Dairy farmers visit farms in Scotland to see breeding technologies in practice

Date published: 20 September 2023

A group of 24 dairy farmers from across Northern Ireland visited five farms in southwest Scotland in early September as part of the Farm Innovation Visits (FIVs) Scheme as part of the Rural Development Programme.

Group of dairy farmers from across Northern Ireland who went on a recent Farm Innovation Visit (FIV) trip to Scotland to examine advanced breeding technologies on dairy farms.

The purpose of FIVs is to allow farmers see technologies working in practice, with this latest trip focussing on advanced breeding technologies that could be adopted at home to improve the genetics of a farmer’s own herd. 

The trip was organised in conjunction with Scotland’s Rural College (the SRUC).  Four of the five farms were herds with annual cow yields of 10,000 litres or more, achieved under a range of management systems from full time summer grazing to all-year-round housing.  Both conventional parlours and robots were being used.  They demonstrated a wide range of technologies centred around making data-led breeding decisions to advance herd genetics.  These included the use of herd genetic reports, the identification of the ‘best’ cows/heifers to breed from, use of sexed semen to avoid production of unwanted dairy bred bull calves, use of semen from genetically superior young sires, genomic testing of dairy heifer calves, targeted sire selection using £PLI and mating programs to minimise inbreeding and correct weaknesses in individual cows’ linear traits. 

One of the herds visited was that of Brian Yates of Logan Holsteins at Castle Douglas who had recently won the Supreme Champion prize at the Royal Highland Show with a third lactation cow.

The fifth farm visited was a bit different – a spring calving crossbred herd producing some 5,500 litres per cow on just 850 kg concentrate.  The farmer had joined a group of 6 other spring calving herds as part of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Scheme run by SRUC to advance the genetics of their herds and increase milk production, particularly milk solids, without adversely affecting fertility or longevity.  This programme is facilitated by Prof Mike Coffey, Head of Livestock Breeding from the SRUC in Edinburgh.  He emphasised the need for dairy farmers to produce 1 kg of milk solids per kg of body weight per cow per year.  On this farm the small 480 kg cows were producing 480 kg milk solids per year – but equally a 700 kg Holstein would need to produce 700 kg milk solids per year to be on a par.  From a sustainability point of view, Mike spoke about lifetime yield and took this even further to consider “lifetime solids per kg of body weight per day of life” – the ultimate measure of sustainable dairy production.

A highlight of the trip was a presentation by Marco Winters, Head of Animal Genetics at AHDB who leads the development of the UK’s Profitable Lifetime Index (£PLI) for the genetic selection of dairy cattle.  Much of the discussion with Marco was led by farmer questions but he also spoke about recent developments of the £PLI index, including the EnviroCow, HealthyCow and FeedAdvantage sub-indexes that allow for the selection of a more sustainable dairy cow to meet the environmental challenges of the future.  While this cow will be slightly smaller than today’s cow, she should be healthier, more feed efficient, more fertile, survive longer and have lower replacement costs.  Through using this approach, it is estimated that breeding can deliver a 20% reduction in the greenhouse gas emission of milk production by 2040.

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