EVERY DECISION on Bob and Jacqui Biddulph’s dairy farm is data driven.
There’s no stone unturned when it comes to measuring and monitoring performance for the self-confessed ‘number crunchers’.
“We keep a lot of records, but that’s only so we can look at them and make decisions,” Jacqui said.
“From paddock performance and the number of hay rolls coming out (of each paddock) to seed selection, we do financial analysis of the business every year. With breeding, it is not much different. We like to keep our herd genetically modern, using new bulls all the time rather than older bulls. We are completely commercially focused: our money comes from selling milk and we want cattle that last.”
It is no surprise that the couple have embraced Australian Breeding Values (ABVs) for females, based on genomic testing, pedigree estimates and their own performance records.
“We have a report on our herd, every cow from milking to non-milking,” Jacqui said.
“Some calves were born on 8 April and on 17 April we got their pedigree-only BPI.”
The Balanced Performance Index (BPI) is an estimate of an animal’s genetic merit, based on the traits that contribute to farm business performance under Australian conditions.
The couple milk 420 registered Holsteins at Cowaramup near Margaret River in Western Australia on about 300 hectares with the support of a 125 ha run-off block and 50 ha of leased land. The focus on data and its use for driving farm performance started with Bob’s parents, Eric and Maureen, who began registering the herd in 1975. Targeted, individual matings underpin the Biddulphs’ breeding program, a task which relies heavily on data.
“Frustrated” that data was not available on heifers until their first lactation, Jacqui developed her own formula to determine an animal’s genetic merit — half the sire and half the dam’s breeding value.
“We’ve always focused on strong cow families, three generations of type and udders and now we use cow BPIs as well. All the information is there now and more importantly it is readily available,” Jacqui said.
“I’ve reared bulls from maiden heifers now that we have got more information. Before they hit the dairy, we know a fair bit about them. We genomically test our home-bred bulls to confirm they are good enough. This early information puts us in front compared to where we used to be.”
Constantly pushing for genetic gain, earlier information has helped the couple sharpen their focus for culling and export heifer selection. Inseminating all the heifers and running an extensive AI program with the main herd ensures the couple has plenty of replacements each year. Their annual replacement rate is 25–30 per cent, with young animals keeping herd health issues to a minimum.
These extra heifers also mean there’s more available to send to the export market. Traditionally, 30–50 animals are exported each year.
The bulk of the heifer sales come from later-born heifers which means they can be sired naturally. Jacqui said it was important to ensure the heifers sold were also “quality stock” and that’s why genomically testing the home-bred bulls was crucial. She said one of the bulls running with the heifers had a 241 BPI, something she was pleased with considering he was home-bred.
The Biddulphs’ herd calves from February to the end of May, to make best use of their 180-day pasture growing season. Jacqui said everything’s hand fed until peak lactation, before they hit the home-grown pasture to complete most of their lactation on grass. “It’s about matching grass growth to the lactation curve to manage costs,” she said.
Profitability is at the heart of all business decisions, including breeding. Thorough analysis of sires starts as soon as DataGene’s April ABV proofs are released, with bulls selected within 24 hours. This tight time frame’s crucial to ensure semen arrives in Western Australia in time for joining. The DataGene Good Bulls Guide is a starting point for sire selection with the BPI the primary source of information.