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Breeding for robots and increased resilience (July/Aug 23)

Breeding plays a significant role in the success of one Scotland-based dairy business, and forms the firm foundations required to manage a healthy, fertile and productive herd.


Dairy breeding is the passion that drives one Scotland-based producer, but he’s also determined to run his pedigree herd with a commercial approach. Breeding is about adding strength and resilience to both his cattle and the business’ sustainability credentials and future success. Willie Fleming and his parents, Robert and Margaret, first moved to Hillhead, near Lockerbie in Dumfries & Galloway in 2002, with 100 cows. They managed the herd on a grass-based system, averaging 6,500 litres. As the herd size slowly increased, lactation average rose to 9,500 litres, and in 2010 the family invested in a new shed and a 24:48 parlour.

In 2018 the family decided to invest in infrastructure again, this time installing six Lely robots to milk what had expanded to today’s 370-cow herd. At any one time, 330 cows are in milk and averaging 12,800 litres, at 4.00% butterfat and 3.35% protein.

Sexed semen

The milking herd is now housed all-year-round on cubicles, bedded with sawdust and EnviroBed, and cows visit the robots to be milked, on average, 3.1 times a day. Milk is sold to Müller, aligned to the Coop, on a liquid contact with an incentive for butterfat. Calving all year round, sexed semen is used on 80% of the herd, with the remaining 20% put to beef, and this results in around 500 head of youngstock reared on farm. With a replacement rate of 27%, Willie consciously breeds more replacements than he needs, genomically testing youngstock to inform his decisions about which heifers will be entering the milking herd.

The rest are sold off farm at between 10 months old through to freshly calved, with beef calves sold at between two and three weeks old.

Hillhead comprises 113 hectares with an additional 141 hectares rented, predominantly on seasonal lets. Around 162 hectares is used for silaging with two cuts taken each year, 81 hectares is cut three times and a fourth cut is taken from around 40 hectares. The Flemings grow 24 hectares of forage maize each year, as well as 40 hectares of winter wheat and eight hectares of spring barley.

Dairy rations

All crops grown on farm are fed to the herd. The milking ration comprises a mixture of grass and maize silage, alkalage, sodawheat, molasses, a protein blend and an 18% protein concentrate is fed to yield through the robot. Dry cows are fully housed and are fed straw, grass and maize silage, plus a protein blend plus minerals.

Using AHDB’s Herd Genetic Report and bull proofs, alongside Lely’s own data, Willie is able to make more accurate herd-breeding decisions. “I've always been passionate about breeding pedigree Holsteins and have had considerable showring success with our cattle. But it was a trip to America in 2009 that really sparked my interest in how genetics and genomic testing could help maximise the potential of our herd.

“We started genomic testing some of our cows in 2010 and began using genomic-tested bulls around the same time,” says Willie. “I also went to the Netherlands to look at dairy cattle and how they’re harnessing this technology. I enjoy understanding the numbers and the rankings, and like to use the up-and-coming bulls before too many other people have discovered them.”

Breeding decisions

Chairman of the Southwest Scotland Holstein Club and a member of the steering group for Potstown, one of AHDB’s Strategic Dairy Farms, Willie is a self-confessed ‘numbers man’, and he is driven by the figures behind sires when making breeding decisions about his herd. The success of Willie Fleming’s breeding programme speaks for itself. His milking herd sits in the top 1% for PLI, predicted transmitting ability (PTA) of kilogrammes of milk, fat and protein, and AHDB’s new genetic index EnviroCow. One of his heifers (Hillhead Knowhow Crimson) is also rated in the top 20 of AHDB’s top Holstein genomic PLI heifers, with a PLI of 869. Willie has some clear goals for the herd and knows exactly which traits he is looking for as part of his herd’s breeding programme. “During the past 10 years, we’ve really focused on breeding for a longer lifespan,” says Willie. “This allows us to be more selective about the heifers we keep.”

Replacement heifers: all calves are now genomically tested to support breeding decisions

A good number of healthy, older cows in the milking herd is one of Willie’s measures of success. “More than 10% of the herd are in their fifth lactation or more, and I’m looking to maintain that. Some of our fourth- and fifth-lactation cows are our highest yielding. Our heifers average between 11,000 and 12,000 litres, a second calver perhaps 14,000 litres, but the older ones produce 16,000 or 17,000 litres.” Sires must have a PLI score above £800 to be selected for use on the herd. “Bulls also need to have good production scores for both yield and constituents, which ties in with our milk contact,” he says. “And we need cows and heifers that can be easily milked by robots, so teat placement and length are key.”

A large number of surplus youngstock is sold each year, also providing a valuable additional stream of income, and Willie is rightly proud that he has many repeat customers. He says that the positive genetic status of the herd is important when appealing to buyers. Despite his dairy breeding and herd management success, Willie is conscious of the challenges facing his business and the wider industry. “During the past four years we’ve really focused on using bulls with traits that will breed daughters that are suited to robotic milking, as well as slowly reducing the stature of cattle in the herd while maintaining milk yield. This should help us increase our maintenance rating and help further improve our environmental credentials,” he says.

Daily yields

“I don’t think it will be long before the top herds will be averaging 50 litres per cow per day, and we need to aim to get there as quickly as we can. I want to make sure we stay in the top 1% for PLI and our key traits, including yield and constituents, but I know this will be a challenge.”

Understanding his herd’s data has been a vital to his success. “Genetics are key for us and the industry moving forward – whether they are used to help increase yields, to make the most of milk contracts, or as part of a tool kit to reduce dairy businesses’ carbon footprint.”

His advice to those wanting to better understand the genetics of their herd is to start to look at their own herd genetic report and available data. “Knowing where your herd is to begin with is vital. Only then can you look at the characteristics you want to improve and decide what you are aiming for. “This will help to work through the available options and select the bulls that are best suited to breed cows that suit your system and dairy-business goals.”

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