Here, we look at what’s being done to improve the genetics of New Zealand’s dairy cattle and pastures. We also explore how genetic gain is providing tangible economic results for farmers and the wider industry.
Driving efficiencies and farm profit
The national focus for genetic gain across both pasture and animals is to drive efficiency and profit on-farm.
New Zealand Animal Evaluation Limited (NZAEL) manager Dr Jeremy Bryant says profit can be driven through a range of traits, from a cow’s capacity to produce high levels of milksolids compared to her feed requirements, to her ability to get in calf every year.
Likewise, the genetic merit of pasture will impact farm profit,predetermining maximum pasture yields.
Breeding Worth brings benchmark
For New Zealand dairy farmers, the measure of genetic improvement from one generation of cattle to the next is made through the industry’s Breeding Worth (BW) index. BW incorporates a wide range of the data collected on-farm to provide farmers with an objective assessment of an animal or herd’s genetic merit.
Genetic improvement is not limited to dairy cattle alone, and in recognising the value of good feed to match good animals,much work has been devoted to establishing the Forage Value Index (FVI). This ‘BW for grass’ is a regionally specific ryegrass index that aims to match pastures with the needs of farmers and provide clear direction for pasture breeding across our industry.
Historically, genetic gain in the animal sector has been consistent and strong. Gains have averaged 1.38 percent a year over the past five years, and that gain is increasing.
It is anticipated that pasture genetics will follow in these footsteps, creating another avenue for New Zealand dairy farmers to drive profit in their farm business.
Quantifying the value of genetic gain
Genetic improvement has a direct economic value to farmers.The rate of gain in the national herd is increasing every year and the value of those gains accumulates over time (see animated graphic.
Each year, genetically superior heifers enter the milking herd. They add value initially through their own performance and then through the genetics passed on to their daughters. This is why the impact of genetic gain on farm profitability accumulates over time.
If we assume the average rate of gain over the next 10 years will be $11/cow/year, this value will accumulate to around $250,000/herd, or $3 billion across the dairy industry.
Forage Value Index – unlocking the genetic promise
To truly tap into the potential of genetic gain in cattle, our cows must have access to the best feed supply possible. That’s one of the reasons genetic improvement in pasture is so vital.
Ryegrass is the predominant feed source for New Zealand dairying, and measuring its suitability and improvements is critical.
For this reason, the industry is now also benefiting from the FVI. Based on a similar philosophy to BW, the FVI aims to incorporate a plant’s production (dry matter) into an index and rank it across four defined dairy regions.
Each dairy region has trial plots administered by the New Zealand Plant Breeding and Research Association, with ryegrasses that are independently recorded and measured for their performance. Researchers are working to incorporate other performance parameters such as metabolisable energy and persistence into the FVI (see page 12 story of this magazine).
It’s likely that including these other traits will reveal cultivars that have the best overall combination of traits for enhanced farm profitability.
With this information, farmers will be better able to ensure they're selecting the best cultivars for their farm.
New database to reveal deeper detail
The Dairy Industry Good Animal Database (DIGAD) was established within DairyNZ in late 2014 and is now an invaluable resource to the industry.
The database holds a wide array of animal data and its main function is to support routine genetic evaluations,which are now produced within DairyNZ.
Second to this, the data is available for industry-good research and has played a crucial role in a growing number of high value research and development projects.
To read more about this exciting industry initiative click here.
Operators see gains using indices
Jennifer Saunders is a large-scale farm manager who oversees six farms stretched across South Waikato-Bay of Plenty. For her, it’s vital to acquire reliable, relevant information on which grass cultivars are best for her farms' varied locations.
With a background in seed cultivar sales, Jennifer is well accustomed to sorting through plant data. Even so, she admits it can be a nerve-wracking exercise when many hectares are about to be committed to new grass, at significant cost.
She’s found the FVI and Cultivar Selector Tool have delivered a new level of transparency to cultivar selection.
“Before it was a bit like buying a car; every car in the lot is the best car. Until you get an independent assessment of each car, you really can’t be sure.”
Jennifer says she’s reassured that the tool lists the cultivars she expects to be the best in their region, at the top.
“You just get the clear facts on the grass's performance. We use Trojan perennial ryegrass on the majority of farms, and it's at the top of the FVI for us.”
Pasture is one of your biggest assets and you should take your time to read about what you're putting in the ground.
She also finds the winter feed evaluations valuable, with the per hectare returns good for comparison to the per hectare costs of establishment.
“Farmers need to educate themselves beyond just what they're told, or what their neighbour does. Pasture is one of your biggest assets and you should take your time to read about what you're putting in the ground.”
Further south in Winton, farm owner Colleen Neustroski and husband John have taken steps to leverage all they can from genetic gain.
The Neustroski’s 560-cow herd is in the top five percent for BW nationally at $104, well above the national median of $67. The herd also has a highly-ranked Production Worth, sitting at $130 against the national average of $80.
Colleen says a key method for increasing the rate of gain has been to mate their heifers to high BW bulls, providing them with a wider choice of high BW replacements and surplus animals to sell for additional income.
This year the couple had 220 replacement heifer calves, but only needed 140. This provided valuable additional income in a tough year.
Colleen says mating heifers involves a time commitment - checking for heats and inseminating them as they come up.
“But we are closely involved in rearing the calves, so for us to carry on and have them mated as heifers is a natural progression of their care.”
The couple also pay close attention to record-keeping at calving time, and Colleen’s looking forward to the day when DNA testing becomes more affordable, enabling accuracy to be lifted even further.
She and John herd test “religiously” (four times a year)as well as having a DeLaval system capable of monitoring performance.
Colleen also focuses closely on cow performance when assessing potential replacements, careful to keep heifers out of her best animals.
“At the end of the day, a calf is the result of both her parents. The best selection you can often do is checking the dam - do you really want to keep a replacement out of that cow?”
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy February 2017