Drum Farm hosts workshops to improve breeding decisions and herd performance

Thursday, 23 March 2023

The recent genetics on farm meeting held at Drum farm, Beeswing in Dumfries & Galloway, attracted local dairy farmers keen to learn about genetics and genomics and how they can affect farm profitability.

Doreen Anderson, AHDB’s Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager for Dairy, organised the event hosted by the Harvey family at Drum farm. She commented, “Our genetics workshops are aimed at dairy farmers who are less familiar with genetics and genomics, and it’s our aim to give them the confidence to get more hands-on with their farms breeding decisions. High-quality cows with good genetics are at the heart of profitable dairy farming, and without this, there’s a limit to herd performance, no matter how good management is.”

The day consisted of three separate workshops, with the attendees split into three groups visiting each station in turn, followed by a buffet lunch.

Marco Winters, Head of Animal Genetics at AHDB, highlighted how farmers could easily identify strength and weaknesses in the genetic traits affecting their own herd’s performance and how breeding better genetics into their herd will make them easier to manage and reduce costs in the future. Cows with better health, improved fertility, lifespan and reduced incidences of lameness and mastitis can all be achieved by making sound breeding decisions, simply by selecting bulls that offer improvements for these genetic traits.

It is important to decide what genetic traits you wish to improve before making semen purchases, the wrong decision can impact your herd for many years to come. Poor breeding decisions can mean the difference between profit and loss and even between the survival and failure of your business.

Farms who milk record, can benchmark their herd genetics to help them make better breeding decisions. Genetics is a powerful way of making permanent herd improvements, as once better genetics are introduced, they will accumulate with each generation, and the good traits become stronger. Identifying the weaknesses in your herd and breeding them out will also bring future improvements in herd performance. Using genomic testing will give more reliable information early in a heifers’ life, and can help you to identify your worst-performing animals so you are no longer breeding from them.

AHDB analyses the data collected through milk recording to provide genetic insight into a herd’s performance and provides this information to farmers free of charge through their online Herd Genetic Report. The report can be used to easily highlight certain weaknesses, e.g. lower protein and fat content or poor mastitis index rating. Checking your data before making semen buying decisions can really help to make the best choices. Sixty per cent of the UK herd currently milk records. Hopefully, this figure will continue to increase as more dairy farmers recognise the benefits.

David Guthrie, and Genetics Specialist Erin Boyle from Genus, spoke at their workshop about increasing herd performance by using genomic selection in your mating programme and making your business more profitable. They discussed the importance of using genetic indexes, such as AHDB’s Profitable lifetime index (£PLI), to select better genetics for your herd. They also highlighted the advantages of the EnviroCow index and the vital role genetics and breeding play in improving the environmental efficiency of milk production. EnviroCow is one of the first genetic indexes in the world to focus solely on breeding cows for their environmental credentials.

Feed Advantage, which is incorporated in EnviroCow, helps dairy producers identify bulls with the greatest tendency to transmit good feed conversion to their daughters. By using this index you can reduce feed intake, leading to significant savings if you can reduce the amount of feed your herd consumes by even a small percentage. Lighter, smaller cows will eat less, so reducing a cow’s stature is also important. Combining genomic testing of your youngstock with the use of sexed semen will introduce better genes into your herd faster. This is important, considering that animals with superior genetics will produce milk more efficiency, and more fertile and profitable.

The final workshop was led by Richard Miller from National Milk Records on genomic testing. Genomics analyses a young cow’s DNA to estimate its genetic potential and provide high-quality breeding data. The process consists of a simple tissue sampling process that can be carried out during calf tagging. The genomic results produced by AHDB allows the farmer to analyse herd performance by identifying specific genetic traits in each heifer. He can use this information to filter out the worst-performing animals, the results can also aid breeding decisions such as selecting which heifers to put to dairy semen.

Local dairy farmer Graeme Kilpatrick commented, “It was a great meeting which generated a lot of discussion on the way home and I plan to follow up with Marco Winters for further information.”

John Harvey (left) Doreen Anderson and Stuart Harvey, Drum Farm