There are a only a select number of ProCross dairy herds in Scotland, but there soon could be a lot more following the UK's first conference dedicated to the composite milking breed.

With more than 2000 cows involved in a recently completed 10-year study of the ProCross – a three-way breeding programme rotation based on the Holstein, VikingRed and Montbéliarde breeds – expectations have been high for the composite in the UK.

The study, conducted by the University of Minnesota, coupled with more than 20 years of research and three independent trials concluded that this three-way cross made significantly more profit per day and per lifetime, than the Holstein, thanks to a combination of more lifetime milk solids, lower vets’ bills, improved fertility and better feed conversion efficiency.

In the UK, farmers said the cross was also lifting cull cow and calf values, thanks in part to the robustness of the Montbéliarde breed.

Farmers and consultants speaking at the event, were able to confirm the success of the breeding concept across a range of systems.

Karen and Tom Halton from Cheshire, who had switched to ProCross in 2008 raised production to 11,300litres at 4.00%BF and 3.25%P on a three-times-a-day system. They also dispensed of their hospital pen.

Coming from a herd of 8000litre Holsteins back in 2008, the couple who are tenants on the Rode Hall Estate near Congleton, Cheshire, now run 530 ProCross cows in an all year round calving policy. First calving averages are 22 months for 90% of the herd, calving index is 365 days (with a voluntary waiting period of 50 days), and the annual rolling pregnancy rate is an impressive 34%.

“Of course, if you gave Tom those Holsteins back from 2008 he would get more than 8000 litres of milk from them,” Karen said. “But he wanted a cow with longevity that would look after us.”

She added that the farm no longer has a hospital pen, and they now have a system – which includes 20% of the farm’s milk selling to around 700 retail customers – which is resilient and flexible.

“We have got to be better farmers which is one reason for the ProCross,” she said. “The health of the cows has helped underpin our business.”

Interestingly, the switch of breed was made against all advice from discussion groups and breeding companies in 2008.

However, contrary to popular belief at the time, the couple found that 98% of the composite cows externally assessed achieved the top two mobility scores (0-1), as well as significant financial gain.

“No one says ‘here’s a cheque’, so we worked out a price,” she said. “We found it was giving us £50,000 per annum back to the business and a happy, strong and healthy herd,” she said.

Karen also found that those who advised against introducing the ProCross in the early years are now asking if they have heifers for sale!

Shropshire father and son team Ian and Will Nixon, Market Drayton, have also been most impressed by the crossbreed with their Comparable Farm Profit (CFP) having risen by £69,360 per annum since switching to ProCross in 2017, largely as a result of slashing replacement rates and costs of production.

In previous years, the duo ran a 350-head Holstein herd, until independent farm consultant, Peter Long, from P&L Consulting, drilled into the costings for his clients. As a result, some 79 ProCross heifers were purchased in 2017 and since then, replacement rate had been cut from 32% to 23% which had reduced replacement costs from more than 4p per litre in 2018 to just over 3p per litre in 2021.

“The impact of 1p per litre is absolutely huge,” said Mr Long.

Fewer herd replacements resulted in 46 of the 79 ProCross remaining in the herd in May 2022 compared with just 16 of the 80 Holstein heifers which had calved down in the same year.

Older cows in the system led to numerous positive consequences including fewer heifer lactations, which are around 20% lower than those of mature cows, and better grazing intakes from older animals.

He said data analysis by the consultancy revealed that the number of days at grass had a bigger impact on farm profit than anything else (with system variations), and confidence in the cow to graze was important in adding grazing days.

“If you know the cow is more likely to cope with adverse conditions you are more likely to put her out,” he said. “It’s a default genetic benefit we are seeing.”

In the Nixons’ herd, this contributed to 600 litres per cow extra milk from forage, which mirrored an overall increase in yield. Milk solids rose from 540kg per cow in 2018 to more than 600kg per cow in 2020, resulting in 28,320kg extra solids sold across the farm, with no additional feed for extra fat and protein.

At the same time, vet, med and other variable costs decreased and calf value increased.

“Everything about the ProCross has delivered,” he said.

Mr Long added: “As consultants, there are so many things we are asked to look at but unless you can see it in your bank account, then it’s fiction.”

For this reason, he preferred to use Comparable Farm Profit (CFP) which – by assigning a standardised milk, feed and rental value – shows improvements due to strategic gain, rather than due to costs or prices.

“CFP for the farm is £69,360 per annum more than it would have been in 2018,” he said. “And this isn’t the end position – a lot more will come down the line,” he added, remarking that today, the Nixons’ herd comprises 80% ProCross cattle and rising.

He described working in partnership with less ‘management-intensive’ cows as a ‘life change’ and was asked why there seemed industry resistance to farmers making the switch.

Observing the number of commercial interests in every farming business, he said: “If you design a system which means less units – whatever those units may be – then people will create negativity. It takes a strong character to turn around and say that’s wrong.”

Further south in Devon, Patrick Cock, from Ashburton made the switch to three-way crossbreed around 10 years ago, transitioning from three-times-a-day Holsteins at 12,000 litres, 3.88%BF and 3.17%P to a more grazing oriented system.

He said he was tired of ‘pumping cows and the hospital pen’, and describes his realisation that he could crossbreed without having to have small Jersey crosses on a spring-calving system as an ‘enlightening moment’. This enabled him to make best use of existing facilities.

“You can’t put one and a half cows in a cubicle,” he remarked.

His only hesitation remained the loss of his pedigree status, while his 1100 TB reactors almost put paid to any change.

He switched to the three-way rotation of VikingRed and Montbéliarde on his Holstein base in 2012 and 6-7 years later was milking 75% crossbred cows.

Calving in two defined spring and autumn blocks, today he’s seen a marked increase in reproductive performance including a lift in conception rate from roughly 30% to 43-45% and a 40-day reduction in calving index.

Veterinary inputs for fertility are now almost nil and the stillbirth rate has been halved, while lameness, mastitis and culling rates have all declined.

Milk quality had moved from 3.88% to 4.47%BF and 3.17% to 3.54%P although volume had decreased on a lower input system to 8300kg.

Now using all sexed dairy semen he was surprised to find results were comparable with conventional semen.

“It may be due to the ProCross cow, and I am sure they do help, but it’s also the sexed semen technology,” he said.

Its use has enabled him to use more beef sires and he says: “We are just trying to create more livestock value and maybe supply surplus heifers.”

Finished steers and cull cows have a higher value, with British Blues out of the crossbred cows selling particularly well.

“There’s around £150 extra value in a Monty than a Holstein steer,” he says.

While finished Holstein cross steers were previously grading at P- and P+, those from crossbred dams are mostly O+ and some of the Montbéliardes grade R.

Also praising the Montbéliardes’ dairy qualities, he finds their flat lactation curve means they can still be giving 30kg with high components in late lactation.

Heifers stay out through their first winter and calves are described as ‘slightly more robust’ and are reared outside.

“That means no straw, no dung and we don’t really get respiratory problems,” he says.

“If you select the right bulls you can have a super ProCross herd that is smaller, for example, if you want a grazing herd.

“Or if you want to house and milk three times a day, you can still do that with bigger cows.”

“Most of us will probably go the middle way,” he said, adding that his gut feeling was to use the VikingRed as the first cross.

“The problems with the Holstein are size, legs and feet, and fertility and the VikingRed does most for those traits,” he says.

Praising, in particular, the VikingReds’ hoof health index, he says: “It is based on real hoof health and I would say it’s very accurate.”

As a fairly early adopter of ProCross, he warned producers not to make the mistakes he’d made.

He said these included not starting sooner, not crossing the entire herd at the outset, and being tempted by ‘me too Scandi offerings’.

Asked if his profits were higher with the ProCross, he said TB had completely distorted his costings.

“But there is no doubt about it, I am sure we are in a better place because of the cow, and the herd is more pleasurable to work with,” he said.