Are you spending enough time choosing bulls?

The breeding decisions that you make today will have ramifications for the next 10-12 years, according to Teagasc’s Dr. Donagh Berry.

Speaking at the recent Ballyhaise open day, he questioned how much time dairy farmers actually spend selecting bulls and if it is adequate in the grand scheme of things.

“If 50% of your change in profit over the next few years is due to breeding, how much time do you think you actually spend selecting bulls?

“Hypothetically, if you were to work the average industrial year – 9:00am to 5:00pm, five days a week – and you spend one whole day with a catalogue picking bulls, you are spending 0.4% of your time picking bulls that dictate 50% of the gains or losses in profit over the next 20 years.

“My main point is that you have to put the effort into selecting bulls because it has huge ramifications not just for next year, but for the next 20 years,” he said.

EBI: Why is there such a low emphasis on production?

Touching on the EBI (Economic Breeding Index) and it’s 34% weighting on milk production, Donagh said: “We have more of an emphasis on milk production that they do in Holland and the US.”

He added: “There’s three ways that you can increase milk production. One, you can select bulls that are high in fat and protein yield.

The evidence is unequivocal internationally that it will give you cows that yield more per lactation. But, there’s two other ways of doing it that people sometimes forget about.

“If we look at our average lactation length in Ireland, it’s 279 days. The report that you get back from ICBF (Irish Cattle Breeding Federation) presents 305-day yields; but we are not achieving that. On average, we are achieving 30 days less than that. We are losing around 250kg of milk there and it’s around 400kg of milk for a 9,000L cow.

“How you can get that longer lactation, of course, is by calving the cows earlier. That would provide you with that extra yield very rapidly.

The third way, and I would argue that it’s the easiest, is to get older cows in the herd. A mature cow yields 40% more than a first-lactation cow.

“Our cows should be hitting around 5.5 lactations; that’s where we need to be. I challenge you to go home and look at the cows that left your herd over the last two-to-three years to see their average lactation number.

“The national average is four. Our cows are only yielding four lactations when they should be yielding 5.5 lactations. That’s a 40% loss of milk production,” he said.

Teagasc figures show that the full cost of rearing a replacement heifer is over €1,500. This implies that a cow needs to complete 1.63 lactations to fully pay off her rearing investment as a heifer.

Source: Teagasc. Economic implications of number of lactations achieved per cow

However, 16.5% of cows in Ireland do not survive beyond the middle of their second lactation; meaning that they have not fully paid off the investment as rearing them as heifers.

This is worth bearing in mind, as each lactation extra a cow achieves beyond mid-way in the second lactation equates to extra profit.