Breeding Case Study - Tom King

Published 11 December 09

Dorset dairy farmer Tom King defies convention and confounds expectation. For if you think it would be impossible to have a herd producing over 11,600 litres and keep average cell counts at 70,000 you'd be wrong. Or if you think a breeding policy which paid little if any regard to a bull's overall type score couldn't possibly give rise to a high type herd, you'd be wrong again.

For Tom is an original thinker who manages and breeds his family's Vortex Holsteins with intelligence and consideration. And at the heart of his breeding strategy is a heavy reliance on genetic indexes for health and fitness which he places above every other consideration, believing that as herd numbers increase, so easily managed, fertile and healthy cows become more important than ever.

Headline figures for the 200-head herd Tom and his father, Alan run in Martinstown, near Dorchester are certainly impressive. The 12 month CIS rolling average to November 2009 is 11,629kg at 3.87% fat and 3.01% protein (3x); cell counts for the same period are 70,000 cells/ml; calving index is 406 days and replacement rate is 19 percent. As for type, there's a profusion of cows classified VG or EX (in fact 72.4 percent of the cows according to Holstein UK) and a further 69.3 percent of the heifers classified GP or better.

Annually, there are just 35 cases of mastitis and 22 cases of lameness per 100 cows, according to milk buyer, Sainsbury's, who regularly scrutinise performance. All of this translates well to the bottom line, with a margin over purchased feed of £2236.4 per cow. This is an impressive performance by anyone's standards and is combined with a herd average Profitable Lifetime Index of 80, earning it a place in the UK's top one percent. But having a high PLI herd is not a priority to Tom. "We don't strive to be at the top of the list," he says. "If you screen bulls for fitness, you are not going to end up using any low PLI bulls.

"We happen to have a high PLI herd because we have bred for the components of the index and I believe that DairyCo have got the current formula about right."

Tom puts his leanings in breeding down to the induction from his father. "Dad has always emphasised the importance of breeding a balanced cow, although of course, we didn't have SCC, Fertility or Lifespan indexes in the early days.

"But almost since the fitness indexes were introduced by DairyCo we have used them heavily because we are absolutely convinced that they work.

"They are strongly linked with what we see in the cows and when we do an analysis of the herd, surprise, surprise, the highest cell count cows are the daughters of the high cell count bulls." He expands his point with the 14 cows to have most recently had mastitis of which 12 were by bulls with SCC Indexes higher than zero. 

"And I am also absolutely convinced that the heritability of these indexes is higher than we are told," he adds.

Similarly, he cites a strong link between a bull's Fertility Index (FI) and the cows' actual performance, and uses top PLI sire Oman (O-Bee Manfred Justice) to make his point. "Our Oman daughters average almost 80 per cent conception rates which is roughly what you'd expect from a +2.5 FI bull. But this compares with another bull we've used whose daughters have conception rates down at 25 percent. This bull's daughters are pulling the whole herd down but we used him before we realised his Fertility Index was lower than -15.

"There are loads of bulls marketed with Fertility Indexes like this, or SCC proofs worse than +20, and in my opinion these bulls should be shot. "But a lot of people don't appear to look in any depth at a bull's proof and if he's being offered cheap they'll probably buy him."

Believing it's often the same people who criticise the Holstein, he adds: "There's no way you should blame the Holstein if you have bred her to a poor fertility or a high cell count bull. The Holstein has had a rough press but if you breed her for strength and fitness traits you won't go far wrong." These traits are not only the cornerstones of Tom's breeding policy, but they have also been adopted by a whole group of breeders throughout the south of England.

"We are all like-minded so we get together to buy semen as a group," says Tom. "We have similar goals and want similar bulls so we get decent discounts because we're buying in bulk.

"We use any AI company and before anything else we screen the bulls on fitness traits."

Discarding almost anything that has a FI of less than -4; a positive SCC Index or a negative Lifespan Index as the first stage in the process, Tom says they also want reasonable milk production, but won't be too harsh or will 'end up with nothing'.

"Conformation has a role to play but definitely not Type Merit, and equally not dairy character or stature which I understand are important components of this index," he adds. "It's a given that you don't want poor legs, feet or udders but if you go through a catalogue and pick out the bulls with three points on type, you shouldn't be surprised if they don't live long and healthy lives. "In fact, I am pretty sure that someone has proved that overall type score is hardly linked to longevity or fertility, if at all. "Look at Oman - his daughters are fantastic for health, fitness and lifespan, yet he's got less than one point on type.

"Many pedigree breeders wouldn't even look at this bull because they don't like his daughters' udders but they are the breeders who would get the best results from him. They have been breeding for type and could probably afford to take a hit for one generation."

But as with any bull, Tom insists it would never be used across the herd or without careful regard to each individual mating."Take a bull like Regancrest RBK Die-Hard," he says. "He's probably the best fertility bull in the world but he's difficult to use. He transmits low fat and really high pins so you would use him on the cows you were having trouble getting in calf, provided they didn't have either high pins or low fat!" Choosing all of his bulls for the year-round calving herd in August and taking delivery in September, Tom says he's not necessarily keen to get the very latest genetics.

"Generally we will buy second crop bulls because their proofs are so much more reliable - especially for the traits we are interested in," he says. "We use some new ones to keep up, but we wouldn't buy 100 straws of the latest thing as three years down the line he may not look so good."

Bulls selected in autumn '09 include Oman, Leif, Jeeves, Iron Active, Laudan, Bogart, Tennyson, Shottle and Ramos, several of which have proved themselves in the herd already.

The results at Vortex Holsteins speak for themselves and the fact that a handful of bulls have recently been selected by AI companies for progeny testing indicates a wider belief in this breeding direction. And further recognition of overall quality and management came when the herd was short-listed this year in the finals for the prestigious RABDF/NMR Gold Cup.

But asked whether a continuation of the policy will eventually cure all health, fitness and fertility problems once and for all, Tom replies: "Realistically probably not. However, we know that breeding has played a significant part in getting the herd where it is today, but there's still massive progress to be made on fertility which we will probably address by raising our cut-off point for this index.

"But if your cows are better genetically, it makes the management a lot easier, which will become increasingly important as we expand the milking herd to 300 head during 2010."