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Sexed semen cements the success of block-calving ProCROSS herd

Margins have soared for a ProCROSS herd using mainly X-Vik sexed semen. Cutting veterinary costs and surplus heifers for sale granted the financial results.

The Holstein breed had served Ian and Will Nixon well over many years. At its peak in the early 2000s, their 350-head pedigree Clockhill herd had won the NMR production/inspection award for Shropshire and was yielding 9,500 litres.

But over the ensuing years they noticed things starting to slip, with veterinary bills edging upwards, production dropping below 8,000 litres, and most notably, they saw a gradual decline in their cows’ longevity. Culling was based on all the usual health and fertility issues, replacement rate edged up from 20% to 30% and eventually, they struggled to produce sufficient heifers to meet their replacement needs.

Farming at Upper Farm in the hamlet of Ridgewardine, near Market Drayton, the father and son team finally bit the bullet. In 2017, after trips to the USA and France to study the breeds, they switched to ProCROSS, bringing the three-way cross of the VikingHolstein, Montbéliarde and VikingRed on to their 600-acre farm.

“We wanted to see the Montbéliarde before we started, and we discovered it was a high production dairy cow with good milk solids and a robust frame,” says Will.

“The VikingReds are also nice cattle; smaller than the Holstein but they still give plenty of milk, fat and protein,” adds Ian.

A quick-start with a new breeding strategy

Kick-starting the process with the import of 79 ProCROSS heifers from Denmark in 2017, the Nixons gave their first impressions as the in-calf heifers arrived on the farm.

“We weren’t in the least worried,” says Ian. “We had seen the results of trials in the USA, and we could see that cross-breeding with this system and these breeds exactly addressed the problems we were having.

“We were reassured by the science but we could also see that the herds our heifers had come from were achieving good results.”

As the three-way cross cattle settled, the Nixons quickly saw they had better health and fertility, were easier calving and gave plenty of high-quality milk.

Positive results led to surplus heifers to sell

Always alternating the same three breeds, it was not long before they’d fulfilled their own herd’s replacement requirements and had surplus heifers to sell.

“The bull calves had a slightly higher value than a Holstein bull calf, but we could see how much more we could get by producing more dairy heifers and breeding the rest of the herd to beef,” says Will.

So, when confronted with the idea of using sexed semen from VikingGenetics, they had no hesitation in making the switch. This was despite the autumn block calving, which demanded a good conception rate early in the breeding season.

“We were already confident in the fertility of the ProCROSS cattle, and at our first PD session after using sexed semen we had a 70% conception rate to first service in heifers, and 45% in the cows,” says Will.

Buoyed by this success, the Nixons now inseminate every cow and heifer to X-Vik sexed semen in the first six weeks of breeding, moving to Wagyu beef once sufficient dairy replacements have been conceived.

“We don’t make any pre-selection of cows bred to sexed, as those which come bulling first are going to be the most fertile,” says Will.

Sire selection is also straightforward, with six bulls – the best two from each of the breeds – chosen for every season.

“It’s really important to use the best genetics, and we are selecting bulls which transmit the best mammary systems and udder health, good legs and feet and not too much stature,” says Will.

“However, we don’t now have to worry about inbreeding, as we are always alternating the three breeds, with every female allocated her own service breed for life.”

Surplus heifers to sell

When confronted with the idea of using sexed semen, they had no hesitation in making the switch. 

We were already confident in the fertility of the ProCROSS cattle, and at our first PD session after using sexed semen we had a 70% conception rate to first service in heifers, and 45% in the cows.

Will Nixon

The economic advantages keep farmers satisfied

Today, production of their herd is back above 8,000 litres at 4.19% fat and 3.49% protein. Veterinary costs have dropped from £87/head in 2016, to £39/head by the end of 2020 and margin has increased by £200 per cow.

“It’s a much less stressful way of farming as calving is so much easier and we don’t have to worry so much about sick cows,” says Ian.

The final proof is seen in the pure Holsteins and ProCROSS cohorts which joined the herd in 2017, both groups calving at two years.

“They are all in their fourth lactations now and we have 58 remaining of the 79 imported ProCROSS and 29 left of the 80 Holsteins,” says Ian.

 

Text by: Ann Hardy

Freelance journalist in the UK

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