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Cashing in on components

Date Posted: 12th October 2023

Breeding for components pays dividends. That was the key message from a recent Lakeland and Ai Services workshop held on the farm of Drew and Val McConnell, Omagh.

Drew and Val run a 150-cow Holstein herd averaging c.10,000kg at 4.23% fat and 3.45% protein and over the past four years have seen a significant rise in milk quality with milk fat and protein percentages delivered to the co-op rising by 0.25% and 0.18%, respectively. 

About 8 years ago, Drew started to place more focus on breeding for quality. “The direction of travel in the industry seemed to be towards higher constituent milk, so I started to look at how we could adapt the herd to deliver that while still maintaining good milk yields.”

Milk recording was a key tool for addressing this. “When I took over the farm from my father 30 years ago, one of the first things I started doing was milk recording and it’s something we still do each month” explained Drew.  “When making breeding decisions we look at the milk yield and quality of individual cows and choose our best performing animals to breed from.”

Although the farm had always selected bulls with positive butterfat and protein PTA’s, the introduction of genomically tested bulls meant there was an opportunity to accelerate milk quality. 

“We moved from selecting bulls which were 0.08 and 0.05% for butterfat and protein, respectively to bulls with milk quality PTA’s over 0.15% without having to compromise on yield” explained Drew. 

This has resulted in improvements in the genetic ability (expressed as predicted transmitting abilities; PTA) to produce high component milk in the younger generation animals in the herd (Table 1). 

Ivan Minford, Breeding Sales Manager for AI Services commented “recent research has suggested that up to 50% of a cow’s ability to produce high constituent milk is driven by genetics. Both milk fat and protein percentage traits are highly heritable meaning genetic gain can be achieved quite quickly over a few generations. We are really starting to see that come through now in Drew’s herd.”

Also speaking at the event, Niall McCarron from Lakeland Dairies outlined the benefit of delivering milk with good components. “From a co-op perspective the greater the milk constituents the more saleable product we can produce, be that butter, buttermilk or skim milk powder.” 

To reflect this the co-op introduced an enhanced payment scheme in January 2022 which places greater emphasis on milk fat and protein percentages and rewards farmers for improving milk composition relative to a reference year. 

“Last year, the scheme added approximately 0.3ppl to the average producer milk payment and is on track to impact similarly in 2023” explained Niall. “On farms which have seen good gains, the milk quality bonus can now add over 3ppl in some months and contribute as much as 14% to the monthly milk cheque” he continued.

Alongside selecting for components, Drew also monitored profitable lifetime index (£PLI) when reviewing bull choices. PLI, which is a composite index which balances production traits such as milk yield, milk quality and feed efficiency, with traits such as fertility, health and environment. In a nutshell breeding for high PLI animals should return more profit to the farm.

Ivan Minford commented “the spend on an individual animal’s genetics is less that 2% of the total costs attributed to her over her lifetime, yet that semen spend will dictate how profitable that animal will be.”

This has certainly proven true in the McConnell herd with analysis showing the top 25% of animals ranked on PLI producing an extra 114kg milk solids and an extra £479 milk income in their last 305d lactation compared to the bottom 25% of animals ranked on PLI. 

Table 2: Latest completed lactation data for the top and bottom 25% of lactation 2+ animals ranked on PLI. 

Lakeland and AI Services Farm Workshop at the McConnell Farm
Lakeland and AI Services Farm Workshop at the McConnell Farm
Part of the McConnell Herd
Part of the McConnell Herd