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Breeding Considerations for the 2024 Calf Crop in Dairy Herds

Breeding Considerations for the 2024 Calf Crop in Dairy Herds

Imagine milking a herd of cows and selling 550kg of milksolids from each with an annual profitability of €500 per cow more than the Irish Base cow. All that prevents you from achieving this, is your management and breeding decisions.

These cows and herds are already out there, and their numbers are growing steadily. The roadmap to achieve this is clear, but you will only get there if you’re brave enough to trust and apply the proven research and extension – remember, you’ve already paid for this through the “Dairy Research Levy”.

What does this herd of cows look like?  If you’re thinking breed or colour, you’re already on the wrong road, and your mind is in the past. A time when we relied on basic here say, and there was an absence of figures (EBI or Economic Breeding Index, Subindex and PTA’s or Predicting Transmitting Abilities) and proven economic and sustainable breeding goals to steer us.

The cow of the future must be both productive and fertile. She needs to have a repeatable calving interval of 365 days and continue to milk in the herd for close to six continuous lactations. Typically she will produce milk with average annual Butter Fat (BF) of 5% and Protein (Pr) of 4%. The genetic potential transmitting ability (PTA) of this cow is about 0.27 for BF% and 0.17 for Pr%. In 2022, milk from such cows commanded a price per litre of 6 cent or more above the average and 12 cent or more above the bottom 10% (this ongoing milk price difference is present whether milk price is high or low). The future cow herd is also genetically healthier and more carbon efficient and can produce a higher quality calf

Table 1: The Cow of the Future – where she needs to be:

  Target Potential
EBI €250 +€500 profit
Milk €80+ 550 kg ms>3,000 kg ms in lifetime5% BF, 4% Pr
Fertility €100+ C.I. 365 days+5.5 Lactations
Health €10 SCC <100,000
Maintenance €10 to €15 590 kg  - 565 kgMature Liveweight

In genetic terms the cow of the future has an EBI of €250 with well-balanced Sub-Indices of €80+ for milk, €100+ for fertility, €10 to €15 maintenance (she will be 590 kg to 565 kg mature liveweight). Add to this a Health Sub Index of €10, and she will automatically have a high Carbon Sub Index.

Breeding to higher EBI consistently delivers more profit on a grassland based farm, whether you have a spring calving or winter milk herd. Of course if profitability and sustainability isn’t your thing, none of this matters.

This breeding season, dairy replacements should be bred from AI sires only. A team of at least 8 to 10 bulls should be selected from the ICBF Active Bull list, and used equally across the herd. Confining selection to one AI provider, will likely limit your choice and slow your genetic progress. It is wise to engage with your local Dairy Discussion Group and Independent Advisory in establishing specific targets and selection criteria for your own herd. A.I. sales reps can be well informed and helpful, but are not necessarily independent. Although most bulls in the team chosen should have Key Performance Index (KPI) trait improvement figures close to the average figures for the team, a few bulls with higher potential for a particular trait should also be included. For example a bull with a high positive for PTA of milk kg (to use on cows with an undesirably extreme negative for this trait), and likewise for fertility, etc.

Table 2: Bull Selection Targets for 2023:

Subindex Threshold for Individual Bull Team Average
EBI >€200 €270
Fertility >€80 €120
Milk >€60 €100
Health >€0 €5

The typical team of bulls selected in 2023 should have an average EBI of €270 or more, with a fertility Subindex of €120 and a milk Subindex of €100.  Add in an average Health Subindex of €5+, and you’ve a good start made. The PTA’s for BF% and Pr % should be 0.27 and 0.17 respectively, and the PTA’s for BF and Pr Kgs when added together should be 26 or more. The PTA for milk kg (volume/litres) should be chosen to match (adversely) the herds PTA for milk (ie bulls teams with +50 bred to herds with -50 and vice-versa).

In the past, when modern breeding genetic figures were not available, good managers matched sires which looked like they could improve certain traits to specific cows. Nowadays, the “Sire Selection” application on the ICBF Herdplus website will help do this for you. Also, Sire Advice Selections can be transferred to AI technicians’ handhelds and Herdplus breeding charts, leading to efficiency at breeding time.

Advances with Sexed semen use can help in achieving breeding goals faster and reduce the number of unwanted dairy male calves. Beware, this is still a new technology and rushing in without a sensible strategy could cost you, if you fail to achieve the optimum conception rates. Important details on the selection of suitable animals and the use of sexed semen should be sought and studied before dipping your toe in the water.

Also, using a team of high merit beef bulls on the lower EBI cows and later breeding animals will add value to your 2024 beef calves. This will help you to sell your calves more quickly and establish and build annual return trade from more profitable beef calf rearing farmers.

Remember, it’s your business to take charge of your farm breeding goals and steer it in the direction that is right for you.

Tom Murphy, B&T Dairy Adviser, Teagasc Galway/Clare