Black Boxes and Compounding Cash
‘Understanding your herd’ was the theme of a recent series of workshops fronted by several LIC personnel. We poked our head in on one session, and here is a report on some of the content.
Commonly thought of something akin to ‘the black box’, a few fundamentals of Breeding Worth (BW) Index are not well understood by many dairy farmers – and in a handful of cases this can lead to misconception, confusion, and, at worst, sub-optimal decision making.
Yes, the mathematics and logistics are probably not worth the time and energy, but with a basic understanding and application of a few key principles, any pasture-based dairy farmer can profit from the system and add value to their asset.That’s according to LIC territory manager Greg McNeil, who recently spoke at a series of workshops organised by the Dairy Women’s Network.
The ‘how to’ workshops, of which LIC were a sponsor, were held in 10 locations throughout the country. Hundreds of farmers attended the sessions, with a large part of the day dedicated to the topic of herd improvement (the remainder of the day involved practical workshops on how to produce various MINDA reports).
Farmers lacking basic understanding of the index principles were in danger of dismissing the index’s credibility, or applying the wrong tools in certain situations, Greg said. Greg said the Breeding Worth model was complex, and involved an intricate series of calculations and breeding value weightings that changed from time-to-time. However, the beauty of the index was in its accurate reflection of the value, and quality, of dairy farm animals.
“The key thing is that, for specific decisions, you know what measures to look at. For example, I’ve had farmers comment that they doubt the index in general, because in their herd they have a case of high-BW cow who’s not a great producer, or vice-versa. But what they’re more likely to have is a misconception, because BW isn’t about her production as an individual – it’s about how well her daughters are going. More generally, it’s about her wider family. So Breeding Worth is about reproduction – in other words, what efficiencies her offspring are capable of. It’s not about her milksolid production in any direct sense.”
Related measures like Production and Lactation Worth, on the other hand, were about the individual animal. “So production and culling decisions, based these measures, might be more appropriate.”
Feedback from the audience on what ‘herd improvement’ meant to them fell into six categories:
It was no coincidence that many of these ‘herd improvement’ desirables could be related directly to various breeding values that fed into Breeding Worth, Greg said; these breeding values included fat/protein, liveweight, volume, body condition score, somatic cell count, fertility, and residual survival.
Mike Rose, regional solutions manager, presented the module alongside Greg. Mike said the average New Zealand cow lasted 4.8 lactations “and this compares very favourably to the rest of the world.” He explained that the national herd’s 11-point increase in BW, year on year, was not reflective of individual farm performance, so any sense of complacency about how the industry was progressing was risky.
“Some farms will go up 14 to 16 points, or more. Chances are you’ll find these are run by managers or farmers that are actively implementing the principles of herd improvement, and they’re probably deliberately leveraging this in their business.” An 11-point annual increase equated to 2.3kg extra milksolids per cow, per lactation.
Feedback from the audience suggested 2.3kg did not sound significant. “Add that up across the entire herd,” Mike said. “But the big point is that I’m talking about improvements that are permanent and cumulative. So making BW gains is a lot like compounding interest with cash in the bank. It builds on itself.”
Cows were performing a lot better than they were 10 years ago, Mike said, and this had significant implications on inputs such as feed supply and stocking rate decisions, and ultimately, costs of production. Mike detailed the 16 traits other than production (TOP), four of which were farmer assessed and the remaining 12 of which were done by specialist inspectors. “That’s why not all high-BW bulls get marketed by LIC – if a bull doesn’t measure up in terms of TOP, they won’t make a Premier Sires team.”
In summary, Greg told the audience to think of their cows in their herd that they and their staff liked to milk. “And think of those cows you don’t like milking. Then make a breeding plan that will produce more of the ones you like milking, and use herd information to make farm decisions around this (culling, rearing, AB/reproduction, buying/selling stock, dry off, feeding). “Always remember too that is very hard to achieve herd improvement without good reproductive performance.”