Dairy farmers are keen to adopt new breeding tools to help them drive herd performance, going by the results of a recent investigation.

A survey at this year’s Dairy Tech event in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, found:

• More than three-quarters of dairy farmers want to adopt genomic testing in their herd within the next three years

• Only 16% of survey respondents had already used genomics to select replacement heifers

• More than a third of farmers select their heifers based on their ability to get in calf rather than using data such Profitable Lifetime Index (£PLI) made more reliable by genomic testing

• Of the 77% keen to adopt genomic testing of heifers, more than half said it was to better understand which heifers to breed from, as well as to speed up genetic gain and improve certain traits. Almost 30% said they wanted to use it solely to speed up genetic gain

Rearing calves is a costly business and according to the Open Journal of Animal Sciences, 2015, dairy heifer rearing from birth to weaning and their associated costs in the UK work out at £2.31 a day or £1819.011 on average to rear a dairy replacement. Payback takes at least until the middle of her second lactation.

By managing a heifer well and predicting her ability earlier, farmers can control their expenditure by adapting their breeding approach based on heifer quality and future potential.

Genomic testing

Genomic testing highlights the genetic merit of each animal. The high reliability, approximately 70%, allows farmers to confidently choose which animals to breed from depending on their selection criteria.

Genomic testing gives a prediction on;

• Health and fitness

• Production and management

• Type and composites

• Milk protein components

• Parentage and inbreeding

Dr Dave Armstrong, national veterinary manager at Zoetis, says rather than retaining more heifers than is necessary and applying a blanket strategy for using sexed semen, farmers can use genomics to accurately identify the top third of heifers and use sexed semen on them. The top first and second lactation cows can also be targeted.

“Genomics is much more accurate than using Parent Averages which have a reliability of less than 30%. It is simple to test, requiring just a hair or small tissue sample to be sent off for analysis at a lab,” he said.

Genomic Predicted Transmitting Abilities (gPTA’s) are returned by AHDB across a wide range of traits including; £PLI, Production, Health and Fitness, Management and Type.

Dr Armstrong also advised using a simple test like Clarifide from Zoetis which is available through vet practices and National Milk Records (NMR).

Farmer benefits

Dairy farmer Richard Eastham, Walmsley Fold Farm, Samlesbury, Preston, has been genomic testing his heifers since 2016. The initial batch of 82 heifers have just completed their first 305-day lactation with the benefits already evident.

Across their 305-day first lactation there was a difference of 1482kg of milk per heifer between the top and bottom quartiles. At an average milk price of 30.69ppl (AHDB Dec 18) this is a difference of £454.82 per heifer between the top and bottom 25%.

Fertility has also improved. The bottom 25% took 114 days on average to conceive post calving compared to an average of 81 days across the top 25%. At a cost of £3.50 for every day a cow is not in calf above a 365-day calving interval (AHDB) that’s a difference of £115.50 on average per heifer.

Mr Eastham has also been able to drive calf sale revenue through the generation of more beef calves and fewer Holstein bull calves by being more selective when using sexed semen.

“Because we are using more sexed semen in the cows we can breed more to beef," he said. "British Blue calves are selling for about £200 a head compared to £30 a head for a Holstein bull calf. Angus bulls from the heifers sell for £150-160 a head.”

Although new to the UK, Clarifide is well established in other markets where the impact on tested farms has been substantial. It has been found to improve profitability over twice as fast as the industry average on tested farms in the UK and US.

Farmers testing with the product have seen increased milk production, a reduction in their calving to conception interval and improvement in first service conception of 14% by breeding from the top 25% compared to the bottom 25%.