Roger and Jane Hutchings are committed Ayrshire breeders on their 270ha Okaihau property, continuing with a breed well-suited to the tough, demanding Northland conditions.
While the herd also comprises 15 percent Friesian/Ayrshire cross breed, Roger is committed to maintaining the Ayrshire bloodline as much as possible.
His herd’s breeding worth (BW) sits on +$7, against the national average for Ayrshire cows of -$44.00. Roger’s highest BW cow is at $96 and described as “freakishly good”.
“A number of the cows are in the $60-$80 range and we are always aiming to improve our herd average.”
The top heifers enter the herd as replacements and the best of the bull calves are offered to the artificial insemination (AI) industry.
High numbers of elite replacement heifers allow Roger and Jane to offer up 60 in-calf heifers to the industry each year through their annual heifer sale. This generates extra revenue for their business, while promoting the Ayrshire breed.
Roger acknowledges it can be a tough path for genetic improvement with a breed only comprising 45,000 head nationally. But he has developed some tried and proven practices that work for any herd and any breed.
Bull selection involves a three-pronged approach, including the use of high BW New Zealand-born/proven sires, some New Zealand young bulls and about 30-50 straws of Finnish or Swedish Ayrshire genetics.
The European genetics help introduce some diversity and Finnish Ayrshire breeders have been increasing emphasis on fertility over recent years.
“The key trait is fertility and that is generally not too much of an issue with high index bulls available which range from +1.5% to -3.5%.”
Udder conformation is another trait considered and Roger is “quite selective” on sire use.
“If I have a high producing cow that is on the marginal side with her udder, I will aim to use a sire with good udder breeding values.”
Meanwhile the bottom quarter of the herd will be mated to a beef straw, with Roger and Jane getting a good price for the dairy beef progeny.
To increase the rate of genetic progress, Roger has also used synchronised AI on his top heifers for the past 20-plus years, putting about 100 up each year.
Good record keeping ensures his efforts in sire and dam selection are not wasted by mismatching at calving.
Calves are brass tagged in the paddock, following regular early morning and ‘last thing’ night checks. Almost 80 percent of the herd is also DNA verified for parentage, so the parents of a calf can be double-checked where necessary.
At the other end of a milker’s life, all culling reasons are recorded in MINDA Pro, with non-empty culls usually based on temperament, lameness, somatic cell or udder issues.
The focus on genetics, backed by good feeding, means that even allowing for a 10 percent empty rate, Roger still has room to selectively cull an additional 15 percent of the herd.
The majority of these selective ‘culls’ are sold locally to beef producers, as there is a good market for nurse cows, used to rear calves.
Success of the herd’s performance is measured with 5 double sample (am/pm) herd tests. Despite the tight payout, herd testing is a spend Roger will not compromise on.
“I use it for information on young cows to determine which I should be targeting to breed my replacements and which I will need to cull.”
Roger matches his focus on genetic selection with a feed regime that does not compromise body condition score.
The couple platemeter the entire farm once a week, which helps maximise pasture as their cheapest feed source. In addition to grass, they supplement with maize silage as required.
Despite the low payout, the Hutchings continue to farm positively on a tight budget. Roger maintains that his focus on genetics, reinforced by good feed management, will continue to pay off.
He also gets immense personal satisfaction supplying high quality genetics for a breed that remains relevant and valued in the challenging Northland region.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy September 2016