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8 Mar 2021

New Zealand landscapes are changing colour with a dash of VikingRed

Crossbreeding has been a feature of New Zealand dairying for many decades and today, dairy-dense landscapes such as the North Island’s Waikato are peppered with the brown, black and brindle hues of the familiar Holstein Friesian/Jersey crossbreed.

This two-breed Holstein Friesian/Jersey crossbreed has served producers well in producing fat and protein for their milk solids-based contracts but many are now seeking to improve their cows’ vigour and lifespan, by adding a third breed.

The breed that’s coming to the fore is the VikingRed, whose reputation for outstanding health, lifespan and fertility has led to a boom in demand for the breed’s semen.

UK crossbreeding specialist, Chris Stone from VikingGenetics explains: “By adding any third breed you are immediately gaining extra benefits from hybrid vigour but by choosing the VikingRed you are introducing the numerous health and fertility traits which have been a key feature of the Viking countries’ breeding programme for over 40 years.”

“The VikingRed is also the ideal grazing size to complement the Holstein Friesian/Jersey crossbreed, being partway between the size of a Jersey and a Holstein-Friesian.

“Its ability to maintain body condition and good foot health ensure the breed perfectly meets the needs of New Zealand’s profit-driven farmers and its high-quality milk also falls between the black and white and Jersey breeds.”

Selection of bulls

The bull selection for the New Zealand VikingRed lineup:

  • Average to below average for stature
  • High fertility
  • High components
  • Beta casein genotype A2A2
  • Good udder health

Better hoof health and fertility

On Three Leaf Farm on the South Island’s Canterbury Plains, Hayden Ferriman milks around 700 Holstein Friesian/Jersey crossbreed-crosses on a typical pasture-based system and says he had noticed a gradual decline in his herd’s fertility over a number of years.

He says: “We are happy with the health of the herd but always want to maintain and improve that, but fertility is the big one for us. We have acceptable levels – around 70 per cent six-week in calf rate and 10-12 per cent empty – but we want to improve.

“If we are sending cows out the gate because they are empty, that is a big cost to our business.”

Also concerned that the herd was declining in stature and capacity he had increased the use of black and white semen over the past two breeding seasons.

However, having worked on farms in Denmark before he set up his herd, he says that’s when the VikingReds on neighbouring farms ‘really caught my eye’.

“The owners of the farms could not speak highly enough about the fertility and inherent health of the Red breed and what robust and strong cows they were,” he says.

“I remember thinking at the time they would not be a bad cross to put over our New Zealand cows and now that Samen are bringing in VikingGenetics we have the opportunity to put that into practice.

The benefits of using a third breed

“Having a two-way crossbreeding background, I had always been aware of the benefits of adding that third breed into the programme and given that I had seen the VikingRed at first hand, that gave me the confidence.

However, he says: “I also wanted to do my due diligence to make sure it would stack up to introduce an overseas breed to a New Zealand pastural system, so I did a lot of research.”

This was a rigorous process ranging from the VikingGenetics website to numerous farmer breeding forums as well as conversations with those involved in crossbreeding in Australia, where extensive use of the Red has been made as a third breed.

“The Red breed seemed to tick all the boxes really well, particularly for health and fertility,” he says.

Also commenting on hoof health, he says: “We farm 230 hectares so cows can have half-hour walks to the shed, so hoof health is important.”

Aware of the registration process for hoof trimming in Denmark, he says: “They have a lot of robust datasets to back up the claims for their bulls.”

Having now bred with the VikingRed for two breeding seasons, Mr Ferriman says: “It will be really exciting to see them come into the herd next year.” 

Watch the video

Hoof Health Index – an industry first

Dairy producers the world over value cows with hardy feet and have observed that the VikingRed in particular excels for this trait. While the breed and its ancestors have been noted for their hoof health over many decades, this trait continues to be developed and improved across the Viking countries through a structured breeding programme.

For almost 20 years, farmers across Denmark, Sweden and Finland have collected their cows’ hoof health data and today, when a hoof trimmer visits their farm, details from each cow are sent to a central database. A cross-section of disorders is recorded, ranging from sole ulcers to digital dermatitis, and many more.

The information is used by NAV (Nordic Cattle Genetic Evaluation) to calculate the Hoof Health Index, which, in 2011, was the first genetic index of its kind to be launched in the world. Today, NAV holds records from eight million inspections across three dairy breeds.

This has allowed dairy bulls to be bred which transmit good resistance to hoof disease to their daughters, and enabled farmers to continue improving the health of their cows’ hooves. The index is proven to be a better tool for breeding cows with good mobility than foot and leg conformation.

The Hoof Health Index is also included in the Nordic Total Merit (NTM), whose widespread use is helping to raise the standard of hoof health, and many other traits, across the VikingGenetics´ dairy breeds.

Seven years of three-way crossing

Back in the Waikato, Richard Waugh milks 330 cows and has seen the effects of the VikingRed’s better hoof health in practice, having been using the three-way cross for around seven years.

He says: “I don’t think I’ve had a lame VikingRed. We probably get one or two lame cows a week but none of them are the Reds – I think the black hooves really help.”

The journey to the three-way cross began for Mr Waugh after he initially bred the Holstein-Friesian across his Jersey herd.

He says: “We got a wonderful animal but when we then put the Jersey across the first cross, we didn’t get the results we had hoped.

“We were scratching our heads but didn’t really want to go to the Holstein-Friesian as that would increase liveweight, so we decided to go for a third breed.”

Finally opting for the VikingRed, he says many are now fifth calvers which are still producing 750-800 kg milk solids per lactation – around 200 kg above the 550-560 kg herd average.

“On our spring herd test the herd averaged 2.4 [kg fat plus protein] doing 30 litres, and all bar a couple of the Reds were above herd average,” he says.

“The better cows were doing over 3 kg milk solids as three and four-year-olds but still giving 35 litres,” he says. “The efficiency of those animals is above both the Holstein-Friesians and the Jerseys as they can do the litres but still hold the percentages.”

Body conditions a huge advantage

He also notes the Reds hold their condition, potentially avoiding negative energy balance, improving fertility and helping maintain a tight calving block. This may also explain their lack of metabolic disease, and he notes: “I’ve only treated one VikingRed for milk fever which, on a high input system, is probably good going.

They calve down and keep going and just hold their weight better than the Holstein-Friesians,” he says. “You can get your 305 days comfortably which is the main one for us – you need as many days in milk as you can find. Just the perfect animal really.”

Hybrid vigour – what does it add?

One of the benefits of a three-breed cross is an increase in hybrid vigour compared with a two-breed cross.

  • Hybrid vigour (also known as heterosis), gives the crossbred animal better performance than expected from its parent-average breeding indexes.
  • These benefits are particularly seen in health and fertility.
  • When two breeds are crossed systematically, hybrid vigour stabilizes at 67% over the long term.
  • However, when a third breed is added, it stabilizes at 86%.
  • The benefits of hybrid vigour are an addition to those which come from choosing the right breed.

The VikingRed’s popularity as a third breed comes from her superb grazing ability, stable body condition and a size which complements the Holstein-Friesian/Jersey cross.

VikingRed is a leading breed for crossing and will naturally boost the health, fertility and efficiency of the herd. They are also consistently amongst the top rankers on local indexes internationally.

Crossbreeding backed by science

The dairy levy board, Dairy Australia, along with the University of Melbourne has compared the performance of two-breed and three-breed crossbred herds.

Using data from nearly 7,000 cows with over 25,000 lactations on pasture-based farms, they found that compared to the two-way cross, the Holstein-Friesian/Jersey/Red cross showed significantly higher lifespan and better fertility:

  • +4%-points in conception rate (1st service)
  • +8%-points in six-week in-calf rate


The three-breed crossbreds showed no significant difference in volume of milk but outperformed the two-breed cross for milk solids production.

Read more about VikingRed


Key findings of Australian pasture-based crossbreeding study

Parameter

Two-way cross (Jersey/Holstein)

Three-way cross (Holstein/Jersey/Red)

Production

Milk (litres)

6,010

5,950

Fat %

4.24

4.37

Protein %

3.41

3.54

Fat (kg)

252

257

Protein (kg)

204

210

Total fat & protein (kg)

456

467

Fertility

Conception rate (1st service)

47%

51%

Pregnant by week 6

63%

71%

 

The results of the crossbreeding study were published by Dairy Australia in ‘InCalf Symposium 2017 proceedings’

 

Text by: Ann Hardy,

Freelance journalist in the UK