Bottom-up approach to breeding

Bottom-up approach to breeding for SA farmers

Herd Management
HIGH PERFORMING: Rita and Wes Hurrell have improved their herd with a focus on using high BPI bulls.

HIGH PERFORMING: Rita and Wes Hurrell have improved their herd with a focus on using high BPI bulls.

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Wes Hurrell can pin-point the exact turning point in his dairy breeding philosophy. It was when he learnt there could be a production difference of 100 kilograms of milk solids between the top and bottom 20 per cent of his dairy herd.

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Wes Hurrell can pin-point the exact turning point in his dairy breeding philosophy.

It was when he learnt there could be a production difference of 100 kilograms of milk solids between the top and bottom 20 per cent of his dairy herd.

That was 18 months ago when his staff attended the ImProving Herds National Muster at the Jelbart family farm in Gippsland.

At this point, Mr Hurrell and his wife Rita had already started genomic testing animals. After learning about the value they could unlock in their herd, they combined their genomic results for Balanced Performance Index (BPI) and the farmgate milk price to understand what their Holstein herd genetics contributes to their bottom-line.

"At that time, there was so much industry information out there talking about the value of genetics, that really helped us make the decision to refocus our breeding," Mr Hurrell said.

"When we first calculated the difference between the top and bottom of our herd, it was about $650 in income lost for the lowest cows in the herd.

"Going forward with milk price increase, the gap is going to be even larger -- up to $800.

"That is why we are always wanting to lift that bottom 20pc. But we realise there will always be a top and bottom. That's why you have to keep improving the bottom."

The couple milk 650 registered Holsteins across two properties at Torrens Vale on the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia.

Every decision in their business must stack-up economically and that's why the Hurrells use the Australian genetic evaluation system and choose sires based on their BPI ranking.

"The information is quite valuable and relevant, the data breaks it out and shows what a BPI can do for you in the pocket," Mr Hurrell said.

"That -- your bottom-line -- is really what everybody is in business for."

"We'd always concentrated on BPI to a certain extent, but not fully; it was about 50pc and then using other bulls that might have a good type trait or show trait. But we have gone away from that to 100pc genomics and working on the BPI. Genomics is the newest information that we are able to drive out of science."

Mr Hurrell's passion for registered Holsteins runs deep. When he got his first Holsteins 35 years ago, striving towards a better cow relied on studying cow families and pedigrees, with type and production front-of-mind.

These continue to be a priority of Mr Hurrell, but this information is teamed with data to get a picture of the value of the whole cow -- including health traits and workabilities.

When it comes to joining, bulls must rank highly on the BPI, have good health traits, a "reasonable" type proof with size, feet and legs, fertility and teat length also considerations.

Sires from other countries that rank highly on the BPI system are also considered by the Hurrells as part of their breeding program.

Mr Hurrell considers his herd "user friendly cows".

"First, we look at the BPI of a bull and then the back of him," he said.

"If there's any trait in his proof which has a too big a negative, then he's straight out."I'm still a big believer in cow families, generally if there's a cow with generations classified VG (in her pedigree), her BPI reflects this. I'd say there's a strong correlation -- 85-90pc of the time. Sometimes a cow has a poor family history but a high BPI. In this case, we would keep her. The BPI overrules to a certain extent."

In the August Australian Breeding Value release, the Hurrell herd sat inside the top 100 at number 80 with an average BPI of 86.

The Hurrells are targeting the top 10 in the coming five years but understand it's a work in progress.

On-farm, heifers have been leading the Hurrells' genetic development.

"Our heifers averaged 90 (BPI) for their first genomic test," Mr Hurrell said. "Now the heifer average is close to 200. Selecting high BPI bulls has really had a big impact, it's more than doubled in three years. It is also lifting the bottom 20pc as we go along."

Heifers with a BPI of more than 200 are retained and mated, with their progeny earmarked for the future milking herd. Those with a BPI less than 200 are joined to sexed semen with their progeny sold to export markets.

The Hurrells retain about 60pc of their heifers. The BPI lift is more for the heifers retained for milking.

Peter Williams from DataGene said the Hurrell strategy was paying off. The average BPI of their heifers hadd increased each year since the change in breeding philosophy.

"The Hurrells are smashing genetic gain in their herd," he said. "Their top BPI heifers are now pushing well over 300 BPI, with the highest at 351 which puts them in the elite category. This very impressive improvement has been achieved with a fairly simple strategy: using top BPI bulls to breed replacements and not relying on the lower genetic merit heifers as replacements."

He said that DataGene was developing tools for farmers to test the validity of BPI in their own herd.

"For example, the Genetics Futures Report -- which is available to test farmers -- shows the differences in milk solids and longevity between high and low BPI cows in their own herds."

Looking ahead, the Hurrells believe their concentration on breeding will pay dividends.

"Genetics is one thing we have 100pc control of," Mr Hurrell said.

"Breeding with a focus on the BPI, we will hopefully be able to produce a more efficient and cost-effective animal. The benefits are not just related to income.

"It is a good way to increase the herd value working with genetics and also genomics. We think a high BPI herd will have more value when it comes to the point of selling, whether it is bulls or heifers. Everyone is chasing that top BPI heifer, or a bull."

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