Crossbreeding at scale – How one farm plans to calve 450 cross-bred cows in Wales

Welsh-based dairy farmer Chris Mossman has overseen major changes to his dairy enterprise since the 1990’s – one of which being a move to a cross-bred herd.

Located in Llangrannog, West Wales, his 202 hectare dairy farm (142 hectare milking platform) ranges from 300-to-700 feet above sea level.

This spring, he plans to calve more than 450 cross-bred cows along with carrying 250 young dairy stock.

Speaking at the recent Irish Grassland Association Dairy Conference, Mossman said a trip to Ireland inspired him to go down the block spring-calving route.

“I was very fortuitous in the late 1990’s to come to Ireland and visit Michael Murphy’s farm in Co. Cork.

“Following that visit, I went home and immediately started planing the change from a year-round calving system to a spring-calving system,” he said.

Around that time, he crossed all of his father’s pedigree Holstein Friesian cows with a Jersey bull – a move which was the beginning of his 464 strong cross-bred herd in 2017.

I didn’t go down very well at the time, but as years progressed I am absolutely sure that it was one of the best farming decisions that I made.

Expansion of the dairy farm

The Welsh-based dairy farmer also told the delegates at the Yara sponsored conference of his expansion journey, which involved him gradually taking over a neighbouring beef and sheep farm consisting of 128 hectares.

Between 2001 and 2009, Mossman milked 120 cows on a 38 hectare milking platform achieving 430kg of milk solids per cow on 400-600kg of concentrate input.

“In 2009, I was offered the opportunity to expand by renting a neighbouring farm. This is on a 15 year Farm Business Tenancy taking us to 2024.

“As the landlord de-stocked, I was drip fed chunks of land until 2013 when we had had it all,” he said.

He added that all of the stock required for the expansion were home-bred, which was an expensive and slow process, but it made him better at managing young stock and retaining cows.

“In 2015, we finally finished all the infrastructure. This included parlour, tracks, water, fencing, lagoon, cubicles. Importantly we could now get cows to every hectare on the platform.

We expected to milk 420 cows in 2016, reaching our target of 3 cows/ha, however TB struck for the first time in my career and the average number of cows was 386.

“We carry 464 in-calf animals into the next TB test in January,” he said.

Jersey cross cows at college

Achieving 500kg of Milk Solids per cow year-on-year

Mossman highlighted some of the key targets he uses in his dairy farming business, one of which being milk solids production of 500kg per cow – a target he has achieved year-in-year-out.

Farm targets:
  • 500kg of Milk Solids per cow per year
  • 3 cows per hectare
  • 85% of the herd calved in six weeks
  • Less than 10% empty after 10 weeks of breeding
  • Less than 10% of heifers below target weight at calving
  • Average cell counts of less than 120,000
  • Clinical cases of mastitis at less than 12%

Costs of production

The cost of production on the farm in 2016 was 18p/L, he said, this was before depreciation and unpaid labour, but included the cost of replacement heifers.

“Our cost of production for the last five years has been around 21p/L. This reflects in part large numbers of replacements required to drive expansion and high labour costs whilst developing the farm,” he said.

Labour is the largest cost, he said, as there are currently three people in full-time employment in the business.

Calving half the herd in 10 days

Mossman said that the he always managed to calves the cows in the herd very quickly and he aims to have 50% of the cows calved in 10 days this spring, this follows on from a 50% calving rate over nine days in 2016.

“Calving quickly means that all heifer calves come in the first two weeks and that certainly aids the rearing side of things.

“I am able to concentrate my labour, so we throw labour 24/7 for the first three weeks.

“We can tail that off significantly in the last six weeks and in my experience I have found it easier grazing a large mob of cows early than the dribs and drabs we used to have in days gone past.

He said that the use of Agrinet has been vital to give him the confidence to calve his cows over such a short period of time, with opening and closing covers being vital for grass supply.

On the breeding of the herd, he said that he has spent more money on intervention procedures on more cows.

Some 66% of the herd is now bred within the first two weeks of AI using a CIDR programme, he said.

“We would expect to get a return on that intervention investment through increased days in milk, which I will obviously find out in due course.”

Mossman also discussed the role calving date plays in his business.

“This year we have moved our calving date by another week to February 21.

“The reason for that was we felt we were still putting too much supplement in in early spring and we wanted to get cows at grass with no silage as quickly as possible.

“Time will tell whether that is a good decision or not,” he said.