Is it time Irish dairy farmers moved away from black and white cows?

The Irish dairy herd consists of approximately 1.3 million dairy cows – the majority of which are Holstein Friesian.

These cows have been milked on Irish farms for years and generations of cow families have passed through parlours.

But, is it time for Irish dairy farmers to move away from Holstein Friesian genetics and instead focus on utilising crossbred animals to convert grass to milk?

The advantages of crossbred cows, in terms of milk production and profitability, have been researched extensively.

Recent work from Teagasc, involving 11,808 cows, has shown that the first generation cross (F1) of a Holstein Friesian and a Jersey delivered €162/cow/lactation in additional profit.

The study found that the profitability figure is €162 higher than the mid-parent average of both of the parent breeds and it arose from 25kg of extra milk solids per lactation and a 7.5 day reduction in calving interval.

Why aren’t Irish farmers switching to crossbred genetics?

Crossbreeding is a topic of much debate among Irish dairy farmers and it has been known to result in heated debates in many households and discussion groups across the country.

Speaking at a recent LIC Monitor Farm open day, LIC’s Malcolm Ellis touched on why some Irish farmers have been slow to embrace the benefits of crossbreeding.

The General Manager of New Zealand Markets said: “Changing mindset is never going to be an easy thing when you are encouraging people to move away from generations of milking a particular breed that has been passed down through the generations.

In reality, the crossbred is noticeably more efficient, more fertile, more mobile and has superior milk componentry.

Ellis has first-hand experience of milking crossbred cows and he touched on his farming system in New Zealand to the crowd in attendance.

“My background is 20-odd years of farming. In 2011, I left the farm and Jodie (his wife) and I were milking just under 1,000 cows on two adjacent farms.

“We had been young farm owners; we owned our first farm just prior to being 30-years-old and we had two by the time we were 35.

“At 40-years-old I left the farm. I wasn’t looking for a change, but I was really interested in the whole area of herd improvement and the value it can bring to the industry.

“For five years I led the breeding scheme at LIC. My chief responsibilities were around the Jersey programme and I also handled the short gestation breeding programme.”

Last October, Ellis took up the role as General Manager of New Zealand Markets. He currently leads a team of 146 people who cover the co-op’s sales throughout New Zealand.

Dairy farmers or beef producers?

On the topic of bull calves – a byproduct of dairy production – Ellis posed a question to dairy farmers: “Are you beef producers or dairy farmers?”

He advised farmers, who may be slow to make the change to crossbreeding due to the lower value of bull calves, to sit down and do the sums.

“Farmers need to sit down and show the economic advantages of milking crossbred cows, from a milk solids and milk revenue perspective, and compare that to what they are trading off with the decrease in value from the surplus product – the bull calf.

“If the surplus calf loss is greater than the advantage you would get from milk production, then you won’t be changing.

“I know the answer to this and I think Irish farmers are doing themselves a disservice by continuing to use the bull calf as a reason for not making the switch.”


Focusing on the future

Ellis has been travelling to farms throughout the UK and Ireland in recent weeks and he has been encouraging them to take a wider view on the future of their businesses.

“It is really important that farmers recognise that there is considerable volatility in the global market and there is a number of different challenges out there.”

He added that Irish farmers need to grow their business in a really efficient and profitable way and they can’t “just chase after the next kilogram of milk solids or the next litre of milk”.

“It’s critical that they are very disciplined about margins and the cost of production,” he said.

“The key thing that I have seen change the most are the trends in supply and demand in the industry.

“When you start thinking of the pressures of supply and demand, you start thinking that you have to be really good at what you are doing inside your own farmgate.

“You can spent a lot of time trying to control the things you can’t control, but you would be better off trying to control the stuff you can.

“For me, it’s really critical that farmers consider the benefits of a crossbred animal. Personally, I think farmers should be staying with the first cross animal. And once you have bred her, just keep mating her to a crossbred bull to maintain that cross,” he said.

This way 66% of the hybrid vigour created from the original F1 cross will be maintained with the second generation of crossbred animals.

The importance of milk componentry

From a milk component perspective, he said, the ideal cow for Irish dairy farms is the first cross of a Holstein Friesian and a Jersey – an 8:8 cross in New Zealand terminology.

“I have absolutely no doubt because the crossbred cow ticks the mobility, fertility and componentry boxes significantly better that what the Holstein Friesian does.

“I have visited Moorepark previously and I watch a lot of the information that comes out and I watch the same information being calculated in New Zealand.

“When I see the work being expanded into a commercial-sized trial to include over 11,800 animals and see the crossbred animal producing 25kg more milk solids than the Holstein Friesian and giving milk for an extra 7.5 days – I’m convinced that this is the animal that needs to be milked.

“Clearly she (the crossbred cow) is more efficient. She is not only smaller, but she can also produce more.”

The LIC representative added that he is aware that there is some conversations occurring on what to breed the crossbred animal to.

“In my view, I would be keeping it to a crossbred animal.

“We need to be weary about moving back one more mating to finish up in that zone of a 75% Holstein Friesian cow.”

Ellis added that moving to a 75% Holstein Friesian from an 8:8 cross will have a negative impact on milk componentry – particularly the fat and protein content of the milk produced.

A 75% Jersey, a Holstein Friesian and a Jersey / Holstein Friesian cross cow

He added: “With fat almost becoming comparatively valued to protein you want that animal, in my view, to be 50% genetically made up of Jersey genetics.”

The future of parent breeds

Using New Zealand as an example, Ellis said 70.6% of the calves tagged in the country were crossbred in 2016.

Irish farmers immediately question what is the future of the parent breeds. He said: “My answer to that is very clear and we have thought about this a great deal.

“We are still working really closely with the leading Jersey and Holstein Friesian herds. We are investing a significant amount in breeding through embryo transplant programmes and a number of other initiatives to continue the rate of genetic gain in those very elite Holstein Friesian and Jersey herds.

“I have a strong belief that the crossbred is much more powerful if you are able to contribute to it through two strong parent breeds.

“It’s important that the AI companies keep the investment going in the two parent breeds and I can ensure you that I am very much aware of that requirement for investment.

“In my view, the crossbred cow is the most efficient and profitable cow for Irish farming conditions,” he concluded.