Saturday, April 18, 2015

Beginning with the End in Mind


In 1977 we made the near-spontaneous decision to start a purebred Holstein dairy herd. Our first purchase was an open yearling heifer in a district club sale and required $750 to complete.

By 1979 we had a plan to start our own dairy farm, purchasing 160 acres two miles from my dad’s 65 acres, giving us one set of old buildings for cows and calves, another set of old buildings for heifers.
We found 16 new cows to add to the 12 we already had assembled and they moved “home” that fall.

My cow herd had cost around $2,000 average, and it was clear that the only way to recover that investment was from reproduction, the milk check was all going to be consumed by the costs of production (labor, feed, supplies and financing). We had a barn full of “second choice” cows (my wife’s euphemism for being outbid at sales for the cows I wanted first).

We had to have a plan, which we knew from the day after the first heifer purchase. Our cattle had to acquire and retain marketable characteristics; at the same time, they had to perform profitably under the fixed overhead of old buildings, small equipment, hand labor, and land only good for pasture and forage (buying our grain and concentrating on hay and silage production were our first decisions).

The big secret to achieving any goal is simply this: understand what your goal really means, and figure out the steps you have to take to get from today to the day your goals are reached.   

Our first decision in sire selection was to always review their pedigrees (as well as their sire summaries) for evidence of consistent year after year performance in the maternal lines. To select for a longevity result, we went to where longevity was already proven to exist. 

Our second decision was to not be confused by the assertion that selecting on “pounds” produced more protein than selecting on “percent”. Increasing percentage of components (protein and butterfat) allows your cow to produce more salable “value” on any given volume. We were going to push the limits of what a Holstein cow was capable of producing in value-added components. We rejected California based concepts of using plus protein volume and minus butterfat% bulls because we saw from our sire researches that the highest protein percent sires were also plus for butterfat percent.

The third decision was to follow aAa as our “breeding guide” because it was adaptable to whatever goals we set in sire selection, but not dictating a certain approach to sire selection that would limit our choices. 

Sue and I had started a family in 1980 so we had to be careful with money, and if a $7 young sire could be used in place of a $75 proven sire, aAa would tell us when that option was possible under our goals.

Did we make any progress? On our own farm, production advanced steadily from 14,000 pounds on the original cows, to 16,000 pounds on our first heifers, to 18,000 pounds second generation, in a facility designed in the 1940s for 12,000 pound milk grade cows. Over the same period, butterfat percent gained from 3.6% up to over 4.2%, and protein—our bigger focus—went from 3.0% to 3.6%. No changes were made in our feeding program, limited as we were by the small herd size. We pastured in summer, fed baled hay all year with a dry purchased grain mix, and replaced the pasture with corn silage in the winter.   

On the type side, our first type classification came out 101.2% BAA. A generation later we were at 103.5% BAA.  Second generation we made it to 105.9% BAA.  Some of those “second choice” cows turned out better breeding cattle than their consigners had predicted when letting us buy them off the “bottom” of their herds.

The important test of a “breeding” herd is always what your animals do in other dairymen’s barns. We routinely sold one-half of our heifer crop every year due to feed and space limitations, often selling them as calves in the club sales around Michigan and sometimes in groups at the farm. From these sales, between 1979 and 1986 (when we began our Jersey herd) there are six heifers that produced over 200,000 pounds milk lifetime.

275,000 pounds     This life total was produced by a Hanoverhill Logic daughter, whose dam was sired by Indianhills Senator Flame. The granddam was sired by Agro Acres Marquis Ned, third dam by Zeldenrust Pure Gold son (these sires all had high lifetime dams but a low PD milk sire stack). Her records were made in a tie-stall barn where hay was fed to a cow’s capacity year round. The owner expected this cow to go over 300,000 pounds—but an injury caused by another cow in heat prevented that.

242,000 pounds     This life total was produced by a Willowholme Mark Anthony daughter, whose dam was sired by Paclamar Astronaut. The grandam was by Paclamar Bootmaker. Her records were made in a confinement-style free stall barn in northern Michigan. Her owner ended up using two of her sons as “clean up” sires in the commercial herd where he worked as herd manager.

234,000 pounds    We had a Tidy Burke Forty Niner daughter that made 166,000 pounds milk. We bred her to Million Heir Caesar (an Elevation son of Quietcove Matt Cinderella). The resulting heifer was in a group of six calves sold to an expansion herd in western Michigan. She ended up with this lifetime total under their good but strictly commercial management. She now has over 20 milking descendants maternally in this 400 cow herd.

230,000 pounds    This cow started out as a $400 calf for a young lady’s 4-H project. She was sired by Hanoverhill Spartan (Shiek x Elevation) and from a first calf granddaughter of Agro Acres Marquis Ned. She produced ten times her dam’s lifetime production total and also managed to score “Excellent” as a mature cow.    

225,000 pounds     This cow owes her long life to also being a young lady’s 4-H project. She was sired by Pinehurst Pageant (Elevation x Copyright) and was the biggest heifer shown in any class for two years. She then followed this with a 10,600 pound first lactation! She stayed around and then made 16,000 in her second lactation. This was then followed by eight consecutive lactations averaging 25,000 pounds. She scored GP-80 as a 2 year old, then VG-86, then VG-89, and finally made Excellent as a five year old, eventually receiving a multiple E.

210,000 pounds     This is the cow on this list born from a “full pedigree” maternal side (EX Betty Chief from EX Astronaut from VG Browndale Highcroft Roeland). But we still chose a young “show type” sire, Browndale Sir Christopher and she became a third generation of “Excellent” cows. Sir Christopher proved to be more milk and less butterfat and protein percent than his pedigree had led us to expect—but this cow did alright for fat and protein.

What lesson is learned?

All six of the above cows resulted from matings at the 80% level of “aAa” use. Over half of them were sired by bulls we selected before they had progeny data. The reason for the selection of these sires was that they all came from cow lines that had exceptional lifetime performance in a multiple of consecutive generations. Most of these young sires did not make it as proven AI sires, failing to be plus for PD milk, but all of the above cows excelled over their dams the most on the production side. Thus, the aAa concept of ‘fitting form to function’ was added to the traditional selection concept that a sire can only breed from the cows in his pedigree, and they worked together for us.

As our first cows became old cows, and we realized we had sold too many heifers, we did try to buy some ‘better’ heifers. We bought four bred heifers who were supposed to be bulls for AI.  We had the idea we could play in that game too—but that didn’t turn out. Three of the four calved with faults (in legs, in udders, in frailty overall) that were very obvious. The fourth calved with mastitis in one quarter— we lost the quarter but kept her—and bred five VG daughters from her during a productive lifetime (including our first ever VG two year old). She was the one of the four where aAa was a conscious part of the mating. It became clear to us we had already bred better heifers than we could afford to buy. From that point on, we did not buy any ‘expensive’ cows—we bought cows when friends needed to sell something, and we bred decent heifers from them that we could sell to others who were getting started, which proved profitable.

I am convinced from our short experience breeding Holsteins that you can accomplish anything you desire from breeding if you stick to your plan and do not let fads and fancies and other people’s decisions get in the way of being consistent in selection.   

A big advantage I see in aAa concepts is that the cows you produce are more useful to others, as they have a more balanced physique that allows them to more easily adapt to a change in environment.
The heifers we sold always milked more for others than they did for us because those buyers had focused on the production side of dairying, not the breeding side. We could help them with breeding so they could harvest more production from their facilities and more aggressive feeding programs. However, as they usually found the sires we were using unfamiliar to them, the sire selection would quickly go a different way.    

A small herd can still make a difference, if that difference is aided by using aAa.

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