Viking genetics and robots working together at Alderston Mains – The Scottish Farmer

September 13th, 2020 2:53 am

Owning a Jersey herd that produces 8100 litres at 5.75%BF and 4.01%P (780kg fat plus protein), can prove problematic knowing where to turn to continue improving performance. But for Andrew Hastie and his family at Alderston Mains near Haddington in East Lothian, the answer has come through a marriage of focussed management, high quality genetics and up-to-date milking technology.

Having experienced success through a combination of the Viking Jersey and robotic milking during a gradual switch over the last three years, the Hasties have decided to follow this process to its logical end. This year, they will add their final two Lely Astronaut A5 robots, bringing their total to six (2 x A4 and 4 x A5), and theyll complete the switch to using genetics exclusively from the Viking countries (Sweden, Finland and Denmark).

With a modest acceptance that the herds production is nearer the top than the bottom, Mr Hastie remarks: Were not really far ahead of the average when you go to Denmark.

And therein lies the overriding reason for the familys choice of genetics, which sees the Vikings gradually take over from all other bloodlines.

The farms foundations were laid in the 1950s when grandfather, David Hastie, started the herd with native UK Jerseys. Since that time, Andrew and his parents, Gordon and Vivian, and brother, David, have fine-tuned both the farm and the herd, to reach the exceptional performance of today.

Over that period, the farm has switched from a mixed enterprise to one thats purely focussed on dairy, with all grass and arable crops across its 400 acres now grown exclusively for the 360-head herd. With a target of increasing the herd to 430 head, the plan is to consolidate numbers at this level.

Weve always enjoyed the Jersey and found her to have robustness and some health benefits over the Holstein, says Mr Hastie. We operate a sort of hybrid system where we want high yields but like the cows to go outside for exercise and grazing even with the robots as we feel its good for their health and keeps our feed costs down in summer.

Close attention has always been paid to the type of genetics that will best meet the farms targets, which began in the earliest days of the herd.

My grandfather was an early adopter of artificial insemination; hed use the best bulls he could get from the USA, New Zealand and Denmark and we continued breeding this mixture for a long time, he said.

Around 15 years ago we dropped the New Zealand bulls, largely because their genetics is driven by milk solids weight-based contracts, which are not quite like our own.

The USA we felt was at the other extreme, and our experience was that the taller, leaner and more angular animals didnt live so long.

We feel the Viking breeding programme has the balance just right, with cows which look long-lasting and producing high quality milk. They are particularly suited to our contract with Grahams Family Dairy, where we need to produce at least 5% fat for the Gold Top range.

In some past summers we had been slightly short of butterfat but find the VikingGenetics bulls are helpful in boosting that.

Around 18 months ago the farm also switched to sexed dairy semen which is now used alongside Aberdeen Angus beef.

Also opting to introduce genomic testing for heifers, Mr Hastie says this is giving an early indication of genetic potential across a range of traits.

When you have a cow on the ground you have a good idea of how she should breed, he says. But with a heifer, all you have is the animals pedigree, so a genomic test adds accuracy for many different traits.

There are also traits on the VikingGenetics bar chart which you dont normally have, he adds. This includes hoof health and saved feed index, which are helping us to breed cows with better feet and more efficiency.

We only started genomic testing recently but plan to test all 200 of our heifer calves born each year, he says. This supplies a linear bar chart, just like youd have for a bull, and you can see straight away what you need to improve.

It also ranks the heifers on the Nordic Total Merit [NTM] index, which is not unlike the UKs PLI [Profitable Lifetime Index].

Also using VikMate, the VikingGenetics mating program, Mr Hastie is able to set his own targets and receive a best-choice mating for each animal in the herd.

He says: If I want to focus on a particular trait, I can change that myself when running the program. This could be for hoof health, stature, milk quality or any other trait.

In fact, were already seeing big improvements in feet and legs through corrective breeding and starting to see changes in other areas.

This includes reducing udder depth and strengthening udder support we think theyll remain higher for longer and making other changes to help robotic milking.

This has involved a change of mindset and were now looking to widen rear teat placement as well as lengthen teats something we didnt do in the past.

We have also moved away from selection for production, now keeping our focus on health and functional traits. We have found that the milk is there, even without looking for it, which allows us to focus improvement on other areas.

Also aiming to improve the herds management and efficiency, the next robots to be installed will help in this endeavour.

He says: Our sixth robot will be a grazing robot, which will be used exclusively by our late lactation cows. Theyll be in strawed yards in winter and graze in summer, only receiving concentrates while at grass, when theyre having no total mixed ration.

Im confident well maintain their yields and should manage body condition score better. I think it will save 1-2 per head each day in feed costs for the last 30-40 days of lactation.

Asked how the Viking-bred cattle have impacted profitability, he believes its too early to say with any precision.

In a few years, when nearly all the herd is Danish, Ill be able to tell you but all I can say now is that we are very pleased.

FARM facts

360 milking Jerseys rising to 430 in year-round calving system

Production at 8100 litres at 5.75%BF and 4.01%P (780kg fat plus ptn)

All breeding switched to VikingGenetics for longevity and milk quality

Four A4/A5 Lely robots, increasing to six, including one grazing robot

Sexed semen produces 200 Jersey heifers/year for replacements and sale

Genomic testing introduced for all Jersey heifer calves this year

TMR fed to all milking groups except late lactation, plus concentrates to yield

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Viking genetics and robots working together at Alderston Mains - The Scottish Farmer

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