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Longevity yields profitability: Holland dairy farmer shares perspectives on herd health, breeding

Matthew Costello for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 May 2016
Gerben Braakman

Until April 2015, European dairy farmers were producing milk under a quota system, with Dutch dairy farmers being no exception.

With limitations on the amount of milk they can sell, farmers were forced to adapt different breeding strategies than traditional targets for more volume. Gerben Braakman, a dairy farmer in Holland, shared how his breeding philosophy is different than those solely focused on volume of milk. 

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Achieving balance 

A word that pops up regularly in discussions with Gerben is balance. While working in a grazing farming system, this Holland dairy farmer aims to produce as much milk as possible from the most readily available feed, which is grass. That demands vigorous cows that can stay healthy and fertile with minimal use of resources. 

"Swimming against the current, my father opted for a grazing-based system as early as 1998," Gerben says. "We do it economically by utilizing our resources." Gerben and his brother, Roelof; wife, Agnitha; and sister-in-law Anne-Marleen, run Agara Hoeve, a multifunctional business that handles several projects as well as the dairy herd. 

Fresh grass is the basis

In Gerben's opinion, a good balance between the number of cows and the amount of land is important for dairy farms to obtain maximum return on investment. 

"We keep our young stock number to a minimum, so that we can milk the maximum number of cows," he explains. "If we only have the heifers we need to maintain herd size, we can use that feed for the milk cows." The proof that this theory works shows in the figures.

gerben braakman at computerCulled cows during the previous accounting year were an average of six years and nine months old, and they had achieved an above average lifetime production of 77,000 lbs. of milk.

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Dairy farmers like Gerben also aim for a herd that calve on a regular basis, so that the cows' lactation curves run simultaneously and production is maximized. "We inseminate problem cows with beef semen," Gerben says. "That way, we are able to keep the herd on a consistent basis."

A greater productive lifespan means more milk

"Strong growth in production would disrupt the balance," Gerben admits. But he can certainly see other areas of growth to maximize return on their 200-cow herd. One of those is a reduction of the calving interval.

Currently at 410 days, a reduction would help them make even better use of the fresh spring grass. In the high season, a fertility advisor visits the farm every three weeks to help with these decisions. According to Gerben, another area of improvement is heat detection. Higher milk production is not a direct target for these entrepreneurs.

"But if we succeed in keeping our cows longer and reducing the calving interval, the production per cow will increase over her lifetime, thus making us even more efficient with our resources," Gerben explains.

Breeding based on longevity

Gerben regularly exchanges ideas about his herd management with René Bos, a genetic consultant. 

"You can increase genetic progress in a herd by using genome research," René suggests. “Measurable traits like hoof health and ketosis can play a huge role in making progress towards a healthier herd.” 

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Gerben agrees. "In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with using the most modern sciences, in this case an animal's genomic value."

Another breeding tool that Gerben and René have discussed is adding a heat detection system. “That is something that is high on my wish list,” Gerben says. 

agra hoeve dairyThis type of system not only measures activity, it also monitors rumination as a health indicator. 

"We aim for minimum antibiotic use," Gerben explains. “If I can detect a cow starting an udder infection quicker, I can achieve a lot with extra care and alternative substances." 

Gerben is convinced that breeding provides a solid basis for a fertile herd with long lifespans. "I always study breeding values in detail," he says. "The whole picture needs to add up right. Every farming system, organic and conventional, demand cows that are healthy and productive." 

Agara Hoeve philosophy

Gerben still wants to increase production, mainly through a longer productive lifespan, because a herd with a higher average lifespan produces more milk. Braakman's father believed this too, and he bred for productive lifespan, with his sons following in his footsteps. The average productive lifespan on the farm is 5.3 years with a 15 percent replacement rate. 

Another important issue is efficiency. In Gerben's opinion, allowing cows to graze as much grass as possible is the most efficient way to produce more milk. This is also why they aim for a herd calving early in the spring, to maximize the growing season.

This ideal can be spread to any dairy system that wishes to capitalize on the feed resources available to them, whether that is pasture, haylage or corn silage.

Last, but not least is herd health. In any dairy model, healthy cows are critical for efficient milk production, according to Gerben. He also aims to minimize the amount of treatments he has to administer to cattle. 

Breeding for the greatest lifetime production has allowed this dairy operation to capitalize its yield and profitability from their genetics. Even though this farm is in Holland, a similar philosophy can be used in the American dairy system.  PD  

Matthew Costello is a genetic product manager with CRV USA.

PHOTO 1: Gerben Braakman runs the Agara Hoeve multifunctional business in Dwingeloo, Holland. 

PHOTO 2: The Agara Hoeve comprises around 75 hectares (185 acres) farmland and a 30-hectare (74 acres) natural reserve. The farming system has been organic since 1998.

PHOTO 3: The Agara Hoeve herd comprises 110 milking cows and 50 young stock. The cows average about 26,500 lbs. of milk with 4.12 percent fat and 3.50 percent protein. Photos provided by Matthew Costello.

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