Improved performance on a rapidly-expanded top EBI herd

Seamus Knox runs a 150 cow spring-calving Holstein Friesian herd in South Kilkenny. Since the end of quotas the Ballygown herd has increased substantially.

Prior to quota removal, there were 60 cows on the farm and since 2015 cow numbers have increased rapidly.

Cow numbers increased to 90 in 2015, 120 last year and 150 this year and Seamus hopes to milk 160 cows in 2017.

Considering the huge “in house” growth in this herd post-quotas, it is unbelievable that 70% of the cows come from three-cow families.

Ranked in 23rd position on the latest EBI list

The herd is currently ranked 23rd on the latest EBI figures (February 2017), with an EBI of €152, a fertility sub-index of €72, a production sub-index of €40 and a health sub-index of €3.

The herd delivered 485kg of milk solids in 2016 at 3.54% protein, with a 363-day calving interval and 5% empty rate.

On Seamus’ 2013 Annual Report, the calving interval for his 55 cows was 360 days with 514kg of milk solids produced per cow.

When this is compared to his 2016 Annual Report, the calving interval for his 119 cows was 363 days, with each cow producing 584kg of milk solids.

This impressive performance was achieved with a young herd, as 61% of the herd were in their first or second lactation in 2016 – up from 38% in 2013.

In this relevantly short time, protein has risen from 3.46% to 3.53% and fat has increased from 3.81% to 4.11%.

The herd’s evolution is a testament to Seamus’ management abilities; all of this growth has been achieved within the herd.

How was it done?
  • The herd is served entirely to high-EBI Holstein Friesian sires.
  • All heifer calves were always kept on, with the excess being sold on in milk over the year.
  • Cull cows have always been kept to calve before finishing.

Although the herd only contained 60 cows in 2014, the above factors allowed for the herd to grow rapidly.

Grass and meal

Seamus’ 160ac milking platform (some of which recently came in as rented ground) is set amongst the undulating slopes of south Kilkenny.

Cows normally get out by day in February, out full-time by March, but are buffer fed silage and sugar beet until mid-April.

A Feed-to-Yield (FTY) system is used in the parlour and cows consume 750-1,000kg of concentrate each year.

Starting from a British Friesian base

The whole herd was genomically tested in 2016. Having previously done bits and pieces, Seamus will test all heifers going forward and has been getting some cows classified in recent years too.

Knox Calf shedComing from a British Friesian base, NHS was one of the first Holstein sires used on farm. Relative Breeding Index (RBI) was used as a selection tool prior to the Economic Breeding Index (EBI).

Seamus embraced the EBI when it was first introduced.

I wouldn’t pick a bull completely on EBI. Everything else would have to be right too, but EBI definitely has improved things.

Seamus added: “Fertility has changed in the breeding. EBI has improved fertility”.

66% of cows calve in just three weeks

Fertility is exceptional in this herd with 66% of the cows calving in just three weeks. In 2016, 82 calved in February, 24 in March, eight in April and five in May.

However, when it came to serving Seamus got a bit of a fright early on with 50% of cows holding to the first serve, but he had an excellent conception rate to the second service.

Bulls that feature amongst the milking cows are by BHZ, LDU, VML, SOK, GVV, PKK, LHZ, LLK, ABO and PBM – amongst others.

Heifers sired by ABO, HZB, LWR and FR2028 will be joining the herd this year. Sires used last year include: LWR, FR2023, FR2298, FR2351 and FR2236.

Seamus operates a DIY AI system. It is a huge plus, as it provides the flexibility to AI when he wants with a bull from his flask.

Ideal cow

Seamus’ ideal cow is an efficient pedigree Holstein Friesian, producing 560kg of milk solids with a 365-day calving interval.

An ABO daughter springing on Seamus Know's farm
An ABO daughter springing on Seamus Knox’s farm

Ballygown Ldu Phesant, with a genomically-tested EBI of €95, recently calved for the fifth time giving her a 362-day calving interval.

She produced 2,364kg of milk solids in her four lactations to date, averaging 637kg of milk solids per lactation.

The cow has never had a high SCC and her four lactations to date have averaged 14,000.

Another cow, Ballygown Gvv Sue, has an EBI of €145. The now fourth calver has already produced 1,826kg of milk solids in 872 Days-In-Milk. This is an average milk solids production of 609kg/lactation or 2kg/day.

The importance of milk recording

A manual milk recording is carried out every six weeks. For Seamus, milk recording is a must.

It’s deceiving; we have always milk recorded. We’ve milk recorded longer than we’ve been pedigree and we’re 30 years pedigree.

“I often think that for people who never milk record – when they start – some of their cows will really surprise them. There are always cows that don’t look like they have ‘milk’ that perform.

“We have one cow in particular, a handy cow, and you wouldn’t think it to look at her but she is our top performer.

“She is putting out the kilograms of milk solids and only for milk recording you just wouldn’t know,” he said.

Milk recording also plays a huge role in selecting heifers to be retained in the herd – based both on dam solids and SCC – and culling of under-performing cows.

Sires sold into AI

The Ballygown herd has put a number of sires into AI in recent years, including a HMY son, a KSK son and a SOK son.

Ballygown Dell is a recent addition to Progressive Genetics’ stud. Dell is from a cow family that routinely calve a week before their time.

For Seamus, calving ease and short gestation are priorities and are clearly linked. He added: “Short gestation makes life easier”.

For more information on the services provided by Progressive Genetics, visit the company’s website. Click here for more information