June Gold Cup Comment: Beef sires hold back herd fertility

This month 2016 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner Simon Bugler from Dorset reports on the latest news from Pilsdon Dairy Farm and assesses the herd breeding policy.

I always refer to May as ‘Manic May’ and this year has been no different.  By the end of the month we had finished the late 1st cut perennials and 2nd cut Italians as well as drilling the last of the maize seed.

We always try to follow the silaging with artificial fertiliser as soon as possible then immediately after that, we umbilical.  The wet weather just after our 2nd cut meant we didn’t manage to umbilical on what will be our 3rd cut Italians.  A week on when it was dry enough to travel again the bottle neck of getting the last maize drilled added a few more days delay to spreading slurry, and by this time the regrowth was too far on to consider using the umbilical on some of the grass.  Travelling over this grass would have ruined the 3rd cut that we hope will be completed just before the Gold Cup Open Day on June 28th.

                   Pilsdon Dairy Farm will host the Gold Cup Open Day on June 28th


Cattle sales planned
This month also saw the results of our IRs which both went clear.  Due to the TB shut down we have seen cow numbers climb again so we have decided to sell approaching 100 cattle at Sedgemoor Sale Centre on July 6th.  It will be a mixture of both fresh cows and autumn calvers from some of our best cow families by high quality well known bulls.

We have had a slightly lower number of calvings this month and also a lot less heifer calves.  To supply our own replacement heifers and dairy sales going forward we intend to breed between 25 to 30 heifer calves a month.  In the past we have usually exceeded this.  However, in the last 12 months we have increased our beef semen usage especially in the dairy herd.  This has been to both Angus and Belgian Blue (three bulls mixed per straw).

The intention is to sell the majority as calves off the farm, with some Belgian Blues kept for the store cattle ring and the Angus for finishing on a Sainsburys contract.  Having moved to a high level of beef semen it has highlighted how important sexed semen is as part of our semen usage.  This month’s total calf numbers have been low with only 13 female Holsteins against 16 bull calves so it was a bad month for conventional semen.  Without sexed semen it could have been worse as eight of the 13 heifers were a result of
sexed semen.

Pregnancy rates climb
We’ve seen our pregnancy rate climb back from 26% to 27% but this has dropped from 29% a year ago.  The increased use of beef semen has probably had a detrimental effect on the herd’s overall fertility.  We have a conception rate of 39% for all services over the 12 months but the beef semen has not enhanced it.

Of the four Angus bulls we used only one had a conception rate of 44% (102 services).  The other three had conception rates ranging from 25% to 34% (141 services cumulatively).  The four different suppliers of three mixed Belgian Blue bulls per straw that I have used, also underperformed against the enhanced conception rates they are marketed with.  The conception rates ranged from 31% to 40% (253 services).

These results have left me wishing I could breed everything to black and white.  It would definitely generate better herd fertility but also an enormous number of surplus heifers.  However, with the seemingly constant risk of TB, it is prudent to continue to use beef semen as well, although this does take some managing.

Herd genetic improvement
Having purchased good bloodlines from other UK herds, Canada and North America we have seen huge improvements in our genetics.  This does sometimes make it difficult when making mating decisions as to which cows get bred to beef.

Often it seems like far too good a cow to breed to beef.  This is where our software programme has started to play an important role in grading cows.  It will extract data relating to production, health and fertility performance, which we can then use to create an overall score.  It is then just a case of deciding what scores get bred, or not bred, to beef.  It is certainly not an exact science and I don’t always agree with the recommendations, but it is proving to be a very useful guide.

As we look towards a new building and growing cow numbers this kind of aid and analysis becomes ever more important.  While I have already mentioned the poorer fertility our software has identified, there are always improvements being made.  The latest software update has given us the ability to record the kind of heat that leads to a service, whether it be from natural visual heats, the activity collars, response to prostaglandin or a programme.  This will be really useful to breakdown how successful the different methods might be with conception/pregnancy rates for each.

Visit to Cornwall Show
As well as the relief of finishing all the field work at the end of May it also meant we were all good to go on our family holiday to Cornwall during the first week of June.  So the rest of the family all flew into the country and we enjoyed a good week to catch up on non-farming interests.  Having said that, we did manage a sneaky visit to the Royal Cornwall Show.  It is a great agricultural show, still maintaining strong agricultural roots and is well worth a visit.

It was interesting to hear the mixed views and expectations that people had as the voting booths where filled.  I was less surprised by the result this time than I was when we voted to exit Europe.  I had hoped I was wrong and that some stability would be restored to the political position.  Instead it seems we now have a political situation where uncertainly is the only consistency.

Now well rested from our family holiday, it’s all hands on deck for final Open Day preparations—we look forward to seeing you there!  Click here to register.

Performance in April at Pilsdon Dairy Farm:

Reprinted from the June 2017 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website.