The use of genomics along with three breeding indices to select bulls has placed a Welsh herd in the spring at the top of the rankings for fertility and protein production.
Rhys-Davies, who milks 100 Holstein Friesians in Flintshire under the Ffrwd prefix, originally milked Holsteins, but started rearing their calves in 2001.
However, a study trip to Ireland as part of a Farming Connect management exchange four years ago convinced him that robust breeding selection tools could help him breed better-performing black-and-white cows.
See also: How a herd of spring calves got started using genomics
“The only reason we crossed was because we wanted an easy birth,” explains Mr Davies.
Some of the disadvantages of crossbreeding, he says, is that he couldn’t do genetic testing for these animals, and the whites and whites seemed to outperform the crossbreeds.
Farm Facts: Moore Farm, near Holywell, Flintshire
- Milks 100 Holstein Friesian plus 80 Youngstock
- He sells milk to Arla
- Calves from March 1 to May 10
- Sell breeding stock
- Gratis from March through November
- An average of 7,500 liters with 4.59% fat and 3.65% protein
- A cow produces 618 kg of solid milk annually
- He bought 10 hectares (25 acres) from the county council; He still leases 30 hectares (73 acres) from council and 40 hectares (100 acres) for silage from four owners.
Davies decided to use a mixture of Holstein Friesian genes from around the world to speed up genetic acquisition.
These included bulls with high breeding indices estimated from Ireland, bulls that ranked well for breeding value (New Zealand Breeding Index) and top bulls from the UK Spring Calving Index (SCI).
He uses AHDB’s Bull Finder to get a British assessment of any non-British bulls, which he says turns everything into “one language”.
Genetic cow calves are tested when they are two weeks old and then graded according to protein percentage, fertility index, maintenance and mastitis.
Calves are matched with the best sires to balance the traits accordingly.
“Genomic testing of calves has become as important as weekly turf gauging. Without them, I don’t know which calves to keep. It’s like going into the wrong field.
“If we get a cow that needs to be improved for cell count, I would use a high SCI Holstein bull.
“If we have a calf with good health traits, but they need to improve their ingredients, I would use a high percentage bull from Ireland or New Zealand,” Davies says.
Surplus calves are sold at fortnight or at the bullfight for £250, £300 and £1000 respectively.
Sexual semen is used on calves and cows for the first six weeks of breeding and conventional semen is used on any of the best repeat cows after the first service.
Semen from Aberdeen Angus is used for the remainder of the animals, along with the poorest animals from the start of the mating.
Cows that fail to conceive within the nine-week breeding period are introduced again in November and sold to fall calves once they are confirmed to be young.
“This makes £1,500 to £1,600 in income rather than wasting them as a culling,” Davies says.
Collars are used to detect temperatures, with 84.7% of cows giving birth at nine weeks.
Cows graze from March through November, with calves trained on electric fencing once they are weaned from milk.
The milkers move to fresh grazing fields after each milking, in 12-hour shifts. The grass is mowed beforehand, which Davies believes stimulates intakes, especially in early lactation.
Alt and binary are now in the top 1% in terms of fat, protein and fertility, based on the weighted age index from Mr Davies’ most recent AHDB herd genetic report.
In the future, he hopes to improve cell counts, as the flock is currently ranked in the 70th percentile for this trait.
He also wants to focus on the EnviroCow trait, which will be released in 2021. This includes cow age, milk production, fertility, and feed conversion.
Rhys-Davies was speaking at the 2023 British Cattlemen’s Conference on January 25