Breeding 2020: New guidelines and advice explained…

With attention on dairy farms slowly shifting towards the oncoming breeding season, the new Dairy Calf Working Group – which is led by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine alongside various other stakeholders – has issued advice for the fast-approaching season.

This breeding advice will be communicated in a letter (below) from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) to over 15,000 herdowners over the coming days.

The guidance involves a three-step process that dairy farmers are advised to follow – and includes details of a new ‘Herd EBI Scorecard’.

The letter outlines:

With the 2020 breeding season on the horizon, now is a good time to start planning. It is critical that you utilise all the tools at your disposal in order to make the best possible breeding decisions for your herd. Figure 1 below outlines a three-step process to help you get the most from the upcoming breeding season.

Figure 1: Three-step process

New ‘Herd EBI Scorecard’

We have included a new ‘Herd EBI Scorecard’ (below), which details your herd’s EBI and the sub-index breakdown.

The scorecard also gives the top 10% and national average figures and ranks your herd on a national basis using a percentage and star-rating system.

Five-stars indicate that a herd is in the top 20%, while one-star indicates being in the bottom 20%. Knowing your herd’s strengths and weaknesses will help you to select the best possible team of bulls to make improvements in the required areas.

On the back of the ‘Herd EBI Scorecard’ are six breeding advice tips we would encourage you to follow for the 2020 breeding season.

These have been developed by the new department-led Dairy Calf Working Group – a Government and industry initiative established to increase the quality of calves (both beef and dairy) coming from the dairy herd.

Use sire advice

Once you have identified your herd’s strengths and weaknesses, the ICBF HerdPlus Sire Advice is the best online breeding tool to help select your bull team.

It avoids inbreeding and produces matings that will result in calves that are more evenly balanced on milk and fertility, by ensuring that the most suitable bull is allocated to each cow.

If you are not a member of ICBF HerdPlus and/or not using Sire Advice, then you should only select AI bulls that are in the top 10% for the traits that you need to improve in your herd, based on your Herd EBI Scorecard (above).

Table 1: The top 10% in ranking on EBI of the top 200 bulls in the Active Bull list. Use as a reference guide when selecting your 2020 breeding bull team

Ensure equal usage of your bull team

Analysis of AI sire usage in Irish dairy herds shows an over reliance on certain sires. Overusing a small number of sires will leave your herd overly exposed to potential EBI changes in individual bulls.

Any bull team should consist of at least seven bulls. For herds greater than 150 cows, this number needs to increase.

In addition, it is important that you use your team of bulls, equally across your herd this breeding season. How have you performed on each of these two metrics in the past?

Table 2 (below) shows the team size and percentage usage for the most used dairy bull in your herd for the last two years. It also gives you guidelines on team size and maximum usage of one bull. You should adhere to these guidelines for the forthcoming breeding season.

Table 2: Dairy AI bull team size and usage (January to June) based on recorded sires

In addition, we would encourage you to use teams of young Genomic Sires (GS) as the best way to maximise genetic gain in your herd. Genomic sires on the ICBF Active Bull List (Top 75), are on average, €30 ahead of Daughter Proven (DP) sires.

You should also aim to breed replacements from the highest EBI females in your herd. These are invariably your maiden heifers, first and second calvers.

Only use bulls that are classified as ‘LOW Risk of Dairy Heifer Calving Difficulty’ when choosing bulls for heifers. Also, lower EBI cows should be bred to beef AI from the start of the breeding season.

Focus on beef merit

Finally, we would encourage you to consider beef merit, when selecting beef and potentially dairy bulls for use on your herd this spring. This is critical to help establish greater integration between our beef and dairy industries in the future.

To breed higher-quality beef-sired animals, select beef AI sires from the Dairy Beef Index (DBI) Active Bull List, that are positive for beef carcass traits. Bulls with higher beef merit figures should be considered for older females.

In terms of dairy AI bulls, your herd scorecard will highlight your current herd status regarding beef merit. If your herd is low for these traits, then you should also consider using dairy bulls that will improve these traits in your herd in the future.

Six breeding tips for spring 2020:
  • Use a minimum team of seven high-EBI AI bulls when breeding your dairy herd replacements;
  • Target high-EBI females to breed your next generation of dairy herd replacements;
  • Use the DBI to select suitable beef AI sires for your dairy herd;
  • Know your herd’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • Use the ICBF HerdPlus Sire Advice tool, to help manage your breeding programme;
  • If using sexed semen, use high-EBI sires only and use the semen early in the breeding season. Jersey AI should only be used with sexed semen.

Members of the Dairy Calf Working Group include: Department of Agriculture; ICBF; Teagasc; National AI companies; IFA; ICMSA; ICOS; Dairy Industry Ireland (DII); Meat Industry Ireland (MII); Bord Bia; and Animal Health Ireland (AHI).