Friday, July 8, 2022

A touch of Canada in Tokoroa

There’s a science to breeding top cows, but instinct and artistry come into it as well. Sheryl Brown met Vince and Sheri Steiner, Tokoroa farmers who use unconventional guidlelines to breed top Ayrshires

The breeding worth (BW) index is New Zealand’s key dairy industry guideline for top genetics, but for Tokoroa sharemilkers Vince and Sheri Steiner, high BW is not a goal but a guide. In fact their winning show cows and top producing cows fall well below the BW bar.  

The Ayrshire enthusiasts milk a 430 cow herd with a -46 BW, which includes over 300 registered Ayrshires with a -56 BW average.

Breeding top quality and high producing cows is their main focus and has been Vince’s passion since his father first bought Ayrshires in the 1970s. He started taking cows to A and P shows as a teenager and has continued to compete. He spends hours reading semen company catalogues and doing research on every bull to find the best genetics for the herd, with the hope of improving and correcting faults.

From the breeding, he may get lucky enough to produce a cow that has the X-factor that will shine in the show ring.


“It’s my art form,” he said. “I can’t sit down and draw a picture or write a poem. I blend genetics. You can’t mix genetics, you have to blend them.”

The  main traits he aims for include good udders, temperament and capacity.

“When I’m mating cows I work on trying to fix one trait on that particular cow, see what her other faults are and try not to make them worse.”

He selects about six bulls to use over the majority of the herd each year, selecting the best bulls on the day to suit the particular cows in heat.

In recent years, Vince and Sheri have looked abroad for more genetics, selecting bulls from North America, specifically Canada. They have always dabbled in overseas genetics and found the North American blend with NZ bloodlines has produced excellent producing cows, as well as good type cows. They now use up to 50% North American genetics over the herd, despite the effect on the herd BW.

“We use a lot of bulls that are not proved in NZ or the Northern Hemisphere – probably about 50-60% of our inseminations.”

As sharemilkers they know the risk that comes with such a low BW herd, but they stand behind their breeding decisions.

Vince and Sheri are in their fifth season of 50:50 sharemilking on the steep hills near Kinleith, just south of Tokoroa, and believe the Ayrshire breed is perfectly suited to the tough terrain.

Their herd is producing 173,000kg milksolids (MS), averaging 420kg MS/cow, on what Sheri and others describe as goat country. The farm was converted from a drystock farm 18 years ago and hadn’t had any regrassing done until the last few years. Vince and Sheri have now regrassed about half and are already seeing the gains in production.  

“One of the issues we have here is there is only about 20ha of flat land,” Vince said.

“The Ayrshires deal with the hard conditions better than anything else. They climb the hills or they get in the swamps – wherever there is feed you will find a red and white cow.

“If you want something aggressive that’s going to forage and survive, they’re those sort of animals.

“They are genetically tougher, they’re sturdy cows and they’re easy to rear.”

Canadian cows

Vince and Sheri were invited by the Ayrshire Breeders’ Association of Canada  in November 2011 to visit the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair at Toronto and have a two-week tour of Ayrshire studs throughout Canada, around Québec and Ontario. The breeders they met were very enthusiastic and the couple were impressed by the quality of the cows they saw. They’ve since increased their use of North American genetics further.  

“What actually surprised us was the number of cows that had plenty of room between the front legs and plenty of openness of the ribs,” Vince said. “One of the things we’d been told was these North American cows were weak and yes, we saw some weak cows, but we also saw cow after cow who had openness of rib and power and capacity.”

Another factor that impressed them was the high quality feeding systems and diets. Most barns were set up with the ability to feed cows individually, with cows getting their own unique mix of supplements three to four times a day.

They came home convinced their herd could produce a lot more if they were fed the right combination of supplements as well, specifically a lot more starch. A lot of the farmers in Canada were feeding about 2.5kg/cow/day of wet corn, which is equivalent to maize silage, and up to another 2.5kg/cow/day of dry corn, which is the equivalent of kibbled maize, Vince said.

“Their diets were about 16-18% protein which told me we’re not harvesting all the protein that our cows are getting.”

Starch boost

Vince and Sheri incorporated 60t of starch into the cows’ diet when they got home, feeding an average of 1kg/cow/day. They fed broll, kibbled maize, tapioca and milk buster pallets, but Vince still doesn’t believe he is feeding enough starch.

“One of the biggest step ups we’ve seen in production has been since we’ve started sticking that extra starch into their diet,” he said.

“But I still don’t believe we’re feeding enough. I think it’s made a big difference to the cows. It’s also curved their bodyweight.”

That is a key difference to building production, said Vince.

“Our cows in the spring get heaps thinner than the cows over there do at peak production. We knock our cows around a lot more.

That’s down to being able to feed our cows that much better.  

“Their cows don’t actually peak much more than our cows, but the curve up is better, they hold on longer and they’re not allowed to drop away so fast.”

The Canadian cows were getting fed around 20-22kg/cow/day which is not a lot more than their NZ counterparts.

“I’ve got cows here eating that. The big thing for them over there is it’s the same every day, –or they can alter feed slowly as they need to change it, while we’re subject to weather conditions in how our pastures change every day.”

Vince’s next step is to buy a support block, to grow the supplements he wants to feed his cows at a more cost-effective price.

Sheri halters and trains 20-25 calves each year.

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