SHOULD YOU build your system around the cow, or the cow around your system?
I've always had a strong belief that you need to define and understand your system and the economics within it, and then design a cow to match your system to give you the best economic outcome.
When thinking about cows and systems from an economic view point, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions.
Risk: At low milk price and high input cost, can my system handle it?
Labour efficiency: Do I want a "keep it simple" system or a high input system?
Do I want the cows to work for me or do I want the cows to dictate to me?
The challenge is to match the cow to the system that will give maximum profit for the least input and effort.
We also must question cow size and consider efficiency of production. With type traits including statue, angularity, body depth and rump width all having negative correlations to fertility and longevity, the tendency to select sires from the glossy magazines with all the type graphs running way out to the right needs to be seriously questioned.
The first true-type model for the Holstein cow was developed in 1922 and served as a guide for the breed until 1977, when an updated true-type model was endorsed.
The revised true-type model had a much more angular appearance, was much taller at the withers (145cm), much heavier (725 kg), noticeably taller in the front – relative to the rear of the cow – and much shallower in the udder, which was held completely above the base of the hocks.
The ideal Holstein cow promoted by the Holstein Association USA since 1977 has been significantly larger and sharper than previously.
In 1966, at the University of Minnesota the large cow-small cow trial was started. One line was bred to sires predicted to transmit large body size, while the other line was bred to sires predicted to transmit small body size.
Each year, the three bulls with the highest size index were mated to cows in the large line, and the three bulls with the lowest size index were mated to cows in the small line.
Cows born in the two lines from 1983 to 1994 were summarized, and body weights of cows within the small line did not differ with time and had average body weight of 558kg (first calving), 596kg (second calving), and 641kg (third calving).
On the other hand, cows in the large line had significantly larger body weights with time and had average body weights of 609kg (first calving), 664kg (second calving), and 720kg (third calving).
The difference between the lines was significant for all three parities and the difference significantly increased with parity—the difference in average body weight was 52kg after first calving, 70kg after second calving and 88kg after third calving.
The same study examined herd life and reported that cows in the small line had productive lives that were longer by 88 days (15.4%) than cows from the large line.
Cows in the small line were also more efficient producers of milk, healthier and had greater ability to stay in the herd. So why do commercial dairy farmers continue to place a premium on high-scoring cows that are larger?
When considering the cow that will best suit your system, keep an eye on the scientific trials and results. Utilising them can improve the economics of your system.
All trial data on crossbreeding verses purebred since 1949 has shown crossbred cows to be more profitable. My personal experience is a 17- 23% higher operating surplus with a three-way cross, compared to Holstein Friesians.
There are many ways to maximise profit in all areas of a dairy business, matching the cow to your system can substantially increase your profit.
Steve Snowdon is a dairy farmer from Tyers, Victoria, who was runner-up in the 2009 Australian Dairy Business of the Year Awards with 18% return on assets.