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Importing as the shortcut to crossbreeding

Switching to crossbreeding can be a daunting prospect. To get around this, the Dakin family dipped their toes in the water by importing ProCROSS in-calf heifers.

When the Dakin family began considering crossbreeding their dairy herd in a three-way rotation system, they knew it would take some time to achieve consistent results.

The initial two-way cross would take nearly three years to start milking, and the third breed would not enter the cross until four years after the first breeding.

However, when they heard from other farmers that importing livestock was an effective shortcut, they decided to look into crossbreeding with ProCROSS stock.

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

Backed into a corner

The Dakin family farms 344 hectares divided across two properties – one owned by the family and the other tenanted – near Skipton, North Yorkshire.

Holstein cows have been on the farm for as long as Mathew Dakin can remember, who farms with his brother Nathan and father Roger. "The Holsteins have served us really well and have a great will to milk. They give us about 8,500 litres at 4.2% fat and 3.3% protein, but we were not pushing them hard,” he says.

However, over the years, the Dakins found themselves spending more and more time looking after Holsteins as more issues began to appear. This meant the family could not push their cows to produce more milk, as they were worried this would lead to more problems.

 “It seemed that genetics had backed us into a comer,” says Matt. “If they had any ailments, we had to work hard to get them right. It was things like fertility, feet and health, including metabolic diseases,” he adds.

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

Discovering ProCROSS

With this in mind, the Dakins started looking for outcross bloodlines and considered their options. 'We were not sure whether to go straight into crossing the herd, so instead, we thought “Let’s try a wagon-full and see if we like them,” says Matt.

After some deliberation, they approached Best of Breed Livestock Managing Director Owen Daley, who suggested the family look at ProCROSS. This three-breed rotational crossbreeding system, ideal for intensive systems, combines VikingHolstein, VikingRed, and Montbéliarde.

“Owen felt ProCROSS cows would give us the milk quality, health, and fertility we were seeking without any loss of production. So, we opted to travel to Sweden with him to see how they looked in real life,” tells Matt.

After joining a group of farmers visiting ProCROSS herds in Sweden in February 2018, the Dakins were impressed by the easy-to-manage, high-producing cows – especially with their fat and protein percentages. "The average across the farms we visited was more than 11,500 litres, with about 4.5% fat and 3.5% protein,” he recalls.

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

The first heifers

The Dakins decided to purchase all their heifers from one of the farms they visited, where the herd exceeded 13,000 litres and is one of the highest-producing ProCROSS herds in Scandinavia.

The first load of 35 heifers arrived at the farm in May 2018, and any doubt they could have had was cleared as soon as they calved six to eight weeks later.

"Often, a heifer needs help with calving, retained cleansings, or just to get going. But these just calved themselves, were in the herd within a couple of days and just mixed in and looked after themselves,” recalls Matt.

The calves were equally trouble-free, showing vigour and good health. And since every calf was a heifer, as the imports had been bred using sexed semen, the herd was already set up for the next generation.

"As soon as we started calving, we were definitely happy to crossbreed the rest of our herd,” says Matt. "In fact, we were tempted to flip-flop between the Montbéliarde and the Holstein but were persuaded against this by others who had used the three-way rotation," he adds.

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

The benefits of heterosis

By crossbreeding in a three-way rotation system, the Dakins’ herds get the free benefits of heterosis, also known as hybrid vigour. Had they decided to crossbreed with two breeds instead of the three-way, they would have missed out on this.

Heterosis gives the cows extra benefits for favourable traits on top of their parents’ average, improving traits like vitality, fertility, health, and survival.

"The hybrid vigour which is so beneficial to health and fertility in the cross-bred animal declines in a continuous two-way cross,” says Chris Stone, crossbreeding expert for VikingGenetics and Best of Breed Livestock, explaining the benefits of alternating three breeds.

"It will level at about 67% of the first-cross generation over the long-term, whereas by bringing in a third breed, it will stabilise at 86%, which is about as good as you can practicably get,” he adds.

The combined benefits of hybrid vigour and the qualities of the three chosen breeds have been clear in the Dakins' herd.

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

Healthy cows keep costs down

Almost five years after the import, some 80% of the original stock remains, while the crossing programme with the Holstein, Montbéliarde and VikingRed continues in full swing. The stock is also maturing with more frame and a touch less stature than the Holstein.

Mathew says: 'We are finding we cannot tell the breeding from looking at the animal as they are just a selection of speckly cows. So, they are tagged with red, white or blue discs, which indicate which of the breeds they will be served to, which remains the same throughout their lives."

Milk volume is on par with the previous herd at about 8,500 litres, but fat and protein stand at 4.5% and 3.5%, which suits the farm's solids-based contract with Arla.

Improvements to health and fertility are the most marked of all, with veterinary visits for the 400-cow herd now less than they were for 200 cows five years ago.

Mathew says: "Our vets' bill is massively down, especially for antibiotics and callouts. Before, they were here once a week for caesareans or displaced abomasums, but now it is once in a blue moon."

ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

Doubling in size

The recent doubling in size of the Dakins' herd is perhaps the most convincing measure of the family's confidence in their cattle and their future in dairying.

This has been accompanied by investment in a new 54-point Dairymaster rotary parlour plus sand­bedded cubicles, while some 200 youngstock are waiting in the wings.

'We use sexed semen across most of the herd, and after up to four chances, we will switch to a beef sire," Mathew says, adding that an average of 1.3 straws are used per conception.

Costings for the business may be the best indicator of the new policy's success, but these have only just been started.

Mathew says: 'We had to do costings, which we now do with Kite, as a condition of our finance for the parlour. We have no figures (yet) for comparison with the Holstein herd, but I can tell you our lifestyles have changed.”

Discover the ProCROSS
ProCROSS Crossbreeding Holstein Montbeliarde VikingRed UK Dakin

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