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“Over 10% fat plus protein is the gold standard any producer would be delighted to reach”.

Scottish farmer Colin Murdoch decided to change his breeding strategy to improve production of components. The journey took him to sell his previous herd, and in November last year the whole operation was replaced with a batch of imported, in-calf, VikingJersey cows from Denmark

When Scottish farmer Colin Murdoch and his family switched their herd to the Jersey breed, it was not so much that they were tired of the Holstein, but tired of the price of Holstein milk.

Selling on a conventional contract, Mr Murdoch describes ‘the roller-coaster of prices’ as the key driver for change and had indicated to his buyer that he and his parents, Jim and Sheena, and wife, Kathryn, were keen to make the switch.

“No place for emotional attachment”

When a producer eventually retired from the Jersey pool supplying Graham’s Family Dairy, they had already carried out detailed, three-year budgets and were delighted to be offered the chance to take his place. “We thought about it for two minutes… and then we said ‘yes’!” he says.

The reality of this decision implied selling a herd which had been built up on Buntonhill Farm near Kilmarnock – by his father, grandfather and great grandfather – for over 100 years.

 “There was no place for emotional attachment as we are a business and we need to be profitable” he says.

Also confronted with the need to increase the size of his cubicles to keep pace with the Holsteins’ increase in stature, he said he preferred to invest in Jersey cattle than build a new shed.

A trip with many good results

Reflecting that it was only last summer that his interest in changing breeds was first mooted with Graham’s, he was quick to put in place a strategy to get the new cattle on to the farm.

 “We looked to Denmark where the national health status is light-years ahead.” By contacting a UK-based livestock importer and a representative from VikingGenetics, a three-day trip covering 800 miles and 15 farms resulted in the selection of 150 in-calf heifers. 

“It was as easy as that!” says Mr Murdoch. “The quality was so high that we selected from every farm bar one, and that was as much to do with missing the calving window I required as anything else.”

The cattle were selected on both their genetic index and conformation, with the Nordic Total Merit (NTM) as well as milk components used as key selection criteria.

NTM as breeding goal

“Cattle in Denmark can also be expected to have good genetics for health as this has been a breeding goal for many decades,” says Chris Stone from VikingGenetics.

“Udder and hoof health have been paid particular attention, with the top bulls reducing digital and interdigital dermatitis and sole ulcers by around 50%, when compared with the average. A very low incidence of mastitis across the three VikingGenetics countries (Denmark, Sweden and Finland) is as much a reflection of breeding as management,” he adds.

These traits and many more – all of which are of economic importance – are put together into the NTM to give a selection index which drives health and fertility as well as production traits. This is reflected in the performance of VikingGenetics’ cattle which are not only the healthiest, but also have the highest production in the European Union.

Over 10% fat plus protein is the gold standard any producer would be delighted to reach

Colin Murdoch,
VikingJersey dairy farmer

Adapting to changes

Preparing the farm for the arrival of the VikingJersey heifers, Mr Murdoch sold his black and white herd and made adaptations to the cubicle house and parlour, with beams put in place to narrow the parlour by 23cm each side.

Once cubicles were also reduced in size, the shed increased its capacity to 200 heads, up from the 160 Holstein places it formerly held.

The arrival of the first batch of heifers took place in late October with the first due to calve on 18 November 2019. “We’d been warned of all sorts of problems when training a whole herd of Jersey heifers, but it was actually really easy,” says Mr Murdoch.

They calved down without difficulties and settled really well; their temperaments are fantastic and now they rarely kick off a unit.”

Today, further shipments of heifers have increased the herd’s numbers to 210 and of the 200 already calved – many in-calf to sexed semen – 140 are heifer calves.

These daughters have now been genomically tested by VikingGenetics to help in the process of choosing replacements. “We have also budgeted to sell our surplus as in-calf heifers which we feel will be more profitable than selling beef cross Jersey calves,” he says.

Production in what will be a year-round calving herd (with a current emphasis on autumn) is running at 21.2 litres a day (170 days in milk) at 6.2% fat and 4.4% protein – projected to reach an average 6,000 litres for the heifers’ first 305-day lactation.

A lot of good genetics

Also pleased with this performance is nutritionist Sean Kennedy from Advanced Nutrition who had encouraged the Murdochs to make the switch. “Over 10% fat plus protein is the gold standard any producer would be delighted to reach,” he says.

“I’d like to say it was all down to nutrition, but of course it’s management, health and genetics too. I didn’t get involved in the selection, but I am certain VikingGenetics put a lot of good genetics in front of Colin.” Milk is destined for a Graham’s premium range, including Gold Top and Gold Smooth milk as well as cream and butter. This earns the Murdochs a significant premium over the price they were paid for their Holstein milk. 

The process of switching to Jerseys has reignited enthusiasm in both the family and herdsman Neil Sands, who are retaining the pedigree status and registering new stock under the Glencairn prefix. The VikingGenetics mating program VikMate is being used to select service sires, with a strong emphasis on feet, legs, udders, milk constituents and NTM.

“We have used sexed semen on everything and to date have had 160 of the 200 confirmed in calf,” says Mr Murdoch. “We find them to be easier to work with and they seem to be very fertile.” 

Notable better hoof health

In line with expectations, hoof health is notably better and the most recent visit from the foot trimmer saw the whole herd checked or trimmed in one day, resulting in one hoof bandaged and blocks put on two. “That’s a great result,” says Mr Murdoch. “Previously we would have had far more blocks and bandages.” 

Management has undergone some fine-tuning but is said to be similar to the Holsteins. Like the Holsteins, the herd is zero-grazed for up to seven months a year to target a high return from forage on each litre of milk.

Mr Kennedy explains that he has formulated the total mixed ration to allow for growth in the heifers as well as maintenance and production.

“They are still 10-15% below their mature body weight so we build this into the ration.” Dry matter intakes of the TMR now run at 15.4kg/cow/day, which compares with 22kg for the Holsteins.

Ingredients are currently 16kg first cut silage, 2.5kg crimped barley, 10kg fresh grass and 2kg of a 20% protein blend (fresh weights). A high starch concentrate in the parlour fed at up to 5kg/day, brings the overall ration up to a metabolizable energy (ME) of 12.5MJ/kg DM, while protein is 19%.

Tremendous result for milk of this quality

Profitability will be the ultimate judge of success and early indicators are that this is more than hitting the mark. With little more than six months of costings for the new herd, the focus to date has been on income and costs per day.

“To date, we have analysed feed costs, and these are running at £1.72 per cow per day (concentrates only, including crimp), equivalent to 9.2p/litre,” says Mr Murdoch. “With milk income currently at £6.46/cow/day, the margin over all purchased feeds is £4.74/cow/day.”

“Some 25% of the milk comes from forage which is a tremendous result for milk of this quality from growing heifers,” adds Mr Kennedy. Also looking at energy-corrected milk (adjusted to 3.5% fat and 3.2% protein), which helps give a comparison with the Holstein, this works out at 28-31 litres per day, over the past four months.

“At the end of the day it’s a business and in this respect the VikingJersey ticks all the boxes,” says Mr Murdoch. “But Neil and I also have a renewed enthusiasm for the job; we definitely don’t have any regrets – we’re loving it!”

 

Buntonhill Farm facts

  • Formerly milking 175 Holsteins
  • Switched to Jerseys in October 2019
  • Purchased all in-calf heifers from Denmark
  • Country of origin chosen for high health status
  • Production now exceeding 10% fat plus protein
  • Projected first lactation over 6,000 litres
  • Breeding all to sexed and expanding to 240 heads

 

 

Text by Ann Hardy, Freelance journalist form the United Kingdom