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A free lunch… scientifically speaking

For the past 15 years since relocating in Australia from the United States, the VikingGoldenCross system has proven to be a great success for Robert and Barbara Eder. Emulating a similar system’s benefits from his native Wisconsin.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Bodalla NSW dairy farmer Robert Eder thinks he’s found the next best thing – Viking’s three-way Golden Cross system.

“I know crossbred herds haven’t been widely adopted, but when you talk to dairy scientists, they say it’s like the only free lunch you get as a dairy farmer…and it’s true,” Robert said.

“Most dairy scientists are very pro cross-breeding. It doesn’t cost any more but there are proven benefits”, he added.  

Robert’s journey - like a dream come true

Robert and Barbara visited in 2005, mainly to look at how farms were using Aussie Reds in their systems.

“We weren’t planning on buying a farm, but we drove from Melbourne and came up through Eden and Tilba and we thought “man, this is dairying heaven here; green pastures with ocean views.”

They saw a farm they liked on a Thursday night, milked with the owners on Friday, toured it on Sunday, put in an offer on Monday, signed a contract on Wednesday and flew home the next day to arrange finance and visa.

“Dairying in northern Wisconsin was very brutal during winter,” Robert said. “Barbara had had enough of it and our kids were off at universities, so we were ready for a change.

“This ticked all the boxes. We like Australia and we could move to a beautiful climate – it was a once-in-a-million thing that came together.”

While most farms in Wisconsin are barn-based, the Eders moved to a grazing system after touring New Zealand in 1992.

“We were swept away with the concept,” Robert said. “We were milking three times a day at the time and the New Zealanders said we were killing ourselves. Pasture farms were just a fringe thing at the time in Wisconsin.

“We converted to pasture farming and followed the New Zealand grazing model, even though we could only do rotational grazing for a maximum six months of the year.”

This experience made it easier to shift to Australia. “We were already familiar with the system and there was a similar herd size.

We were milking about 150 cows back there on 300 acres and here 130 cows came with the farm plus 60 head of young stock and two bulls. It was a very lateral career move in regard to farming style,” he said.

Experience with crossbreeding

They were experimenting with cross breeding in America, including VikingRed, Brown Swiss, Holstein and Montbéliarde. It became formal when they arrived in Australia. Their new Australian herd was Holstein – including 60 cows out of the same bull.

They initially put VikingRed over the Holsteins and then added a Jersey cross over that cross.

“We started doing the three-way and it took us a few years to get the first Jerseys in, but straight away, the third cross were by far the most profitable cow, and they still are,” Robert Eder said.

“We get good results from all three but the third cross – the Jerseys – are the best.”

The herd is very stable, with 30 cows aged 10 or over and only 15 per cent replacement annually. “I don’t like to sell cows,” Robert Eder said.

“When you get the crossbreeds, you have less reasons to sell them.”

High milk components

The farm is highly stocked – milking 220 on less than 180 acres – and there’s no huge drive for production. “We get about 7000 litres but it’s fairly high components, about 550kgMs, and we don’t cull for production.”

About 30-40 Artificial inseminated calves are reared each year depending on the bull to heifer ratio. It’s a split calving system with most in the spring and the autumn calving herd has dwindled from the 60s to 23 this year.

“We’ve lengthened spring calving to get more cows,” Robert Eder said. “Our spring-calving cows do better because of the ryegrass.”

Robert Eder was instantly impressed with the crosses. “They’re much sturdier than most Holsteins, shorter-legged, deeper-bodied. The Jerseys are a bit shorter but with a very deep body and they get just as many litres as the Reds or the Fresians”.

Healthy and productive herd with excellent fertility

Usually, Robert selects two bulls for each breed, with a focus on a good health profile. “We’re mainly a forage-based herd, so I look for body depth and strength. I don’t like using bulls below average; I’ll consider them providing they have other things like strength, body depth, cell count, udder health and udder score. If you’re going to keep a cow a long time, she’s going to need a reasonable udder.”

Only top NTM bulls

With VikingGenetics, Robert starts with the top NTM bulls and always breed A2A2. He has used VikingGenetics for all three breeds and nearly always uses VikingRed. He enjoys the productive outcomes and the reproductive consistency.

“We supply Saputo and they have a graph that superimposes this year on last. Quite often you can’t see a change from one year to the other.”

Now the cross-system is well established, Robert sees the benefits of the three breeds while limiting any negative issues.

“The herd is more fertile and there is a range of sizes but across the herd, they come together to be a moderate-sized cow. They’re deeper bodies, shorter legs, moderate udders; there’s not really a badly-uddered cow in our herd.”

Robert Eder doesn´t look to his native country for genetics, preferring his adopted land. “I stay away from American genetics because they’re all confinement proofs. I know a good cow is a good cow whether she’s in a barn or out in the paddock, but I don’t feel as comfortable”, he said.

He adds: “I tend to use Australian Friesians and Jerseys and VikingRed because of the record-keeping and attention to detail.”

Passion for farming

At 68, Robert has no plans to retire. “My uncle lived to just short of 90 and he never quit farming. We don’t have anything else we want to do. We usually go back to the US every June, which is our quiet time, but not this year.”

Employee Sean Brogan has been with the Eders for six years. “We couldn’t get by without him,” Robert Eder said. “It’s all the help you get from everyone that makes running the farm possible and enjoyable.”


Text by BY RICK BAYNE, Freelance journalist, Australia

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