Breeding Innovation In Action: Does Size Matter?

The UK is fortunate to have many great breeds of dairy cow, and over the years these have been bred to suit the wide variety of management systems, climates and dairy products we enjoy in this country, said Peter Willies, Nocton Dairies Ltd, at the British Cattle Breeders Conference.
calendar icon 9 March 2011
clock icon 6 minute read


Last year Nocton Dairies submitted an application for an 8000 milking herd. This was revised in November 2010, for an 3,770 herd.

In mid-February, Nocton announced that they had withdrew the plans completely due to an objection by the Environment Agency.

The Holstein

The Holstein cow, as the most prevalent breed, has been much maligned. To animal activists, she’s behind the woes of the modern dairy industry and frequently criticised for being overbred, fragile and exploited. However, the vast majority of dairy stock in the UK is still Holstein, and with that in mind, those of us who want to have her in our milking systems need to get to grips with her requirements, Mr Willes said.

The important word here is management. If you examine the Holstein, she is bred to naturally give 10,000 to 11,000 litre lactations. Her high yield lends itself to a reduced carbon footprint for milk production, provided other efficiencies, such as a low replacement rate, can be achieved.

"If she is giving less, then I believe she is probably in energy deficit and not receiving the nutrition or management she needs.

"Contrary to the myths put about by ill-informed animal rights groups, I don’t believe Holsteins are being ‘pushed’ when they yield 10,000 litres while maintaining body weight – they are actually in their comfort zone and yielding at a natural level with optimum nutrition – by which I mean high levels of quality, high fibre forage as well as protein and energy. So how do we make sure she gets enough of that feed?"

Mr Willes has been quoted recently, saying “Cows don’t belong in fields”. He admitted he should have expressed his views differently at the time he first made that comment, but said that the sentiment behind those words still holds true.

The Holstein cow struggles to walk long distances and meet her nutritional needs through grazing. Her needs are so high that time walking to and from fields, foraging on pasture of variable nutritional content, taking in unknown amounts of grass, and even standing for long periods waiting to be milked, all impact on her ability to take in sufficient nutrients to meet her requirements and obtain sufficient rest for her health.

Mr Willes said that this can manifest itself in a variety of ways – a fall in milk yield and loss of body condition, lameness, mastitis, metabolic disorders.

"So if we want a Holstein cow in our system, how can we design that system to allow her to get what she needs and promote maximum welfare while not impacting on her physical and mental welfare?"

This is where the size issue comes in. With the milk price under constant pressure, economies of scale is one way to allow the investment in facilities that give Holsteins the best environment for healthy production.

"Over 50 years’ joint experience between myself and my business partner, and recent fact finding visits to the US while developing our ideas for Nocton Dairies, have taught us a great deal about the Holstein and the conditions in which she functions best," he said.

Holsteins ideally need 12 hours each day lying down in their cubicle for adequate rumination and rest. Studies at the University of Wisconsin have found that even lame cows get their 12 hours when they are bedded on deep sand, whereas cows tend to rest for nearer 11 hours on mattresses, with lame cows on mattresses resting even less as they tend to avoid lying down.

One study showed that cows on mattresses spent almost twice as long standing in their cubicles as cows on sand. This had the effect of not only increasing lameness, but also depressing milk yield, possibly because the cows spent less time feeding. In one trial, 305-day yield was projected to be around 700 litres greater for cows on deep sand than on mattresses; there was also a 2.4 per cent decrease in herd turnover and modest increase in conception rates.

Time spent milking is another challenge on farms with Holsteins. Many farms milking twice a day using family labour will find milking taking up around four to six hours a day by the time cows are brought into the collecting yard, go through the milking parlour and return to the field or housing.

Lameness is a big concern with both Holsteins and indoor-based systems. But we’ve found that if the slurry is removed three times a day, the cows are mainly walking on clean grooved concrete or standing on their sand beds rather than in pooled slurry. This reduces lameness, plus the sterility of the sand beds ensures pathogens don’t breed and the comfort promotes rest. The deep sand bed studies in Wisconsin confirm this, finding 42 per cent fewer lame cows on sand than on mattresses.

The European Food Safety Authority report on dairy cow welfare is often quoted by animal rights groups, but the report, when not quoted selectively, is also a very useful collation of welfare studies over the years. There is a section looking at two versus three times a day milking, and it finds that three times a day is better when twice a day milking can’t be performed at 12 hourly intervals, especially with high yielding cows.

Udder pressure has to be a consideration in the Holstein, and three times a day milking, provided the cow flow is right and time spent standing and waiting is minimal, seems to be beneficial in controlling mastitis. Three times a day milking is easier to implement on larger farms with more labour. And returning once again to sand beds, the Wisconsin trials show a 20 per cent reduction in somatic cell counts and 17 per cent fewer cases of clinical mastitis on sand beds, whether a function of rest, the sterility of the sand, or both.
Of course, with sand the wonder-bedding, why don’t we all switch to it? I’ve done this on one of my existing farms and while we all love what it does for the cows, the headaches it creates with slurry management are horrendous. Which takes us back again to the economies of scale."

The reason why size is important to us is our research of the best US farms showed a unit size of just over 4,000 cows is big enough to allow investment in sand separation and recycling, as well as anaerobic digestion and full time vets. Sand separation allows us to recover around 90 per cent of sand for reuse. It’s washed and left to cure for three weeks before being reused, at which point all pathogens have died and it is largely sterile again.

Concluding, Mr Willes said that if we want Holsteins on our farms, we need to manage them carefully by investing in the systems and quality of management that give them the rest, feed and environment they need.

"Once we’ve developed these, we know that even if we move away from pure Holsteins in the future and start looking at another breed or crossbred cows, the system remains robust enough to support the best welfare. br>
"Increasing cow numbers is the way we can develop the economies of scale to support that investment and labour. This isn’t to say that smaller farms couldn’t install all these features and have that same level of management delivered by the farmer himself or a small team, but the challenge, as ever, is obtaining sufficient investment funds in a market environment that remains tough."

March 2011

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.
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