Genetic gain lifts profitability

31 Oct, 2018 04:00 PM
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When you look at the figures you can see the clear benefits of genetics.

Gippsland dairyfarmers Trevor Saunders and Anthea Day are committed to making rapid genetic gain in their 750-cow dairy herd, Araluen Park, and have the figures to prove their efforts are paying substantial dividends.

They were one of 27 Australian dairy farms that underwent detailed analysis by the ImProving Herds project to investigate the contribution of genetics to dairy businesses. All participants had herds with good data and were prepared to share their records.

The study identified the top and bottom 25 per cent of each herd, ranked on Balanced Performance Index (BPI), the main genetic index used by the Australian dairy industry.

The herd's records were analysed to look at the difference in the contribution to the farm business between the top and bottom 25 per cent of the herd. The analysis was based on 10 years of historical performance data, plus recent farm financial data.

In the Araluen Park herd, cows in the top 25 per cent have a marginal income over feed costs of $370/cow/year more than the bottom 25 per cent.

The top cows each produced per year an extra 690 litres of milk, 40kg of protein and 56kg of fat than their herd mates in the bottom 25 per cent.

The extra milk produced by the top 25 per cent of cows was worth an extra $498/cow/year in income. This was offset by higher feed costs of $128/cow/year, leaving an increase in marginal milk income over feed costs of $370/cow/year.

The top cows also lasted in the herd for an extra 16 months.

"When you look at the figures you can see the clear benefits of genetics," Ms Day said.

"The results clearly demonstrate the value of investing in genetics to improve farm profitability.

"We always believed using genetic indexes and general herd improvement tools were profitable and the ImProving Herds project has validated our belief in the value of making genetic progress in our Jersey herd."

Committed to Genetics

Mr Saunders and Ms Day are both fourth-generation dairyfarmers and are committed to using the best Jersey sires available from Australia and overseas, as well as genomically testing their females.

"Stock are our second biggest asset after the farm, so we want to use every tool available to add to their value," Ms Day said.

She and Mr Saunders are focused on making genetic gain and this has been possible by selecting the best sires and using them extensively through artificial insemination.

"We've been using 100 per cent AI on the herd since 1985 and have been progeny testing young sires for more than 30 years," she said.

"Our herd has grown in from 350 cows to 750 cows in 2.5 years through natural increase and we have been able to do this relatively easy without comprising the genetic gain in the herd because we have had 100 per cent of our calves bred through AI."

The couple have a long-standing passion for Jersey genetics and have imported embryos in partnership with a friend from the United States, to ensure they have access to leading genetics and families. US Jersey families now make up abut 30 per cent of the Araluen Park herd.

They use BPI when selecting sires for use in their herd and aim to be ranked in the top 2 per cent for genetic merit for Jersey herds in Australia.

Mr Saunders said: "We always look for bulls at the top of the list for BPI but this can sometimes be a problem with US sires as not all of them have a BPI, so then our key criteria are protein, type, udder, strength and more recently fertility. All bulls also have to be genomically tested."

Breeding better cows

Most of the Araluen Park herd has been genomically tested, with each drop of heifers tested as calves for the past four years.

Tail hairs are taken from all heifer calves when they are between a month to six weeks old and sampling is carried out to coincide with disbudding. Results take about a month to come back.

"Now that our herd numbers have stabilised, we can start using these genomic results to rank our heifer calves on BPI and sell the bottom 25 per cent as weaned calves and make genetic gain earlier," Ms Day said.

The ImProving Herds analysis showed if the couple had sold the bottom 25 per cent of their calves, they would not have sold a single high performer from their herd; their calf genomic results matched their first lactation performance.

"Identifying the lower ranked heifer calves earlier means more money in the bank because we are not using as much feed to grow out young heifers we may not want," Ms Day said.

"The potential to increase the number of heifer calves by using sexed semen means we can still put more heifers into the herd and then reassess how our three and four-year-old cows are performing after their second or third lactation then decide who to keep and who to cull."

The Araluen Park herd has recently joined Ginfo -- DataGene's national genetic information reference pool -- which is motivating the couple to continue improving the rate of genetic gain in their herd.

Contact: DataGene, phone (03) 9032 7191 or email abv@datagene.com.au.

ImProving Herds is a Gardiner Dairy Foundation project in collaboration with Dairy Australia, DataGene, the Victorian Government, Holstein Australia and the National Herd Improvement Association of Australia (NHIA).

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