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Breeding for a lifetime of profit

Date Posted: 16th November 2023

Achieving long lifespan, profitable cows has been a key focus on the farm of Drew and Val McConnell, who run a 150-cow autumn-winter calving herd near Omagh, County Tyrone. The herd, which currently yields 10,200kg at 4.2% butterfat and 3.45% protein attributes a large part of the improvements in cow performance over the years to genetics. 

“About 15 years ago, AI Services organised a farmer trip to the Netherlands. On the trip we visited farms all with long lasting cows, producing over 100 tonnes in their lifetime. I came back from the trip and thought why can’t I breed cows to achieve that too?” Drew commented.

Returning from the Netherlands, Drew started to look closely at the breeding of the herd, placing emphasis on choosing top genetic merit bulls with high Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI) values. PLI is a composite genetic index developed specifically for UK dairy farms. It is a measure of the total financial value an individual cow is expected to produce over her lifetime compared to the average cow in the UK.

Dr Debbie McConnell, Group Scientist at AI Services explained: “the PLI index has been in use now for over two decades and balances desirable production traits such as milk yield, milk composition and feed efficiency, alongside traits such as lameness, fertility and environmental footprint.” 

“In a nutshell, PLI is designed to deliver more profitable cows which are designed to thrive in the UK dairy environment. By focusing on PLI we get animals which provide a good balance of achieving high milk production potential whilst having a long healthy lifespan” she continued.

To date the farm, which has used Ai Services bulls throughout the years, has produced nineteen 100-tonne cows. The average lifetime yield of all animals leaving the herd in the past five years sits at 55,600kg, almost double that of the N.I. average. 

“Our cows aren’t high type cows, and they certainly won’t win any awards in a show ring, but they are functional and they have performed well for us over the years” adds Drew.

The farm also plays host to a 5-generation family, with all animals in the family still in the milking herd. The genetic line (see table below) shows how the farm has been continually breeding to improve both £PLI and milk constituents over the generations.

“When we look at this family tree, the oldest two cows combined have produced the equivalent lifetime yield of nine average N.I. dairy cows. That means there are seven less heifers to rear and seven less animals to maintain to produce the same milk yields, saving significantly on both heifer rearing costs and feed costs” Debbie commented.

Drew also noted the other potential benefits that breeding for longevity brings.  

“At some stage soon we are going to have to show how we are actively combatting carbon emissions. A key area I can focus on this farm is breeding cows with a high lifetime yield as these animals helps to lower my replacement rate and improve feed efficiency, both of which are key contributors to improving the farm’s carbon footprint.”

Although progress has been positive on the farm, Drew is continuing to focus heavily on his breeding strategy. “Genetics is a long-term process and there are always areas in the herd to be improved. With more genetics tools now becoming available, it’s important we don’t stand still and we keep progressing the herd.” 

- Dr Debbie McConnell, Group Scientist