“We’re trying to breed the ultimate commercial cow,” Craig said.
“One that will efficiently convert feed to milk solids; is not prone to mastitis; gets back in calf; and without any type fault that would restrict a long and productive life.”
When Craig – a fourth generation farmer - began share farming in 2003, the Holstein herd he purchased was ranked below national average for genetic merit. Now, Calister Holsteins is in the top 10 Australian herds for genetic merit ranked according to profitability (BPI).
Craig says adoption of genomic testing was critical in improving his herd.
Involvement in industry projects during the development of genomic breeding values convinced Craig of the technology’s merit and he subsequently began investing in genomic testing once it became commercially available in 2011.
Since 2014, every heifer and about 25% of bulls are now sampled within weeks of birth.
For the bulls, the genomic results determine whether they are destined for a career in AI or to be sold as herd bulls.
For heifers, the increased data reliability provided by genomic testing enables more accurate breeding decisions, especially for low heritability traits such as daughter fertility and longevity.
Heifers in the top 10% for breeding values from the genomic testing are used as donors in the embryo transfer program, with the lowest 25% of genetic merit and crossbred cows in the herd used as recips. The rest are bred conventionally for AI.
All heifers are joined to sexed semen achieving 50% calf on ground rate from fresh sexed semen of which 90% are heifers. "More than 50 heifer calves a year from that – it’s a powerful tool to rebuild your herd," Craig said.
Calister Maebull is currently the number 2 proven BPI Australian daughter proven sire. Maebull was bred from a package of embryos purchased and imported from Morningview Holsteins in Iowa, when online embryo auctions, coinciding with a high Australian dollar, provided the opportunity to cost effectively invest in bloodlines from north America.
The embryos are out of Morningview SHTL Lucy, with a family history including Palermo, Shottle, O’Man and Durham. Lucy’s dam was a full sister to Morningview Legend, a bull which has had success in ABV rankings.
Maebull has 69 milking daughters and combined with his genomic results, has a 90 per cent reliability for production traits.
Maebull has a BPI of $303 and high ratings for survival, cell count and also daughter fertility.
The Listers have four Maebull daughters milking in the herd.
Several of the stud’s most potent maternal bloodlines originate from cows purchased at the 2008 Calivil Creek Holsteins dispersal sale.
“I made the decision in 2008, if I’m registering cows, I’d start with good brood stock,” Craig said.
He purchased 8 head from Calivil Creek, which have bred the lines of AI sires Bowyang and Livingstone. They also purchased sires at IDW sales, including the dam of Canjam, who was 14th genomic bull overall.
Cows are culled on cell count and fertility.
“If you want longevity in cows, choose those with a high survival index; high fertility index and high production,” he said.
Craig said genomics has proven a massive step towards the improvement of both his, and the national herd.
“The ability to measure progress on heifers as soon as they drop means you can make decisions immediately.
“You get the heads up straight away on survivability and fertility, which are both low heritability. Previously, you wouldn’t know until the end of their career.”
The milk price crash forced the Listers to heavily destock but the end result has made them more self-sufficient.
Between May and October 2016, 217 dairy cows and 57 replacement heifers were sold, providing a valuable cashflow and reducing the stocking rate to a level where the business was self-sufficient for fodder requirements with only minimal inputs.
They were milking 450 at the time of the milk crash but now milk 350 and carry 250 replacements.
“We are enjoying the lower stocking rate,” Craig said. “We’re self-sufficient now, apart from grain which we buy in.”
Craig and Sharon farm 702 hectares of irrigation land (396ha owned and 306ha leased off Craig’s mother, Judy).
Depending on irrigation water availability, about 100-150ha is utilised for grazing the dairy herd, with the remaining land farmed dry or opportunistically irrigated to carry replacements, dry stock and produce fodder.
They lease a total of 900ML of high reliability water entitlement from Judy, through the Goulburn Irrigation System.
The grazing area consists of Lucerne or Spanish/Italian ryegrass and clover pastures, while annual ryegrass and sub clover crops provide the bulk of the fine-chop silage harvest (500-800tDM/year).
A roaming 100ha cereal cropping rotation provides the herd’s rough hay requirements, while assisting with weed control and the pasture renovation program.
They produced 1100t DM in hay last year, which will last for a few years, and aim to produce 600t DM of silage each year.
Homegrown forages are supplemented with a custom grain, legume and mineral blend in the dairy, of which the composition and amount fed is altered to balance the herd’s nutritional requirements.
The 50-stand rotary dairy has automatic cup removers and retention bars so the herd can be milked by a single operator. Craig’s mum, Judy, relief milks three times a week, and also rears calves, and Sharon also relief milks.
They have one non-milking full-time employee to assist with general farm duties.
“We focus on having as much feed as we can directly grazed by cows. We have a concrete feed pad with troughs and used a PMR system with a mixer wagon before.
“It was a good opportunity for maximising feed use efficiency but it adds costs and requires additional labour. It doubles the cost of feed when you conserve it and feed it back.”