Breeding dairy herds of the future starts today

The Productivity Commission’s report, highlighting the need for dairy herds of the future to be smaller and more productive, reinforces that farmers need to be using sires selected for that purpose – today or at the next mating season.

The mating decisions you make now will hit the ground in three years’ time – will those cows enable you to maintain or improve the profitability and viability of your farm/s? That is the dilemma facing every dairy farmer in the world.

Breeding a herd of highly productive, profitable dairy cows which will satisfy the myriad of drivers – industry, economic, environmental, welfare and regulatory – starts today.

You can’t control the environment or the global industry drivers, but you can make decisions now to ensure your farm and your future is viable in the future.

Herd productivity

A quick review of the latest Dairy Statistics confirms the productivity of the New Zealand national herd has increased slowly. For example 20 years ago the average cow produced 301kgs. per year; ten years later her daughters and granddaughters were averaging 330kgs. and today the average cow produces 380kgms each year.

Using that rate of improvement, in five years the average cow will produce around 405kgms. Will that level of production sustain your farm if, like the Dutch farmers, you are asked to reduce your herd by upwards of 8 percent? And where would you start if you had to cut that percentage of the herd?

Would those culling decisions be based on the industry index attached to each cow? Or would you trust your gut - after all, nobody knows a herd as well as its owner - and make an assessment based on ‘will she last more than a lactation’.

Milker-friendly cows

No matter how many cows you milk, cows must be ‘milker-friendly’- i.e. you want to be able to apply the cups easily, evenly and quickly.

Start by looking at the business end of each cow and grade her (in your own mind and that of your staff) for how well her udder is supported, the shape of the udder (you want udders which are high and wide and above the hock with good teat placement and length, so the cups sit evenly), thus making for fast and clean milking.

Well supported and shaped udders are critical to improving production and health (and reducing costs) through less mastitis and lower SCC.

Udders aside, temperament is also a huge driver behind ‘milker-friendly’ cows. How many heifers have you culled in the last few years because of temperament alone, despite your best efforts? A sire overlooked on temperament can be a costly selection in hindsight if you lose one or two just on temperament.


A cow needs to track freely and effortlessly on her feet and legs. The structure of the rump and set to the rear legs, both side and rear, have an enormous effect on the lifetime of an udder. Have you ever noticed how a cow with her hocks almost touching has, in most cases, a rear udder far narrower and lower than other cows? A poor rear udder leads to faster degradation of the udder and ultimately udder breakdown. The rump not only affects the legs and udder but also the calving ability of the cow.

With the range of dairy farm systems in New Zealand likely to increase, farmers will need to select feet and leg traits specific to their system. If you’re planning a barn, or more intensive system in years to come, you’ll need cows slightly straighter in the leg than a cow who needs to walk 8km a day.

Thinking of changing to once-a-day milking in the forceable future? Then your future herd needs to have strong udder ligaments, especially the centre ligament.

Fortunately, conformation traits overall have a good level of heritability compared with most health traits, such as fertility and resistance to mastitis. This means if mating decisions are made correctly, a rapid improvement can be made in one or two generations.

It may sound like a drum that has been beaten a thousand times before, but these are the inches that will add up to make the difference between winning and losing.

Productive life and return on investment

The future cow must be low maintenance with a sustained productive life - the aim being that in only two lactations, each cow should have returned the investment you have made towards breeding and rearing her.

Every farmer knows the financial, time and opportunity cost of rearing a heifer replacement. How much does it cost you to rear your replacements? Whatever that cost, in coming years it will increase, applying not only additional financial, but more regulatory restraint in terms of stocking numbers and their effect on the environmental footprint of your business.

Every farmer knows that the 9 year old cow who has calved eight times is more profitable than one that is culled at 2nd or 3rd lactation. Why? Because they cost the same to replace. If environmental regulations continue to increase, the effect on the opportunity cost of having a greater number of replacements each year will significantly increase - so cows that last longer aren’t only more financially beneficial, but also environmentally.

Have you ever thought about the fact that a cow that lasts three lactations is in most cases twice as profitable as a cow that lasts two? And a cow that lasts four lactations is three or four times as profitable? The reason being the time, financial and opportunity cost to rear another heifer to replace her.

If a cow only lasts two lactations and produces, say, 800kgs. in that time with an average payout of $5.50kgs over that time, that equates to $4,400 in turnover. However, when you consider it has cost around $2,000 to rear her you are left with a balance of $2,400 without considering all the other multitude of farm working expenses. The cow that lasts three lactations and produces 1,200kgs creates $6,6000 turnover with a balance of $4,600 after deducting her rearing cost.

This, very simply, illustrates that you need long-lasting cows in the herd to improve the profitability of the herd and give you a return on your investment in each cow.

In summary

The farm of the future will not be vastly different from today. It will still have the same core expense and revenue streams – however, each will require more attention and efficiency to improve profit.

Where breeding in the past may have been an annual ‘tick the box exercise’, going forward it should be a continual focus as you work with and amongst your herd.

Fortunately, the technology behind breeding has evolved significantly to meet the farmer’s need for tomorrow’s cow to be vastly superior (in every way) from her dam and granddam. The future is promising with improved genomic accuracy, shortened genetic intervals and increasing knowledge around traits and genes specific to health traits like mastitis.

The herd you own today is the foundation for the future. Based on your assessment of weaknesses and strengths, how strong is that foundation? And what, if anything, needs to change so your farming business remains viable into the future?

Recent Posts