The Bullvine has received the following question from readers – “Why does The Bullvine always talk about using AI and never refer to or talk about using natural sires?” After doing some research on natural use bulls, we decided to share our findings in story format. We often list statistics and science, but we would like to present something closer to real life in order that other, like minded, producers can evaluate a possible scenario and consider it for their own operations.
“A couple runs, as they call it, a milk production factory of 400 (2x) milking cows. They have found that, for best results, they should have their four key (human) employees putting their focus on cow care. That means focusing on the close-up and fresh pens, feed mixing, caring for calves that are less than a month old and attending to cows that are sick. The remainder of their staff are mostly part-time and involved in milking, pushing up feed, moving animals, bedding, cleaning up and manure handling. The husband manages the operation and the wife manages the records when they are not skiing or spending time with their family of five very active high school and college students. A few years back they were having trouble catching cows in heat and the fallout from that was that they had too many late lactation cows, had too much non-producing time spent in dry pens and there were heifers calving over conditioned at 27.5 months of age. This meant not enough profit or ROI. Their milking cow pregnancy rate was 9%, 4.1 pounds of fat plus protein were being shipped per cow per day and the cull rate was 40%. They needed to keep every heifer calf born on the farm for herd replacements. They knew drastic action was needed. So they went to focusing their attention on the most problematic areas and on using natural bulls for breeding both the heifers and the cows.
(CHECK THIS) The husband clearly understood that the system of using herd bulls instead of A.I., is not for every dairy farm, especially not for herds that do not have facilities that are bull strong, bull safe and where only one person is involved when groups are being moved or worked with in their pens.
For several years in the representative scenario, prior to the change to natural bulls, they had used 50% young sire semen. The main selection criteria had been NM$ (>$500) with the added requirement of +1.0 for both UDC and FLC. They wanted a blend price for semen of less than $20. The cattle were registered in the national herdbook so the DHI records could be used in sire proving. Numerous different staff were trained in A.I. but the results were just not there, even though they routinely used an off-sync program. Heat detection and breeding was a drag and it sapped energy from everyone.
The change to natural bulls occurred after the introduction of genomic indexes to the dairy industry. They found there were many high quality genomically tested bulls, that did not make it into A.I., that were available at a reasonable price. They have required that the young bulls, generally purchased at 9-12 months of age, are above average for size and have good feet and legs but cow families have not been considered when purchasing. They are now milking daughters of their first genomically tested bulls and find that they are, on average, quite superior to what their young sire daughters were in the past.
Their current requirements for their bulls are: NM$ >$650; FLC >+1.5; UDC >+1.5; and SCS < 2.90. But from here on they will also be requiring a positive number for DPR and >3.0 for PL. Additionally under consideration are ways to avoid inbreeding, increasing protein percent, using only polled bulls and, if they could get it, some way of knowing the growth rate and body condition score. Definitely sons of sharp chinned, deep ribbed show cows are avoided. The reason for a higher protein percent is because the milk is shipped to a local specialty cheese factory which pays an incentive for protein content.
The time formerly spent checking for and breeding cows and heifers in heat is now focused on close-up, calving and just fresh pens. These groups are housed close to the milking parlour and can be easily seen from the staff room and the office. All staff are encouraged to watch and make sure cows in these pens are getting up and eating. Temperatures are taken and recorded, twice a day, for the first three days after calving and before moving into the voluntary waiting pens. There are no bulls in these pens so staff can safely check a cow at any time.
Improvements obtained were in the magnitude of
Cows are grouped by staged of lactation or pregnancy. First calf heifers are housed separate from mature cows in close-up, voluntary waiting and breeding stages. Maximum group size, when cows are 150 – 300 days in milk, is 80 cows. Parlour size accommodates twenty and they like cows back to their pen within one hour. Breeding pens are kept to 40 cows so that only one bull is needed per pen. Herd management software data is used and the movement of cows and bulls in and out of pens is recorded. All cows seen to be in standing heat are recorded but less than 50% of the actual heats are observed by staff. A milk weight is taken every Wednesday morning. Fresh cows are continually added to the fresh pens and stay there 3- 10 days. Otherwise any movement between pens takes place on Thursday after the morning milking. One staff member monitors on Thursdays for any bullying or fighting. The plan is to purchase ultrasound equipment and have two people trained to use it for pregnancy checking.
An expanded version of the scenario sees the wife’s family owning and operating a small slaughter and retail beef business, specializing in marketing and selling lean beef that guarantees to its customers that all animals can be traced and for which there are no drug residues.
The dairy farm supplies animals to that beef processing business. As a result all calves are raised on the farm. Males calves are castrated and marketed when 1400 pounds. Heifers with poor feet and legs or not in calf by 14 months are finished for beef. Only about 60% of the heifers are raised for dairy purposes, as it costs more to raise them than they being when sold as a springing heifer or fresh first lactation cow. Young (<50 months) cows that have problem udders or feet and legs or that are not in calf are also marketed through that business. Settlement for their animals is on a weight and rail grade basis. All other animals are sold through an auction mart.
Where the beef side of the farm was once only a by-product, it now forms a significant revenue stream. It has meant that they want Holstein bulls that produce progeny that carry more condition and, therefore, go to slaughter at a relatively young age.
Most details about the operation are unchanged when the farm converted to using natural bulls. Bulls upon arrival are kept in isolation at a neighbor’s small barn that they rent. Bulls must be negative for TB, Brucellosis, Anaplasmosis and Johnes. Bulls not in use are housed in individual pens. As mentioned previously any pens with a bull in it must have two people present for movement or entry into the pen. Bulls slipping and injuring themselves during mounting has not been a problem. If and when herd expansion occurs, they are planning to use manure pack barns for the breeding pens. The bulls travel with their pen to, through and back from the milking parlour.
The farm in this scenario definitely benefits financially from less labour spent heat checking and breeding, from a younger age at first calving, from fewer days in the dry pens, and from more production per day. It must be stressed that, without genomics and 65% accuracy for the major indexes, they would not have been able to achieve the high percentage of high quality animals. All changes combined have helped them double their annual net returns from the milk sales side of their business. This scenario strongly recommends not attempting natural breeding with bulls that only have a parent average index or much worse still have no known parental information.
Although this is a composite scenario, farmers moving to natural sires can expect to find that bull buying and maintenance expenses were balanced by previous expenses for semen, labor for heat checking and breeding, vet checks and drugs. The higher production per day and the fewer non-productive days for both heifers and cows (without an increase in labor costs) are the profit makers.”
The Bullvine thanks our readers who have drawn our attention to this area of dairy operation management. Using natural bulls instead of A.I. is not for every dairy farm. Definitely it does not assist with sire proving by A.I. companies. However, it can allow for labor to be focused away from reproduction and more on that critical 2-3 weeks before calving and 3-4 weeks after calving. The Bottom Line? If designed and operated properly natural sire use can return a greater net profit and that’s a scenario we can all relate to!
Murray is a specialist in research, development, organization management, alliance establishment and design of livestock improvement programs. He has experience working at the senior management and executive director levels for public and producer-directed organizations. As Executive Director, Murray represented, developed industry alliances, developed research initiatives and monitored research for the Canadian AI’s industry trade association. As General Manager, Genetic Improvement, Murray designed and managed all improvement and development aspects for the Canadian Holstein breed.