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Increase profitability by breeding the perfect grazing cow

Phil Wicks Published on 23 December 2010


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Summary: This January 1st article provided information about traits to look for when developing a grazing cow, including fertility, longevity and the preferred size and breed of the animal. We asked LIC USA's Phil Wicks, author of this article, to provide a video interview, describing steps to take when building the ideal grazing herd. We featured this video in the September 12th Progressive Dairyman Extra e-newsletter.

Because this article was so popular, we asked Wicks a follow-up question:

Q: Why are producers getting seriously interested in grazing?

A: I think it is probably because of the times we live in, the realization that certain costs attributed to traditional dairies are increasing and will probably remain high. Modern grazing offers an opportunity to those producers who perhaps are very profit focused and courageous enough to understand and try something different. I think the key difference even for those producers wanting to use pasture at only specific times of the year is ensuring they do it properly on a rotational grazing platform that maximizes profit.

High-quality traditional-style (confined, feedlot) farmers are still good farmers and understand easily the concept and its potential when it is explained in a modern and scientific manner. Also the understanding that grazing can provide, in certain circumstances for certain producers, the sustainability that many seek for future generations. And lastly that there are now support structures in place, consultancy and correct genetics, for those that may want to take the grazing route.
—Phil Wicks, General Manager, LIC USA


Click here or on the image above right to see the full list of the Top 25 articles of 2011. Click here to see the list from 2010.


Whether you are a dairy producer with a grazing or confined herd, consider three key components when determining profitability: productivity, fertility and longevity. Breeding for these traits will result in a better cow and ultimately increase profitability.

Researchers in New Zealand and southern Ireland, where dairying is done on a predominantly grazing platform, have developed highly effective ways of measuring performance and profitability of dairy cows and dairy sires.

In New Zealand, it is called Breeding Worth (BW). In Ireland, it is called Economic Breeding Index (EBI). These measures compare most closely to Net Merit in the U.S.

The BW is an economic index that’s been operating since 1995 and, over the last 15 years, has delivered incredible productivity gains to dairy farmers through rapid genetic progress. This in turn has increased production per acre and produced other efficiency gains, especially through better cow health – the end result being increased profitability of every cow.


Proven genetics

The type of dairy cows produced by these highly developed profit-based systems has been well-proven through a number of trials but, most notably, sister trials: Dexcel Holstein strain trial in New Zealand and Moorepark Holstein strain trial in Ireland.

Both trials measured the profitability of different strains of Holstein Friesian: North American, New Zealand and European strains. They were measured under low-feed input systems and higher-input systems, but the end result was the same. The New Zealand strain was found to be the most profitable on all feed systems through a combination of high productivity, better fertility and overall longevity.

The end result is more clarity on the genetic traits of the perfect cow for a commercial grazing or hybrid system. It also is obvious that this cow has attributes that are of huge benefit for commercial dairy operations of all systems needing better cow efficiency and, ultimately, profitability.

Profitable traits equal profitable cows

In describing “the perfect grazing cow,” which also translates to more profitable cows in confinement dairies, consider the following attributes:

  • High metabolism – ability to efficiently convert feed into milk production
  • High total solids
  • Fertility – calving interval of under 380 days
  • Longevity – able to reach peak production years – 5, 6, 7 years
  • Smaller but strong capacious cows with capacity
  • Low somatic count
  • High gene pool breeds – Holstein Friesian, Jersey, Holstein Friesian/Jersey cross
  • Artificially bred to top dairy sires that also pass on these traits
  • Functional conformation – udder, feet and legs
  • Easy care – management, temperament, health
  • Aggressive grazer (if grazing)

One word to describe a cow that has all the above traits is profitable.

Is bigger better?

Tall, large-framed cows do well in the show ring, but too much size is one of the biggest negatives a commercial dairy cow can have. She needs strength and capacity but doesn’t need height and a large frame.

You don’t need a big cow for big production, especially for big lifetime production, which is where profitability lies.

Too much size also relates directly to another major negative – poor fertility. This is important in all forms of dairying, but particularly so for the seasonal grazing producer.

The ability of a cow to end her lactation, calve and then get bred again within a reasonable time frame, especially if she can do it year-in and year-out, is highly desirable.

Your best cows

Many dairy producers often say that the best cow is the one you never notice. She comes quietly into the milking parlor, is never sick, has a 12-month calving interval, is often fairly average-looking and possibly even an average producer. Measured on profitability, however, you might find that this cow actually is one of your best.

The breed debate

Determining the best dairy breed can be a contentious subject, so rather than giving a personal view, consider data from the largest dairy database in the world.

0111pd wicks fg 1 full

New Zealand’s animal evaluation database has more than 18 million individual dairy animal records and provides a very good comparison of global genetics working in the same environment. (See Figure 1.)

The sheer size of the database, coupled with the fact that more than 80 percent of New Zealand dairy farmers routinely and regularly record herd information and have done so for generations, makes this dairy dataset unique and second to none.

Based primarily on information in this dataset from herds with the highest productivity, fertility and longevity, three dairy breeds rise easily to the top:

  • Holstein Friesian – Medium-sized, capacious and fertile black and white cows (smaller and more fertile than traditional U.S. Holsteins)
  • Jersey – Particularly good grazers in warmer environments
  • Holstein Friesian/Jersey crossbred (Kiwi Cross) – Recent research from Ireland rates this cross as the best production per acre of all breeds

The disadvantage with other breeds is that you either sacrifice genetic merit from a lower gene pool, or, in the case of most of the red breeds, you lose fertility.

A breeding mistake I sometimes see among dairy crossbreeders is using beef breeds to improve fertility. The fastest way to improve fertility while retaining your dairy traits is to breed to a high-gene-pool dairy breed that has good fertility. Don’t sacrifice production and other dairy breed traits by crossbreeding with beef breeds just to increase fertility. It’s like taking one step forward and five steps back.

Breeding the perfect cow

The authenticity of this data has led to the development of genetic lines that generate “the perfect grazing cow.”

The options are to use a high-fertility and capacious Jersey or Kiwi Cross, or if you want to stay with a black and white cow, then breed to New Zealand Holstein Friesian. This will enable you to increase your components, as well as your fertility and overall profitability, and still stay black and white.

Five top tips to breeding perfect cows for grazing or a hybrid of confinement and grazing systems include:

  • Use high-quality sires through artificial insemination
  • Breed for productivity and longevity, which equals profitability
  • Moderate-sized cows are more profitable
  • Focus on more lactations and lifetime production
  • Breed to large-gene-pool breeds

A progressive dairy farmer with a top-producing herd shared his thoughts on the traits he wants to see in his cows: “I find out what is my most profitable cow and learn to like the way she looks – no matter how she looks.”

Chances are she will not be your flashiest cow, but in this day and age when profitability is more challenging, it is an effective rule of thumb.

As you set your goals and benchmarks this year, be sure to include genetics on your list of sources of income. Breeding a better, more profitable cow can make a big difference to your bottom line. PD

Contact Phil at or (877) 542-8721.

Phil Wicks is the general manager of LIC USA, which specializes in dairy genetics and dairy grazing technologies. He has been involved in dairy genetics for more than 25 years and has developed breeding programs for producers around the world.