When moving to a new robotic milking unit from a traditional parlour based system, Andrew and Alison Walmsley from Scarah Bank Farm, near Ripley, Harrogate were faced with a number of challenges which required them to focus closely on breeding and reproduction to build their current herd.
With three robots, there is a limit to herd size so it is vital that the whole system is as efficient as possible and using Genus ABS Reproductive Management System (RMS) and the targeted use of sexed semen they are driving down total replacement costs and increasing the value of the beef calf crop. They are also breeding cows well suited for the system and the future.
“The old parlour was showing its age,” admits Andrew Walmsley. “Knowing we were moving to the new unit we had not been replacing so had some older less productive cows and a shortage of heifers when we moved to the robots in 2011. So our first challenge was to increase the heifers to allow a higher replacement rate and herd expansion. We moved into the new unit with 140 milkers.”
In January 2012 they purchased 32 in calf heifers and the reproductive policy was based on their own AI and the use of a chaser bull. Breeding policy was to serve all cows twice with conventional dairy semen with Belgian Blue Fertility Plus semen used on cows that didn’t hold. Heifers were served to conventional dairy semen with an Angus bull used on any that did not hold.
To try and improve reproductive performance and improve the flow of replacements, in October 2012 they signed up to RMS.
“We saw an immediate lift in pregnancy rates leading to more calves on the ground. While this helped with our goal of more heifers, we were also producing more dairy bulls and fewer beef calves.”
Following discussion with Richard Lucas from Genus ABS, they decided to make the move into using sexed semen on the heifers. Moving to sexed semen would retain the increased supply of replacements but allow more beef calves to be produced, increasing the value of the calf crop. It also allowed a fine tuning of the breeding strategy with the cows.
Heifers were served a maximum of twice with sexed semen followed by Angus as required. The top 50% of cows were served to conventional dairy followed by beef semen while the bottom 50% were just served to beef.
The success rate with sexed semen had a marked impact on the make-up of the calf crop.
“We were serving 75 heifers with sexed semen and getting 60 heifers calves to go with the 25 heifers we were getting from the cows, giving 85 in total. Beef calves increased to 150 and we still had 25 dairy bulls.
“With 200 cows in the herd we now had too many heifer calves and they were a drain on resources with increased demands of calf rearing and tying up extra land with yearlings and in calf heifers. Furthermore, every black and white bull is a lost opportunity to sell a beef calf and carries a £150 price penalty.
“However, extra heifers meant we could cull harder and get the better genetics into the herd. We had been holding onto cows but could now move on the slow milkers, high cell count and poorer fertility cows.”
Buoyed by the success rate with sexed semen on heifers and encouraged by the high conception rates achievable with Genus ABS Sexcel semen, in 2018 Andrew and Alison took the decision to go 100% sexed semen for dairy inseminations across the business.
They felt making maximum use of sexed semen combined with RMS would allow the most efficient production of heifers, optimise replacement costs and maximise beef calves for sale.
Sexcel semen is used on the majority of the heifers with the lowest genetic merit heifers going to beef. Only the top 10% of cows are served to dairy, with a maximum of two Sexcel inseminations before being followed by beef. All other cows are served to beef.
Using RMS over 90% of breedings are to chalking or standing heats. Heat detection rate is running at 67% with a 27% pregnancy rate overall. The conception rate across the herd is 38% with a conception rate of 49.6% with Sexcel on cows..
“Our target is to produce 50 heifer calves and 190-200 beef calves a year. We select the animals to put to dairy, both cows and heifers, using Genus ABS GMS working with GMS Evaluator for Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria. Thomas Tiffin,” Andrew continues. “We can be very selective and look at traits including fertility, milking speed and production.”
The increased beef calf crop will have a significant cashflow impact. The extra 50 beef calves will generate an additional £10,000. The calves are sold privately at 6-8 weeks old.
Richard Lucas has been advising on both dairy and beef genetics.
“On the beef side we look for bulls which have good calving ease and good calf quality. We want the calf on the ground and the cow up and milking and British Blues are generally not difficult calvers,” Richard explains. “We are currently using like Kojak who scores 130 on calving ease and is -3 days on breed average gestation length .
“For dairy the priorities are a functional cow who is not too big. We look closely at rear teat position, teat length and chest width as well as a PLI over £700. Sires including Eldridge, Solaris, Kipling and Spock are being used.”
The focus on breeding and the commitment to sexed semen is having big benefits. The 200 cow herd is now averaging 10,000 litres at 4.0% fat and 3.22% protein. They are fed a TMR worth M+23 litres with one compound fed through the robot. Cows are peaking at over 55 litres.
Andrew says the benefits can be seen across the business.
“We are bringing better quality genetics into the herd quicker and selling more beef calves. With fewer heifers on the farm we can manage them more closely. We are close to achieving two year calving. We serve heifers at 380kg and some will be calving in at 22 months. Having fewer calves and heifers has also released some time.
“The better reproductive performance means we now only have the vet every three weeks rather than fortnightly. We used to see cows not bulling at 50 days but have pushed this to 70 to give the cows a chance and we are intervening with far fewer cows, saving on costs. We haven’t had a bull on the farm for five years which is a bonus.
“By selecting culling we have bought cell counts down to around 130 and have fewer clinical cases.
“Looking forward we will be keeping a close eye on heifer numbers and targeting 4-5 entering the herd every month as 12 cows and 5 heifers a month is ideal with our robot system.
“As we can’t get bigger we must drive efficiency across the business with productive cows, sufficient quality heifers entering the herd every year and a large and high value beef calf crop,” Andrew concludes.
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