Breeding for Herd Health

David needed to buy a young bull and I decided to go along for the ride.  The only cattle we don’t breed ourselves is the bull.

In the dairy sector, and here at Rainton, breeding dairy replacements is mainly done through artificial insemination where you choose the semen of a bull whose offspring have the characteristics you want for your farming system – in our case we are looking for good all rounders; milk production isn’t the only criteria, we also want healthy cows with few udder problems and good strong feet. 

When we buy in a bull it is nearly always an Aberdeen Angus – a beef bull, rather than a dairy breed.  We use a real live bull with the heifers (those calving for the first time) because unlike the milking cows, we don’t see them in the parlour every day, so we miss the signs of the heifers being in season.  As you can imagine, this comes naturally to a bull, so if we have the bull in the same field as the heifers, he gets on with the job.  The Aberdeen Angus is one of the smallest beef breeds.  We use it, not just for its reputation in the beef industry, but also because it is kinder on the heifers to give birth to a small calf first time round.

Buying an animal from another farm has the risk of also buying in disease, so the reputation of the breeder is important.  The bull will be tested for various diseases before he is delivered, and we will test him again once he arrives here – belt and braces.

But there was another interesting deal being done during our visit, which was a new one on me. 

Whilst the price organic dairy farmers have been getting for milk has been reasonably strong for the past couple of years, the price we have been getting for beef and lamb has dropped in line with the conventional price.   So instead of getting £1100 for an organic dairy bullock, we are now getting about £850 – that’s almost 25% down.

The bull breeder we visited also needs to buy in fresh blood and he scours the world to get the characteristics his customers are looking for.  He will buy that in as semen and embryos, yes embryos.  So if he is buying embryos, he obviously needs healthy recipient cows to carry and raise the embryo.  Enter stage left, our healthy, milky female Aberdeen Angus cattle.

And of course one of the breeder’s main conditions is that all the cattle they buy must be disease free.  Our milk buyer, OMSCO (Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) has been operating herd health schemes for a few years now.  We test quarterly for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD),Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis(IBR), Leptospira, Neospora  and Johnes.  For Johnes each individual cow is tested, whilst for the others a test is done on a bulk sample of the herd’s milk.  Non-organic herds can choose to opt in to some of the schemes, few are mandatory.   So we are rare in having independent evidence of consistently excellent results.  And what is even more impressive is that we don’t vaccinate for anything.

All going to plan, our new bull will be here next week when the discussions regarding the reciprocal exchange of our healthy Aberdeen Angus heifers will continue.