Des Kelly recently converted to dairying on his 250-acre farm outside Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, with the first milk produced back in January 2022.
Almost two years later, the herd consists of 80 ProCROSS cows, of which 67 animals are currently being milked through a Lely A5 robot, with the other 13 cows dried off.
Prior to the change in farming enterprise, Des ran 40 pedigree Hereford cows under the Mullins prefix.
The farm also carries a sizeable poultry unit, which is still in operation. All stock management is undertaken by Des and one full-time labour unit.
Making the change
During the transition phase to dairying, a lot of research went in to sourcing cows, as Des felt the Holstein breed wasn’t the right move for his business.
“My brother was milking and had issues with cow longevity. The ProCROSS breed was suggested as a possibility, so I did as much research on the cows as I could,” outlined Des.
“Cross-breeding made sense to me. You get the best traits from different breeds coming through in terms of hybrid vigour.
“I visited seven dairy farms in Denmark that all used ProCROSS genetics. Everything was for sale and all animals had performance records. We also got fantastic support and advice on getting started.”
From the farms visited, 86 heifers were imported from Denmark in three batches, starting with 48 in December 2021, 30 in February 2022, and eight heifers last September.
As the herd was founded on first-calving heifers last year, milk yields have yet to reach their potential. Nonetheless, Des is pleased with output to-date.
“In 2022, heifers averaged 8,179 litres in their first lactation at 4.11% fat and 3.4% protein. This year, the cows are on track to yield 9,684 litres, at 4.21% fat and 3.4% protein. Cell counts are low, with cows in their second lactation averaging 39SCC and 5TBC. We are feeding 2.25 to 2.6t/cow through the robot, with another 1.2/cow fed through the diet feeder.
“Hopefully, when our first crop of heifer calves born on-farm come into production next year, we can start culling out the bottom end of the cows that we are not happy with.”
Yield is likely to be the trait that most cows will be culled on, based on current fertility and health status. The herd had a calving interval of 358 days from the first- to second-calving.
“We probably dried off cows a bit early, going by the calving interval, which would have reduced the litres of milk sold.
“Calving interval will increase slightly, as we try to get the calving pattern better matched to milking through the robot. But it’s clear that fertility is not an issue in the herd.”
Calving difficulties have also been minimal across the two years, as has lameness. Just six animals have required feet to be trimmed.
Cows are served with ProCROSS genetics using sexed semen, while a Hereford bull is used to sweep up repeat breeders and animals less suited to retaining herd replacements.
By Des’s own admission, there are still plenty of improvements to be made within the dairy unit.
“Cows are given access to fresh grass, but we have lots to learn on grazing management and silage quality.
“Silage is fine, but could be better. Higher-quality silage will improve forage intakes and improve yields,” concluded Des.
What are ProCROSS cows?
The ProCROSS dairy cow is the product of a rotational crossbreeding programme using Viking Red, Viking Holstein and Coopex Montbéliarde genetics.
The breeding programme began 40 years ago in the USA, in response to commercial farms requesting improved health and fertility traits.
Heterosis, or hybid vigour, is the main benefit of crossbreeding. In the case of the ProCROSS, research at the University of Minnesota showed a 10% increase in cow fertility, 8% higher feed efficiency and 33% increase in lifetime profit over other breeds during a 10-year study.
According to breed representatives, the three-way cross is the optimum mix and delivers 86% heterosis.
“A two-breed mix does not deliver the same benefits of hybrid vigour, while four breeds dilute the Holstein influence too much, so cows lose milk yield,” said breeder Sven Johnsson.
The cost of cow longevity and lifetime yield
Concluding the event, CAFRE’s David Mackey outlined results from a farmer survey and the costs associated with poor cow longevity.
With the average dairy replacement costing £178 per cow in milk based on CAFRE benchmarking results for 2022, Mackey said the cost to rear heifers as replacements is the second biggest expense on dairy farms.
Based on survey results across 120 herds and 15,800 cows in 2020, 4,320 cows were culled for reasons other than TB or dying on-farm.
“The average age for cows culled was 6.1 years. Heifers calved down for the first time at 27.7 months of age.
That gives 3.8 years of production on-farm and approximately 30,200 litres of lifetime production,” said Mackey.
“Around 31% of cows were culled for infertility, 15% for mastitis and 13% for lameness. Around 12% of heifers in their first lactation were culled.
Factoring in cull cow values and heifer-rearing costs, the survey results would indicate that the average farm has a replacement cost closer to £369/cow at present.”
In the top 25% of herds, lifetime yield per cow was 39,500 litres, compared to 21,400 litres for the bottom quartile.
Top 25% herds calved heifers at 27 months and had 4.9 productive years on-farm.
In contrast, the bottom 25% herds calved heifers at 28.8 months, with 2.8 productive years on-farm.
“By the end of the third lactation, the top 25% herds had culled the same number of cows as the bottom 25% herds culled in the first lactation.
“Cross-breeding is expected to increase the number of lactations per cow by 0.5 to one, due to fewer problems with fertility, mastitis and lameness.
“Going forward, the aim should be to breed a cow yielding 40,000 litres in lifetime yield, with 22% replacement rate for the herd.
“Focus on daily lifetime milk yield per day and aim for 1kg of milk solids per kilo of cow liveweight every year,” Mackey concluded.