scandinavian Red, whether that be a Viking Red or a Norwegian Red, as these breeds brought the greatest benefits in terms of health, fertility and longevity whilst also decreasing cow size.  To maintain hybrid vigour four of the five farms visited used a third breed, either Montbeliarde or Fleckvieh, to improve body strength and milk quality before crossing back to the Holstein again for its strengths in terms of milk yield and udder conformation. 

Each farmer visited on the trip talked about the importance of work-life balance, and how crossbreeding has facilitated this by creating an easy-care cow.  However, as with conventional breeding in purebred Holstein herds, they stressed the importance of making strategic breeding decisions over a number of years to produce the type of cow they wanted – and that sires still need to be selected on their relative merits with two sires of each breed type being selected for use each year.

Three of the farms visited had autumn calving herds with all cows calving down in a 10-12 week block.  As well as focusing the workload to particular times of the year, it allowed for drying cows off from early summer to better cope with the grass shortages brought about by the drought conditions in south Devon and Somerset each year.

Despite having crossbred herds, the farmers also spoke about the importance of data recording – and not just milk recording.  They all used a herd recording package where as well as logging yields, information was also entered on fertility and health events enabling the annual incidence of lameness and mastitis to be recorded per 100 cows.  One farmer used a breeding index he had set up on his software to pre-select cows for breeding replacements and speed up genetic progress – inseminating 80% of maiden heifers and just 30% of cows with sexed dairy semen to breed the type of cow he wanted, the rest being bred to beef using Angus or Belgian Blue semen to maximise the financial return from calf sales.

Details of all Farm Innovation Visits and how to book a visit are available here.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the European Union fund the Farm Innovation Visit (FIV) Scheme, as part of the Rural Development Programme.

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