Breeding replacements using a three-way cross is supporting the long-term goals of developing an easy-to-manage herd for one dairy family. So which breeds are involved and how does the system work?
TEXT SARAH ALDERTON
Managing a dairy herd single handedly and maintaining a work-life balance rarely go hand in hand when running a dairy business. But Lancashire-based producer Edward Thornber has made some significant changes to his family’s unit that have made this a day-to-day reality.
Ten years ago Higher Greenhead Farm, near Clitheroe, was home to an 80-cow Holstein Friesian herd, which calved all year round and was fed grass silage with concentrates fed through the milking parlour. The family was also bottling and selling 35% of the milk produced by the herd.
But Edward, who was then working full-time as a joiner, was keen to return to the farm, and parents John and Elizabeth were looking to make managing the herd and business a little easier, the family, which also includes son Matthew, who farms nearby, and daughter Jane, set about making some drastic changes.
In August 2014, the Thornbers decided to stop bottling their own milk and they also began dabbling in crossbreeding by introducing Montbeliarde bloodlines. This breed is renowned for its hardiness. It’s highly ranked health, breeding qualities and functional characteristics. “The first cross blew us away. It was a lightbulb moment,” says Edward.
With the benefits from cross-breeding evident, John, a first-generation producer, researched the concept further. “We decided that if we were serious about cross-breeding, we should do it properly. There was a lot of research in California about what breeds should be in the mix, and that is how we settled on ProCross.”
ProCross is a proven three-way cross-breeding programme where VikingRed, VikingHolstein and Coopex Montbéliarde sires are used. The combination of the three breeds is designed to offer: healthy, fertile, medium-sized cows that are long-lasting and easy to manage; cows with increased daily profit, more than 9% higher than purebred Holstein; and cows that generate optimum results with an average heterosis of 86%.
Three-way cross: Holstein, VikingRed and Montbeliarde genetics produce resilient milkers
These were all attributes the Thornbers were looking for. “Dad wanted to breed, milk and manage fertile cows that are easy to manage, and that’s what ProCross has given us.”
Crossbreeding using the ProCross programme works by starting with a Holstein cow/heifer that is then mated with a VikingRed bull. The heifer resulting from this mating is then bred with a Montbeliarde sire. The heifer resulting from this mating would then be mated with a VikingHolstein bull. After three generations, the herd will be fully ProCross.
The Thornbers are almost there, with second-lactation cows now in the herd and most youngstock now fully ProCross. Sires are recorded on ear tags and they also use the SUM-IT dairy programme to help with breeding decisions. Viking Genetics also supports the family with sire selection, with breeding goals focusing on increasing fat and protein yield, improving fertility, good feet and legs, and increasing body depth and stature.
"It could get complicated. But labelling the ear tags helps us to see which sire breed should be used on each female, and we also check herd records,” says Edward. The herd now comprises 135 ProCross cows, plus 70 followers, and the Thornbers work closely with LIC, who produce an annual pre-mating herd improvement report highlighting individual cows to breed replacements from. This is based on milk recording data, fertility, health parameters and somatic cell counts.
They also switched to autumn-block calving to concentrate herd-management tasks at specific times of the year and allow cows to produce more milk from grass. The herd sells milk on an ingredients contract, supplying Yew Tree Dairy.
Mixed milkers: herd comprises red-and-white and black-and-white cows
To achieve a tight 12-week calving block, the family aims to calve heifers at the same time and take a tougher approach to culling milking cows.
The best 50% of cows and all heifers are served using sexed semen for the first three weeks, with 70 straws purchased yearly. Females not selected for breeding replacements are served with Aberdeen Angus semen. A beef Shorthorn sweeper bull runs with the heifers, and an Aberdeen Angus bull with the cows, until Christmas. Grassland management has also changed to support producing more milk from grass and improve ease of management. Grazing is carefully planned with 30-hectare platform split into 28 paddocks, using a mixture of permanent and electric fencing, which are all linked by astroturf tracks. Clover has been introduced to swards via overseeding and the family also drilled a herbal ley in 2022.
Breeding and management changes have allows Edward to returned to family business full-time. “I’ve always had the dairying bug, and managing a block calving, grazing and easy-to-manage herd really appealed to me.”
Before this, the Thornbers were calving all year round and had to send over winter cattle away from the unit due to capacity issues. They have also reduced milking time from three hours to 1.5 hours, morning and evening, since installing a 16:32 swingover DeLaval parlour.
Size matters: medium-stature cows last longer in the herd
The family plans to further ease the winter workload by feeding every two days. Blocks of silage are placed along the feed passage and concentrates fed, to yield, through the parlour. “The aim is to develop and run a one-man system,” says Edward.
The changes have also improved productivity. Herd average yield is 8,000 litres, at 4.55% butterfat and 3.25% protein, with a somatic cell count of 60,000 cells/ml. Milk from forage stands at 4,500 litres, with cows grazed from March until mid-October.
Fertility is also excellent. The herd’s first-service conception rate, using sexed semen, is currently 58%. Herd calving index is an impressive 360 days. One heifer in the herd has just calved her second at three years old.
“The ProCross approach has not only improved fertility, but we also have fewer health problems and the cows produce plenty of milk from grazing and conserved forage. The cows are working for us – we’re not working for them,” says Edward.
He recalls the apprehension he felt when entering the cubicle house when they were milking a Holstein herd. “Feet and fertility issues were on-going. We also used to see quite a few LDAs, but we rarely see them now because we are breeding more robust cows. The ProCross just has a better ‘get up and go’,” he says. That strength is evident right from birth, according to Edward. “Calvings are easier as the calves are also vigorous. Block calving also helps as calves are similar in age and stage of development, so we have minimal health problems. They are reared on an automatic calf feeder and are weaned between eight and 10 weeks old.”
All dairy-cross beef calves are reared separately and sold before they are 42 days old because the unit is currently under bTB restrictions. Edward’s brother takes the beef Shorthorn calves, raising them through to stores. “Cross-breeding is definitely adding value to our calves,” says Edward. “We are selling some Aberdeen Angus heifers privately, and the rest are sold through Gisburn Auction Mart. Cull cows also make a decent trade, making upwards of £1,000 deadweight. “We plan to expand the herd to 150 milkers, partly to help us better manage our grassland management system during the next 12 months,” he adds. “Our new parlour has plenty of capacity, which means we’ll easily be able to milk more cows.”