Parry plans to fast-track young herd

By Rick Bayne

Rhiannon Parry hopes genomic testing will sling-shot her young herd into a brighter future.

Rhiannon farms with her partner Cameron Schellekens and sons Blake and Luke near Wonthaggi in Victoria and says that genomic testing and herd testing are vital for today’s farmers.

“Even if you don’t go down the avenue of genomic testing, herd testing is a valuable tool,” she said. “To improve the accuracy of the ABV’s, we need to encourage more farmers to herd record and herd test”. “Without the quality and quantity of data coming from herd testing centres, it makes the ABVs less accurate.

For such a strong advocate, Rhiannon is a relatively new concert to dairying.

Coming from a beef background, Rhiannon started her connection nine years ago with the dairy industry as a herd tester for herd improvement and genetics cooperative HICO. “I knew the animal side of it but I knew nothing about dairy,” she admitted. “Herd testing was an unknown area but I had an opportunity to start from scratch. I like to learn and saw it as a challenge so I grabbed it with both hands.”

Four years ago, Rhiannon and Cameron took over one of his family’s farms and after having children she has now returned to work part-time at HICO in herd testing and genomics.

Along with the interaction and bouncing ideas with fellow farmers, Rhiannon says she gets to practice what she preaches on the family herd. “I’m always looking for new ideas to bring home to our farm,” she said.

Rhiannon and Cameron have started to introduce genomics to their 240-strong mostly Holstein herd with some Jersey crosses.

The split-calving farm each autumn and spring is about to do their fourth lot of genomic testing in their second year of using the system.

“Genomic testing predicts the values and genetic merits of an animal. It gives you a prediction of what the animal is going to produce, not just for milking but will help make smarter decisions for the cow’s offspring,” Rhiannon said. “If you do it as a calf, you get to know whether that calf is going to be worth holding on to as a breeder and select genetics to accommodate that animal’s traits or whether it might be better suited to another person’s farm.”

It’s too early to tell what impact it might have on Rhiannon and Cameron’s farm, which is building up a young herd, but they believe the testing will have a significant and positive influence.

So far, they have kept everything that has been genomically-tested.

“We’re still building our herd,” Rhiannon said. “It’s enabled us to select their joinings and to select certain sires to improve the genomic-tested heifer’s traits.”

They are mainly looking to improve fertility and temperament. “If an animal isn’t going to get in calf it isn’t going to be of value to the dairy industry and with temperament you have to be able to put cups on them,” Rhiannon said.

“They are the main things we want target first and then we look at milking speed, mastitis resistance and muzzle width. If they’ve got a good muzzle on them they can get a good munch of grass; and a good muzzle leads to good body stature.”

“They are main things we want and then we look at milking speed, mastitis resistance and muzzle width. If they’ve got a good muzzle on them they can get a good munch of grass; if they have a tiny muzzle they’re not going to eat much.”

“Hopefully with next year’s calves we will start to see improvements.”

Rhiannon believes genomic testing will “sling-shot us years in advance” in improving the quality of the herd.

“By genomic testing, you’re getting the equivalent of seven years of herd testing data. Realistically, without it they’re 10-years-old before you’re aware of what the animal is giving you.”

In her dual roles, Rhiannon sees a definite push to genomics and gathering more precise data.

“It’s the way the industry is going,” she said. “From the HICO side of things, the amount of interest in genomics has jumped out of control this year. Once farmers understand the data they’re receiving back from genomic testing, and by getting the ABVs, it’s a no-brainer.”

In February Rhiannon went to New Zealand on a Gardiner Foundation-funded United Dairyfarmers of Victoria study tour to New Zealand. She found their technology is more advanced than Australia, although they might be reaching their capacity due to biosecurity and nitrogen leaching issues.

“They’re slightly advanced than us when it comes to genomics and a lot of farmers will do their whole herd. We’re only just starting to get farmers doing whole herds or whole batches of calves.”

On their farm, Rhiannon and Cameron plan to genomically test all calves this spring, after previously only doing seasonal heifers.

“Because of the cost we only did the heifers coming in for a start but this next calving when all the calves hit the ground they will be genomic tested,” Rhiannon said.

“That’s how important we think it is.”