In 1995, after lots of discussion with many graziers, we chose to use Friesian bulls from Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) in New Zealand as our only source of semen. Our criteria for selection was that first these bulls must be of the highest percentage true New Zealand genetics, and second have the highest Breeding Worth possible. Breeding Worth measures animals based on production of milk, butterfat and protein, as well as their potential to breed back in a 12-month interval. We also looked at temperament and udder attachment.
After 10 years, we feel we made a good decision. In that time we have grown from 118 to 175 cows without purchasing cows, and expect to be milking 200 this spring. Last year we freshened 125 cows in March and 50 in April; in 2005 we should calve 132 in March, and 69 in April. My goal is to someday freshen at least 70% in April.
At a glance, our cows still look like Holsteins. We still have a very well-uddered herd, and conformity is good. In fact, due to lower production in our total-grass system (about six lbs. of grain during the grazing season), even older cows maintain tight udders.
The cows are definitely smaller, with a mature cow weighing around 1,050 lbs. The flip side is that calves are born at about 75 lbs., so calving ease has been good. These black bull calves also bring a much better price than do the few crossbred calves we sell. While the small size of the cows hasn’t caused problems for us as graziers, we are now seeing resistance from some conventional producers who purchase the cows that fall out of our seasonal calving window. So we are searching out producers who mix Jerseys in their herd, as they don’t resist the smaller animals.
My biggest challenge stems from New Zealand’s push for more production, which has brought in a large amount of genetics from the U.S. and other countries. Today, there remain very few cow families with high levels of New Zealand genetics.
I believe that the true New Zealand genetics have much higher conception rates and very adequate production for grass-based systems. (Acquaintances in New Zealand admit that the push for production has reduced their ability to re-breed seasonally.) That small pool of cow families with the kind of genetics I want doesn’t give me much potential to avoid line breeding.
LIC’s representative in the U.S. feels that since I now have fairly high levels of New Zealand genetics in my herd, I can still see improvement by employing bulls with lesser levels of NZ genetics, but higher Breeding Worth. I’m not sure I fully agree, as I started with U.S. genetics. We’ll continue to use sires with as much NZ genetics as possible, while watching our family lines much closer.
We have had excellent success with seasonal breeding when we truly concentrate on heat detection, and use AI for six weeks. Our first-service conception rates for cows have ranged from 40-65% over the past 10 years, with six-week conception from 70-85%. We feel very comfortable when we average in those areas, as we still have the potential to grow from our own replacements and maintain a very tight calving window.
Our real advantage is that we sell very few cull cows from our grazing system. We only breed for six weeks, and then pregnancy check in mid-August. Then we pick a date to turn in our herd bulls in an effort to get as many open cows pregnant as possible for sale to conventional dairymen.
The most profitable way to handle this would be to milk those cows through the winter, dry them off at about the time we begin calving the seasonal cows, and then slick them up on the spring flush of grass before selling them springing in mid-summer. However, we have found buyers who want these animals in early winter before we dry off. This allows us the opportunity to be dry for 60 days.
But things can definitely go wrong when we do not pay attention to detail. Last year’s breeding performance is an example of what can happen when we do not invest enough time in heat detection and AI breeding. We were short of labor last year after an employee left and another didn’t work out. We were overworked, and didn’t manage as well as we have in the past. The bulls were turned in after only three weeks of AI.
Although half the herd did conceive in the first three weeks, we had serviced only 75%, compared to our norm of more than 90%. Using bulls to try to disguise our shortfall didn’t work, as six bulls serviced only 42 more cows in the second three weeks. Our herd exam showed 40 open cows. We do have 64 pregnant heifers to replace them, but our herd growth will be less than anticipated.
Bull breeding in a larger herd seems to be different from using bulls in a smaller herd. Several cows will be in heat at the same time. Being competitive, bulls tend to run together, each trying to service the same cow, while a cow with lesser signs of heat, and not mingling with the other cow, can be missed.
Strictly from an economic standpoint, winter milking can pay for itself. In 2002 and 2003 we were looking very seriously at organic production and were in transition toward certification, so we decided to see what milking these cows through the winter would be like. Last January we had 39 cows that were pregnant for the following fall, and 40 to calve in April, so we decided to milk them through the winter after nine years of no winter milking.
We kept very detailed records on true costs. We used a higher-quality winter hay for the milking herd than we used for the dry herd, and hay consumption was about 10 lbs./day higher for the milking cows. We also fed a small amount of grain to the milking herd. Daily feed cost for the milking herd was $3.80, or $2.67 higher than the $1.13/day it cost to feed the dry cows. Net profit on the winter milking after all operating costs, and before labor, was $5,440, or roughly $90/day for three hours of labor.
It was certainly an acceptable wage, but not nearly as high as what we feel we receive for milking in the summertime. The major issue revolves around lifestyle, as we have become very fond of our winter time away from milking. We feel the break gives us more ambition to get through the busy spring calving season.
Before we dried off at Christmas this winter, we sold off those 40 cows that did get bred and are now pregnant for next summer. We won’t be milking through the winter, and we won’t proceed with organic production at this time.