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Breeding the invisible cow

A change of breeding on an Irish farm has transformed the fortunes and lifestyle of a family and prepared the business for the next generation.

When dairy farmer, Aidan Deasy, challenged his breeding advisor to produce a cow for his system, he thought he was asking the impossible. He knew exactly the traits in the animal he did and didn’t want and the problems he needed to avoid.

Like many producers, he’d had enough of lameness, was tired of disappointing pregnancy checks, and was keen to cut down on metabolic disorders like ketosis and milk fever. In short, he said he wanted to breed ‘the invisible cow’.

Milking 180 head on the family farm near the city of Cork in the Irish Republic, he describes the cow he sought for his grazing-based system.

“We wanted cows you don’t see - cows that are inseminated, calve and are dried off and you don’t need to see them in between.”

To achieve this, he sought strong hooves, better fertility, improved teat placement and increased milking speeds – amongst a range of other traits.

“I set a target I thought was unattainable,” he admits. “Especially since I wanted all of this, without any drop in milk solids.”

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

Challenging times

An urgency was added to the process by a sequence of preceding events. This included a serious car crash in 2007, which left Aidan unable to milk in the parlour, in turn leading to a switch to robotic milking.

The Lely robots were a godsend from a practical perspective but the knock-on effects on the herd were mixed.

“In the first year, production increased from 6,500 to 8,500 litres just through more frequent milkings, and in the second year, we improved the feeding, and the yield went up to 9,000 litres,” he says.

But at the same time, the North American Holsteins’ genetic predisposition to give milk saw them milking off their backs and losing body condition. This led to a series of metabolic disorders, most seriously lameness, which was attributed in part to a reduction in cushioning from the hoof’s fatty pad.

Lameness would hit the herd in waves, even with the foot trimmer coming every week,” he says.

Problems with fertility also increased, presenting particular concerns for the block-calving herd. With calving taking place over 12 weeks (Feb-April), some cows falling outside the system ended up milking for 600 days.

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

Putting the business back on track

Aidan had reached a low ebb by the time he discussed the situation in detail with Eurogene AI Services, and eventually challenged the company to fix the breeding and put the business back on track.

“Their suggestion was a switch to genetics from the VikingGenetics countries, where there’s been a long-term emphasis on breeding for health and fertility,” he says.

This has been enhanced across the VikingGenetics countries of Denmark, Sweden and Finland over many years, where records from vets and foot trimmers are pooled, creating extensive databases on treatments, which have gone on to be used in genetic evaluations.

“This gave the Viking countries a head-start on the rest of the world, while some other countries were selecting more single-mindedly for milk production,” explains Philip Whitley, area breeding advisor with Eurogene.

“This early focus on health and fertility is reflected in the indexes of today’s VikingGenetics sires,” he adds.

Unique in these countries is the Hoof health index which describes a bull’s daughters’ genetic ability to resist hoof disease. The index includes 10 hoof disorders including digital dermatitis and sole ulcer, both of which were present on Aidan’s farm.

Jan Andresen from VikingGenetics was also enlisted for the job and developed a breeding policy for the farm.

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

Switching to VikingGoldenCross

“He guaranteed he could fix our problems and proposed using their VikingGoldenCross system,” says Aidan, describing the VikingRed, Jersey and Holstein three-way crossing rotation.

“I honestly didn’t believe him, but I did my research, and could see the high health of the bulls he proposed to use,” he says. “This included the stud’s Holsteins which the data said were clearly going to help with hoof health.

“He had such faith in the product he gave me a watertight guarantee it would work,” he says. “So, I decided to give VikingGenetics and Eurogene complete responsibility and accountability for the breeding, and they took on the challenge.”

Identifying each cow’s genetic potential, the team pinpointed those to breed for dairy replacements and assigned the remainder to beef sires.

“Jan gave me a list – a first choice VikingRed and a second choice Holstein – although I chose to put the best cows to Holstein as I was afraid to put my full faith in the Reds,” he says.

“However, the moment the Reds were on the ground I saw my mistake and wished I hadn’t lost a Red generation,” he says. “The calves were superbbig, extremely healthy and eager to feed, with no scour at all.

The free benefits of heterosis

“I presume the hybrid vigour (heterosis) from crossbreeding was a factor, as this is known to improve health.”

Philip corroborates this observation and says the first cross of two different breeds gains the greatest benefit from heterosis.

“But by sticking with a three-breed cross, hybrid vigour is maintained indefinitely at a level of 86%,” he says. “And by using these particular breeds, you end up with the health and fertility traits for which the Vikings have bred for so long, in a cow which is suited to spring calving and grazing.”

The success of the calves fed through to the crossbred heifers and cows, now numbering around 120 head of the 180-strong herd.

Some of this number are by Jerseys, which Aidan also gives fulsome praise. “They have no health treatments, no foot paring and low cell counts although can be mischievous animals.”

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

Moderate size cows

He says he’s surprised by the size of the Jersey out of the VikingRed cross, which tends to be bigger than the Jersey x Holstein.

With sexed semen used for all first dairy inseminations, there is rarely a pure dairy male calf to sell. But buyers of the herd’s beef are always shown dams and are pleasantly surprised by their size.

“Size was one of the criteria I set at the outset, as I wanted the cows to fit our existing cubicles – I wanted a 600 kg cow,” explains Aidan.

With a few three-way crosses now milking in the herd, he says they have more than fulfilled his objective of being ‘totally invisible’.

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

Invisible cows

“They just do the business,” he says. “They all got in calf to the first insemination and it’s nice to see calving index coming forward. It’s a good indication of what’s hopefully to come.”

Health and fertility of the herd have been transformed with veterinary and labour costs also cut. “The hoof trimmer now visits every two months as part of a structured routine,” he says. “He picks up every hoof and some may need a trim, but he says the VikingRed hooves are like steel!”

This is reflected in lameness cases, which have been slashed from 64 cases in 2017 to just five cases in 2021. This is despite over 1km of walking on hardcore tracks, and an ‘ABC’ grazing system which offers three new grazings every 24 hours.

“They are always eager to go to fresh grass, whereas before, I often had to move them,” he says. Mastitis cases have also gone down from 63 cases at the outset, in 2017, to five cases in 2021. With somatic cell count also in decline, antibiotic use has been slashed.

“About 20% of the herd is now dried off with antibiotics – all based on cell count – whereas previously it was 100%,” he says.

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

High production of solids and efficiency

The ultimate test has been in the herd’s production and economic performance, which stands at 8,300kg at 4.4% fat and 3.6% protein from 1.75 tonnes of concentrate per cow per year. This comes from a herd comprising around two-thirds first and second calvers, as mature cows have been moved on.

“Milk volume is slightly lower than before, but the kilos of milk solids and the income from milk have stayed the same,” says Aidan.

The cows’ efficiency is also confirmed by the Lely software which calculates an efficiency report for each animal in the herd. This measures milk production as kilos of milk solids per day; it knows concentrate use for each animal and knows the price of milk on Aidan’s contract.

“This gives a margin per cow which I glance at every day,” he says.

VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy
When I move the bottom 10% on, I find they’re mostly pure Holsteins.

Aidan Deasy,
180 milking cows, Ireland

Better lifestyle

Aidan admits the management of the farm has undergone a transformation with a focus on using expert advice and rewarding the family and team.

“When you have a major injury it changes your whole perspective and whilst I hate admitting it, lifestyle is now a priority.

“If we have a good year, the lads are paid a bonus, and from my own point of view, my tax bill is up, so that shows we’re more profitable, in a nutshell!

“Everything is easier, and without a shadow of doubt, we do have a better lifestyle,” he says. “And if you can demonstrate this to the next generation, it makes it so much more encouraging for them to give farming a go.”

Farm facts:

  • 180 milking cows
  • System: VikingGoldenCross, spring block-calving
  • Robotic milking
  • Production: 8,300kg at 4.4% fat and 3.6% protein from 1.75 tonnes of concentrate per cow per year
  • Lameness cases, reduced from 64 cases in 2017 to just 5 cases in 2021
  • Mastitis cases, reduced from 63 cases in 2017 to 5 cases in 2021.
Read more about VikingGoldenCross
VikingGoldenCross Aidan Deasy

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