Tom, Leo and I began our Viking journey in 2006 when we were inspired by Steve Snowdon to consider three-way crossbreeding and using red genetics. Why? We were experiencing fertility challenges in our mainly Friesian seasonal calving herd. So, improved fertility was the carrot. Hybrid vigour, feed conversion efficiency, and similar kilograms of milk solids production also appealed.
The breeding strategy has evolved over time. I have been sidetracked by Red/Friesian cross, Monty cross and pure Reds. Now I am settled on the three-way cross using Friesian, Reds and Jersey.
However, given my passion for Reds, I do put some of my best Red crosses back to Reds. The three-way cross gives me a cow that suits our system and drives profit ù medium frame and benefits of hybrid vigour, particularly in the early years.
With crossbreeding, the kilograms of milk solids per cow may have dropped slightly compared with our straight Friesians, but they don't need as much feed, and the not-in-calf (NIC) rates are significantly better. A few years ago, I broke down our 14 per cent rate and found the Friesians contributed 28 per cent and the Red cross contributed only 5 per cent.
Why Viking? In 2006 I was impressed by the quality of the bulls and by Viking's rigorous and reliable testing and recording regimes. Twelve years later I am still impressed by the quality of their bulls and the reliability of their Nordic Total Merit (Scandinavian) breeding value system. During my quest to find the most profitable cow I've dabbled with products from four other semen companies. However, when I compare stats on paper, the Viking cows are consistently the top of the class.
This season the milking herd is 30 per cent by Viking sires. The breed breakdown is 40 per cent Red, 36 per cent Jersey, 22 per cent Friesian and 2 per cent Montbeliarde. Our three-way cross now make up a third of our herd.
With the focus on the three-way cross in recent years, I have found Viking bulls from each breed, Red, Friesian and Jersey to suit my needs. Backed by their health traits, they are the ideal choice. A healthy cow is a fertile cow that has longevity and is a cow producing optimal kilograms of milk solids and profit.
Until two years ago, I individually matched each cow with a particular bull. The aim was to correct faults in the cows e.g. frame, high pins, udder, components, etc.
Although time-consuming, it has been worthwhile as we now have a more even herd (even though they are crossbred), with sound health status and are great producers. We have also corrected high pins, tall narrow cows, and similar related traits.
Now with more than 1000 cows, and for staff well-being at joining, I choose less bulls and have a "bull of the day" in each breed, but still match around 60 of my best Reds to individual bulls. I also individually match around 20 other cows if a fault needs to be corrected.
Involving staff in the process, whether it be bull selection or their feedback on the herd, adds value to the breeding process. Leo and staff have identified the need to prioritise udders in bull selection of late. Interestingly, a couple of bulls that have thrown cows with poor udders weren't Viking bulls.
Crossbreeding continues to be a challenge. Some of our lovely Foske cows and heifers are larger than I would like in our herd, but they are performing. The majority of our three-way cross is based on using a bull of the breed that, on paper, the cow should be joined to. Occasionally I may put a cow that isn't of typical size for its breed back to another breed of bull.
Given we are all interested in fertility, health, longevity and production, I wanted to share with you where the Viking calves born in 2009 are today. This is a group of cows we still talk about. They were by Peterslund, OBrolin, Bjurist, Krejstad and Torp. Healthy, robust calves, good "doers" who grew into heifers that came into the milking herd in excellent condition. I have followed this group through the seasons, comparing them to non-Viking sired cows also born in 2009.
Their percentages each year, relating to deaths, culls, treatments, fertility and production, has always been significantly better than the rest. Looking at these 900s by Viking in the herd today: 27 per cent are milking i.e. 20 out of the 75 that calved down in 2011, 15 of these are in calf for spring this year, beginning their seventh lactation. They are in-calf to artificial insemination as for the past two seasons we have not used herd bulls. Herd testing stats from February 2018: 26 litres milk, 3.7 per cent protein, 5.5 per cent fat, 158 individual cow cell counts.
Lessons that we have learnt over the years include:
Be generous in the budget for bulls. The majority of bulls I have used over the years have been the top proven bulls. It may seem like a lot of money at the time, but it represents true value for money if you get the results you want.
Focus on the farm system and develop a herd to optimise the system.
Consider the cows (on paper and in the paddock) and which bulls they need to improve their progeny and create or maintain a cow and herd for the system.
Learn from others, including staff and the AI reseller. As a breeding novice, I have found the willingness to share information and knowledge among the Red and crossbreed fraternity an incredible support.
Do your homework. Study the herd/cow records and statistics. It can be boring, and averages can be deceiving, but it's an important part of the planning process.
In conclusion, I have no hesitation in recommending Viking bulls to any dairy breeder committed to improving their cows and herd. I have every confidence in their NTM breeding values system. D
*Bev Phelan, in partnership with her husband Tom and their son Leo, run Dalmore Dairy in Tasmania.
Article supplied by Viking Genetics, website www.vikinggenetics.com.au.