Increased production with unexpected bonus

Brian McCarron , Genus ABS and Edward Agnew in the picturesque setting on the Agnew farm at Annalong  which provides an excellent background for a group of the older calves born from the use of sexed semen on the farm.'Photograph: Columba O'Hare
Brian McCarron , Genus ABS and Edward Agnew in the picturesque setting on the Agnew farm at Annalong which provides an excellent background for a group of the older calves born from the use of sexed semen on the farm.'Photograph: Columba O'Hare

The adoption of a number of systems to increase milk production plus the genetic merit of the dairy herd were not only very successful for the Agnew farm at Annalong but also produced an unexpected boost to herd fertility.

Thus the 250 cow herd is now averaging 8400 litres with an annual rolling pregnancy rate of 28% and a figure of 29.3% from January.

Brian McCarron, left, views some of the young calves from sexed semen on the Agnew farm at Annalong with Edward Agnew.'Photograph: Columba O'Hare

Brian McCarron, left, views some of the young calves from sexed semen on the Agnew farm at Annalong with Edward Agnew.'Photograph: Columba O'Hare

It all started when Edward was studying for a degree in agriculture at Greenmount College and Queens University.

While at Greenmount he participated in a farm visit where the farmer used RMS (Reproductive Management System). Edward was impressed with the effect that this system had had on the overall production and fertility in the herd. He was planning to go home and farm with this father, Robert, at Majors Hill near Annalong after he finished his degree.

He said: “Some years previously we had changed from beef and sheep to dairying and I was interested in developing the dairy enterprise and increasing its efficiency. After discussion with my father we decided to visit the Genus ABS stand at the Winter Fair and obtain further information. We felt that this system could give us the increased production and improved genetic potential that we wished to achieve. We started RMS the following January, that was January 2011, and have been using the system ever since.”

Edward went on to explain that they were pleased with the increase in production but the unexpected bonus was the increase in fertility. “With RMS we expected an improvement in fertility but not the increase that we actually achieved, we were delighted with the results.”

A few years later the father and son team decided to introduce sexed semen on the maiden heifers and this achieved so much success that it has also been used on some of the cows for the past two years. The GMS (Genetic Mating Service ) from Genus is used to select the sires for the sexed semen. This means that the sires are specially selected to complement each animal in the herd taking all aspects of welfare and production into account. These include milk production and quality, cow type, mastitis, feet and legs, udder conformation and reproductive traits in addition to ease of calving.

Edward added: “Using sexed semen enabled us to make great strides in genetic improvement, thus we were able to sell off older animals that were not performing so well and increase performance further in addition to increasing herd numbers. We are now considering using all sexed semen with British Blue being used on the bottom end of the herd.”

Before the introduction of RMS and sexed semen, stock bulls were used in the herd.

Edward commented: “While you can look at breeding data and physical attributes you have no way of knowing if these bulls will pass these on to their progeny and it will be many years down the line, when the resultant heifers are milking in the herd, before you know if you chose the right animal. That is a lot of lost time - now the farm is using proven genetics and making much faster improvements.”

An additional bonus is the ease of management when using sexed semen. Heifers and cows can be served in groups resulting in block calving dates, thus feeding, veterinary treatments, service dates and other management tasks can all be targeted at set dates and performed for the group rather than trying to cope with individual dates for each animal. To ensure optimum results, cows and heifers are in good body condition at service and have a pre-service health check on reproductive system, feet and legs etc.

The obvious question is “How much does all this cost?” Edward replies: “Cost of any system is a consideration but is not the major one, it is the results that matter. Since January we have a pregnancy rate of 29.3% and are targeting a figure of 30% by the end of the year. The herd currently stands at 250 cows but with groups of new heifers coming on it will be 280 by Christmas.The current production figure is 8400 litres with an annual rolling average butterfat of 4.5 and protein of 3.33 on 2.5 tonnes of meal. The cost of the semen is higher, when using sexed semen, but this is more than re-paid by the increased number of heifers and their genetic potential. ”

Commenting on the current financial difficulties in the sector Edward says that panic reaction to cut costs will not pay dividends in the long term because it is a cyclical industry and when better times arrive you will not be in a position to take advantage of them as you will have lost ground in cow numbers, fertility and all the aspects you have reduced- you will not be in a position to realise the benefits of the improved market when it arrives.

“Having said that I am not trying to minimise the current difficulties-they are a very worrying trend.”