Genetics can help South Island dairy farmers produce more from less as dry summers persist

Carol Booth

As dry summers persist in the South Island, genetics could hold the answer to helping dairy farmers breed healthy cows that produce more milk from less feed.

New CRV sales consultant for West Otago, Northern and Eastern Southland Carol Booth is encouraging dairy farmers in her region to use strategic breeding to safeguard milk production, preserve their bottom lines and ease the effect of heat stress on their animals.

Born and bred in the UK, Carol 29, grew up on a dairy farm in Yorkshire, England, and bred pedigree Holsteins with her father. She has a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC) and almost a decade of hands-on dairy farming experience in Otago. Safe to say Carol knows her stuff.

“With the likelihood of more dry summers in the South, dairy farmers are facing unprecedented challenges,” she says. “Sustained periods of heat will not only reduce the quality and quantity of grass, but also cause heat stress in the herd, which can affect cow condition, production and in-calf rate.”

Carol says the key is strategically breeding healthy cows, and animals that are efficient producers by milking more on less feed.

“That could involve a combination of traits. For example, when conditions get dry, farmers often move to milking once a day. To do that well, you need animals that have strong udders to carry milk for 24 hours.”

Another desirable trait would be cows with a lower somatic cell count (SCC).

“Milking once a day can increase the risk of mastitis. Animals with genetically lower SCC are likely to be healthier and handle variable milkings better.

“Better health traits combined with an animal that will last longer in the herd, and produce more from less, will inevitably save time and money. I enjoy helping farmers build a herd they love to milk, that will ultimately help them achieve their goals.”

For the love of cows

Cows are Carol’s passion. “I love cows, I really do. Growing up, there was nothing better than developing the herd with Dad, then entering A & P shows to test our skills or a Young Farmer’s stock judging competition. It’s so satisfying seeing the evidence of your breeding decisions.

“That’s why I went on to study agricultural science. It seemed like the obvious next step for me, a way of adding deeper understanding to my practical knowledge.”

In 2014, Carol arrived in New Zealand for her OE. She’d organised to work on a farm in West Otago. Although she’d planned a six-month stint, an opportunity opened to stay longer.

For the next eight years, Carol worked a second West Otago dairy farm, the last four managing the entire operation. With her breeding experience and science background, she managed the farm’s breeding, which involved calving three times a year. Carol explains the intensive approach.

“Because we had a wintering barn, we were able to control the conditions. This allowed us to bring heifers through into milking at 21-22 months of age, which meant we could milk through the winter.

“It was profitable because winter milk prices are typically higher and you’re not grazing them on winter crops. As long as they are well grown, they get less pressure in the herd while spring calvers are dry and they then get a longer time to recover before spring mating starts.

“The key was herd testing, which gave us objective numbers on our animals and helped us identify the best cows to put into a targeted sexed semen programme. Strategic breeding takes a bit of time, but the gains you get are worth the effort. As a starting point for me I will look at production, liveweights, cows that get in calf, any health issues and compare that to our breeding goals.”

From farm to CRV

After nearly a decade of farming, Carol’s passion for herd development led her to CRV. By her own admission, she is not a salesperson. It was CRV’s commitment to farmers and its team’s on-farm experience that convinced her this was the company she wanted to work with.

“Some farmers get annoyed by reps and the sales pitch. So, I’ll never be someone who pushes product on a farmer that I can see is not going to benefit. That’s what I love about CRV: many of our team are ex-farmers, so they know rural life and understand what farmers need.”

The deal breakers

For Carol, listening is the first thing she does when visiting a farmer.

“I always ask about the Top 5 traits they want bred into their animals, and the traits they want bred out. Once I see that list and understand why these attributes are important, we can talk about what genetic solutions can help them achieve their goals.

“No one bull can provide all the genetics they need. It’s about accurately matching the right genetics and the right bulls to the farmer’s best cows.”