Spotlight on cow quality – The Australian Dairyfarmer

From 17 to 20 July, Livestock Improvement (LIC) Australia came together with around 150 farmers from Tasmania, Gippsland and North Victoria to focus on cow quality and the potential to increase the profitability that lies within most herds.

LIC genetics business manager and former LIC Australia general manager, Greg Hamill, presented on the variances in herd quality in New Zealand, where the industry is experiencing similar changes as Australia.

From 1994 to 2004, New Zealand’s cow population grew by around 100,000 cows per year, peaking at 5 million cows in 2014. Today there are 4.92 million cows in New Zealand.

“Now that we seem to have hit cow capacity, focusing on quantity rather than quality is just not sustainable. We need to be milking the best cows possible, not just any cow,” Mr Hamill said.

The difference between the top quartile and bottom quartile in the New Zealand national herd is currently 160kg milksolids (MS) per cow.

“Given this was calculated after age, breed and location was accounted for, there is a major opportunity here to significantly increase revenue,” Mr Hamill said.

“By altering your breeding strategy, for example upping selection pressure and only mating your top 80-or-so percent of cows to elite AI then mating your poorer cows to short gestation Hereford straws, this extra revenue could be recognised.”

“If you’re not testing and recording herd performance information then it is very difficult to select these cows.”

The Lincoln University dairy farm in Canterbury, New Zealand, was used as an example of what can be achieved when the focus is put on the quality of cows mated instead the quantity.

Lincoln used data from herd testing to cull low performing animals, reducing stocking rates by 16% over a six=year period. Milksolids production went from 400kg MS to 520kg MS.

“This is an impressive improvement, especially given the average liveweight is 500kg and their diet is grass plus only 300kg of imported feed a year,” Mr Hamill said.

“Considering feed is one of the highest costs on dairy farms, having cows that are capable of converting grass to milk efficiently is key for a profitable operation.”

Over the past six years, the Lincoln farm has gone from 33% of feed converted to milk production to 55% recorded in the 2016/17 season.

The roadshow also considered the role efficient herd reproduction plays in driving herd quality.

LIC international technical manager, Joyce Voogt, shared recent New Zealand dairy herd reproductive performance statistics and the impact on farm profit.

“New Zealand farmers are world leaders in reproduction, with around 65% of cows getting in calf in the first six weeks of the mating period,” she said.

“Last season, the top 25% averaged a 75% six-week in-calf rate. That’s great given the recent challenges the industry has faced.”

“Not only are there economic gains from good herd fertility from days in milk and less semen use, farmers with high six-week in-calf rates also enjoy more choice with the AI heifers they rear and the cows they either cull or mate as non-replacements.”

Ms Voogt discussed the many strategies LIC has in place to protect the high level of fertility in New Zealand dairy genetics. She acknowledged genetics is only part of the solution.

“While we can exert some pressure genetically, and at 367 days have one of the shortest calving intervals in the world, performance differs between farms. Some 91% of the variation is explained by non-genetic factors within the farmer’s control.”

DairyNZ InCalf has identified eight key management areas that impact herd fertility; young stock/heifer management, nutrition/ body condition management and heat detection as some of the most important factors in New Zealand.

Key messages:

*The rapid cow population growth in New Zealand from 1994 to 2004 has now seemed to hit a plateau;

*The difference between the top quartile and bottom quartile in the New Zealand national herd is currently 160kg MS per cow;

*Recording herd information is fundamental to identifying low performing cows;

*Through culling low performers and only mating best performing cows to quality semen, Lincoln University dairy farm decreased stocking rate by 16%, increasing per cow production by 30%;

*New Zealand farmers are among the best in the world for dairy cow reproductive performance – last season the top 25% of farmers in New Zealand averaged 75% six week in-calf rate.

The full Herd Improvement Roadshow presentation can be downloaded

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