STEPHEN GLEESON knows all too well the value of a good temperament when it comes to breeding dairy cows.
“Good workabilities are pretty close to production when I select bulls,” he said.
“It is no good having a top producing cow, if she upsets the whole run and kicks the machines off five times through milking; I can do without that.”
Stephen, his sister Margaret and mum Freda, run Montana Park Jerseys, a 120-cow herd at Purnim north of Warrnambool in western Victoria.
The family have been recording the workability traits of heifers for 28 years, something Stephen says is vital to helping the greater industry.
“It is important to be fair and honest in all the information that gets collected and goes into the computer,” he said.
“If you were doing workabilties on a heifer and give her a good score for ease of milking and she was actually slow, you are not being fair to the breeders or the bull company or anyone else who is going to use that bull.
“An assessment that is not accurate, is not fair. To the best of my ability I always try to be fair and honest.”
Workabilities are the traits that refer to how easy it is to have a cow in the herd. They include milking speed, temperament and likeability. Each has its own Australian Breeding Value. Milking Speed and Temperament are included in DataGene’s three breeding indices: Balanced Performance Index (BPI), Health Weighted Index (HWI) and Type Weighted Index (TWI).
To maintain the dataset of workabilities the industry relies on dairy farmers like the Gleesons to score these traits for each heifer during her first lactation.
“If they do nothing wrong, we usually say they are pretty well liked,” Stephen said.
“If they are really quiet, we give them a good score for likeability.”
The Gleesons generally score about 25 to 30 heifers in December each year. With Stephen and Margaret doing all the milking, they find it relatively easy to fill-in the paperwork that is required.
“What we usually do, when the sheet comes with heifers that have got to be done, we run a copy off and take it to the dairy,” Stephen said.
“We then check the number and put a score down as we are milking. It is easier that way, rather than doing it while sitting at the table inside and have to think ‘cow 500 is she quiet or placid?’
“I don’t mind doing that, I think it helps. It costs a lot of money to prove a bull and they deserve to get the most accurate report they can.
“It is very important because, say you are a farmer and you buy 50 doses of bull at $25 (a dose), you are hoping to get a good return on that. If an artificial breeding company says this bull does XYZ, based on a proof, but then the bull doesn’t come-up, it is not very good for the farmer and not very good for the industry.”
DataGene extension officer Peter Williams said the industry wouldn’t have quality and consistent database without farmers like the Gleesons contributing accurate information year-after-year.
“There’s a number of ways to score workabilities and the way Stephen records it in the dairy ensures the information is accurate and timely,” Peter said. “That’s the best type of information.”
Farmers can also report workability scores on their heifers through the HerdData app, Easy Dairy, Mistro Farm or direct to their herd test centre.
The Gleesons use mostly Australian bulls and the swag of sires includes those which have been genomically tested.
Stephen uses the Australian Breeding Value system to help select bulls, focusing on production and type and generally looks to corrective mate individual cows.
“I probably look to the higher bulls, for example, I might pick out some bulls I like and go and look at their figures.
“Say, the first two bulls are all right, they seem to be pretty good with their numbers, but the third bull might not be so much. So, I might only use a small amount or not use him at all.
“ABVs help with selection. It is like herd testing cows, in a way, you always want to breed from best cows, with bulls always want to breed from best bulls that way you are enhancing your herd all the time.”
The Gleesons only use artificial insemination and have herd tested bimonthly for the past 28 years.
“The first thing we look for is the Production Index, to see how they are performing,” Stephen said.
“Particularly for the heifers and if a particular bull doesn’t have any daughters and this is his first crop of daughters, we like to see how they are going.
“We use the Production Index for culling too. If cows are continually at the bottom end of the list. First of all, we would probably look at why; if it’s just low-producing cows, we would look at culling at the end of the season. Getting rid of the bottom ones all the time helps lift the whole herd.”
The Gleesons’ breeding approach has seen the herd achieve an average Balanced Performance Index of 87, ranking 15 out of 283 Jerseys milk recording herds for BPI.
Stephen has worked as an artificial insemination technician and joins all the cows himself.
“We pregnancy test all the herd and start seven or eight weeks after joining,” Stephen said.
“Last year we preg tested a bit over 110 to 112 cows and there were only three not-in-calf.
“Joining starts in September, then I AI until about Christmas time. Anything after that not in calf, that’s it.
“My sister and I, we visually assess the cows. Even down the paddock I have a notebook and we check the cows as they are coming into the yard, compare the notes and then get the cows for tail painting that way.”
The Gleesons haven’t used sexed semen; Stephen said their priority has been to get cows in calf as he has a market for bulls. He grows them out and sells them to local farmers as bulls to run with heifers or as mop-ups.