Owl Farm’s tailored breeding programme sees it make good on its goal to achieve breeding with purpose.
A Waikato school’s demo farm’s “purposeful lives” strategy is much more than a nod to animal welfare, as they look to reduce the number of bobby calves.
The introduction of a Sexed Semen/Wagyu breeding programme has seen a Cambridge dairy farm reduce the number of bobby calves born, increase profitability, and minimise their carbon footprint.
Owl Farm, a 125ha farm owned by and located on the grounds of St Peter’s School in Cambridge, milks 405 crossbred cows producing 1200kg MS/ha.
Demonstration manager Jo Sheridan says the St Peter’s School community, as owners of the farm, are engaged in the decision-making process on-farm – and one widely-held principle led to the creation of an updated breeding strategy.
“One outcome our community wished to see was an increased number of purposeful lives – or fewer bobby calves – so we incorporated that into the farm’s breeding strategy as an overarching goal,” Jo says.
Farm manager Tom Buckley says in 2019, the team launched a Sexed Semen/Wagyu breeding programme that aimed to reduce the number of bobby calves born while creating a marketable, value-added product.
Of the 718 semen straws used in the 2019 mating, 182 were Wagyu/short gestation length Hereford, 172 were liquid sexed semen and 112 were short gestation length (SGL) dairy, in addition to the 252 straws of conventional semen.
SGL dairy was used between weeks 7-12 of mating, and sexed semen was used on the top 75% of the herd selected on BW, health status, age (2-8 years) and those who had a pre-mating heat.
“We mated the best cows on the day that match the above criteria,” Tom says.
When the team reviewed the 2019-20 year, they were pleased to see they were on the right trajectory: they had increased profit by $4240 and reduced bobby calf numbers by 31% as a result of the Sexed Semen/Wagyu mating plan.
“Based on the success of the 2019 season’s mating and calving programme, we decided to continue with the Sexed Semen/Wagyu programme,” Jo says.
“With the reduced replacement numbers (90) needed to rear, we decided to synchronise the R2s to ensure we strive towards our goal of the herd being in the top 5% national BW.”
On September 23, 2020, yearling mating synchronised blanket insemination commenced with 30 straws of Kiwicross sexed semen and 71 straws of Premier Sires Kiwicross A2/A2, before running bulls 10 days after AB mating.
Milking herd mating commenced September 25, using eight sexed semen Kiwicross straws per day until October 14. Premier Sires A2/A2 Kiwicross matings were completed on the first day to the top 50% of the herd who were either unable to be mated to sexed semen or synchronised as non-cyclers. Wagyu or Angus were mated to the balance of the herd.
From October 15 to December 15, Wagyu or Angus semen was used until all straws were gone, and then SGL Kiwicross semen was used until the mating end date.
Owl Farm had 350 Wagyu straws available to use before they switched to SGL semen.
The Sexed Semen/Wagyu mating plan has made a significant contribution to the farm’s goal of purposeful lives.
Overall, Owl Farm has seen a steady decline in bobby calves from around 275 in 2018, to around 165 in 2020.
The number of high-BW heifer calves born has increased from 90 to 135 in the last three seasons. Owl Farm targets a replacement rate of 21% – selling the balance to improve the national herd – as rearing fewer replacements minimises the farm’s carbon footprint and greenhouse gases while ensuring all animals lead a productive life.
By regenerating replacements from the top 75% of the herd, the herd has experienced accelerated genetic gain. With a BW of 212, the herd is in the top 6% nationally, teetering on the farm team’s aim of entering the top 5%.
The Wagyu beef aspect of the mating plan has also increased the value of the calves born.
In 2020, around 70 Wagyu calves were born. They were reared on-farm for 21 days before fetching a contract rate of $165/calf – with an additional bonus of $6.50/kg above 35kg, heavier calves have the potential to earn a little more.
“Wagyu prices are consistent and can be built into the farm’s budget, unlike Hereford calves,” Tom says.
“Hereford calves born to crossbred cows can be a little smaller, and we’ve found that if they don’t get to the first sale of the season, they are not much more valuable than a bobby calf – there is less risk with Wagyu.”
Jo says with calving due to start on July 3, the team is confident the Sexed Semen/Wagyu breeding plan will continue to generate positive farm business improvements.
“The running of the farm reflects the St Peter’s School community’s goal of 100% purposeful lives, and we continue to do that by generating high BW replacements for the herd and breeding valuable beef cross animals.”
Key stats for 2019-20 season:
74% 6-week in-calf rate
13% not-in-calf rate
84-day mating duration
70-day calving period