Outcross boosts herd health
With up to 25 per cent of his calves developing a potentially fatal lung infection, Tooma dairy farmer Keith Baker knew he had to make some big changes.
The problem had been worsening for more than a decade, but about three years ago it came to a head.
“We had a few with lung infections and it slowly got worse and worse,” Keith said.
“It started about 15 years ago and took about 10 years to go from a few to 10 per cent, then it took only a couple of years to go from 10 per cent to 25 per cent.
“It just blew out and we had to do something about it.”
The solution came when Keith introduced VikingGenetics’ VikingJersey as an outcross.
Within three years, Keith has seen an incredible change.
The infection rate has dropped from 25 to about two per cent — with none of the VikingJersey outcrosses suffering the lung problem.
Out of necessity, Keith has found not only a solution to a problem but improved the health and profitability of the herd and revolutionised his calving system, leading to big time and money savings.
More vigour and fertility
The cows are now displaying more vigour, fertility and longevity and have less hoof and mastitis problems.
Keith had mixed and matched most of the popular higher ranked bulls under his system for almost 40 years of AI breeding — firstly RBVs then ABVs moving to BPIs and genomics.
He had been dabbling with VikingJersey in his herd for a few years and noticed the health benefits, but it took the lung infection crisis for him to make a big shift.
“We had some cultures done and it showed to be a form of bronchial pneumonia but we noticed that the Danish cattle generally didn’t get it, that’s why we swung to predominantly using Danish genetics to have an outcross in the herd.
“Since we moved to VikingJersey about three years ago, we’re down to two to three per cent with the infection and we don’t have to treat many calves at all.
“I don’t understand why VikingJersey converts below average for type on BPI. In my experience they have just as much to offer in this area as the traditional Jersey genetics used in Australia.”
The farm in southern NSW was settled in 1948 with crossbreeds but the Baker family soon moved to a pure Jersey herd in 1952.
“We’re in hilly country with a fair bit of river flat and we need a cow that can walk a long way,” Keith said.
“I think Jerseys are the most efficient cow.”
The 546-hectare farm peaked at 390 head this year, down from a top of 420 about 15 years ago.
Lemvig was the first VikingGenetics bull used on the farm.
“The Lemvig cows were very good cows; we only had a dozen or so but they were very good,” Keith said.
More recently Husky has added to the quality.
“We had a Husky bull of our own; he’s now the benchmark the other bulls must match up to,” Keith said.
The VikingGenetics influence is now making an impact.
“We thought we’d need at least a quarter VikingJersey to make a difference,” Keith said.
“Some are now 50 per cent VikingJersey and we will steadily increase that to 65 to 75 per cent as we try to put an outcross on the whole herd.”
Facing regular calls for vet support and medication bills, the lung infections were impacting on profitability and management time.
“We had to get away from these lung infections and put them behind us,” Keith said.
Calves would start coughing within weeks of birth. They would be treated with various medications but some would be lost. The condition also returned when they hit puberty and when they calved as two-year-olds.
“Some would respond to treatment but a percentage would die,” Keith said.
Some calves would also relapse or acquire lung problems at weaning.
He reviewed the calf rearing program, changing pellet feed to a home-made muesli, and even attended some calf rearing programs despite having lived on dairy farms for his 65 years.
“We tried to look for wherever the problem might be, to see if we were doing something wrong, but we couldn’t find anything and the vet said the calves should have been fine.
“We weren’t where we wanted to be, we decided we had to try something else genetically.”
The idea of an outcross wasn’t new to Keith, in fact he recalls a lesson from his school years.
“When I was in high school, we had an ag teacher who was breeding wheat plants.
“He said that with genetics, if you’ve got a disease resistance problem, outcross is the only way to go. He showed us with the wheat and the results were phenomenal.”
The laws of genetics haven’t changed and now the classroom example has turned into a farming reality.
Keith had tried some bulls from other companies but they resulted in long, tall, narrow animals that didn’t suit his requirements.
“Then we looked for another Jersey population in the world where they were different to what we were using for an outcross.
“The other thing VikingGenetics does is measure everything in Denmark, giving us the information that we need.”
Not only has the lung problem almost evaporated, the herd is healthier and calving easier.
“We notice the calves are stronger at birth, get up very quickly and are better at suckling.
“We had a problem that some calves weren’t getting a drink and we’d have to intervene and feed them, but with VikingJersey you don’t have to.”
Mastitis and lameness have also reduced significantly.
“Our profitability has increased quite a lot and I think we’ll get other benefits over time.
“We’re very happy with the results.”