For me there are two things that indicate we are entering the festive period.
The first is the opportunity to buy Shloer for 89p – we already have a super collection of the 2023 vintage under our stairs, although I much prefer it is used as a loss leader in supermarkets than milk.
The second indicator is a herd of frenzied cows, with blood pumping full of oestrus hormones. Last Friday morning I had to hurriedly release a batch of cows from the parlour before one of their number would put her head though the ceiling as she attempted to mount the poor girl in front.
In preparation for the impending breeding season, we have completed the first round of pre-breeding IBR and BVD vaccinations, with the intention of starting to AI in the first week of December.
This process emphasised to me just how many surplus replacement heifers we have.
I have no intention of increasing herd size and, thankfully, I would have trouble identifying cows that I would want to dispense with. But after allowing for involuntary culls, we have at least 20% more heifers than I will (hopefully) require.
When we first started using sexed semen 15 years ago, my grandfather told me that “you’ll have too many heifers using that”. At the time it was said as a joke, as after a number of years with extremely low heifer percentages, we struggled to envisage a situation where we could possibly have too many.
However, advances in sexed semen technology now mean it is all too easy to produce an unnecessary large replacement inventory, with the associated expenses.
With this in mind, only the 12 best maiden heifers (based on their dams’ performance as it isn’t currently possible to do a genomic analysis of crossbred animals) and a much smaller proportion of the very best milking cows will be served with dairy semen. The rest will be served to Angus. My mating plan for the season is extremely simple – we are only using three bulls; one Holstein, (Delaberge Pepper) one Fleckvieh (Hokuspokus) and one Angus (Tyrone Matador).
As I have mentioned in numerous previous articles, I have experimented with Fleckvieh/Holstein-cross breeding over the last number of years, having found the combination to work extremely well in our farming system.
With this in mind, this year we are fully committing to a cross-breeding programme. If a cow is worthy of a dairy straw she will be mated to the opposite breed of her sire.
We have found the resulting crosses to be productive, fertile, healthy and durable, although obviously (just like purebred breeding), not every cross ends up a winner.
Ideally, a herd of such crosses would average 8,500-9,000l of quality milk, be capable of grazing for at least six months, need minimal veterinary intervention and drive profitability though simplicity rather than volume.
There are a limited number of proven, sexed Holstein bulls with a combination of a wide chest and rump, high milk fat and protein percentages and balanced overall type. However, by using Pepper on Fleckvieh cows, I have produced some beautiful dairy crosses. Unfortunately, Pepper is now dead, although I have been able to secure enough semen to last for at least two breeding seasons.
By limiting my dairy sires to two proven bulls, I hope to reduce the level of variation within a herd that cross-breeding can cause.
I intend to stop AI-ing with dairy semen in the middle of February, so that replacement heifers are of a similar age, making them easier to rear uniformly and target for two- year calving.
But not everything always goes to plan. An example of that is a Jersey heifer, born in late January two years ago. The heifer was not big enough to be served with her contemporaries, so had to be carried over into this year’s replacement group. As a result, I currently have a Jersey looming large over the Holstein and Fleckvieh heifers. It is a phenomenon unlikely to last.