By Audrey Hayes
This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
A group of certified organic farms in Southland have switched their focus from production to breeding cows that are a perfect fit for their system but still produce a whopping 1,986,705kg MS.
Aquila Sustainable Farming (ASF), located in Southland, is the largest supplier of certified organic milk in New Zealand and one of the largest in the southern hemisphere. The six properties under the Aquila farming portfolio, with an amalgamated farm footprint of 2970ha hectares and four supporting lease bocks covering 1260ha are driven by principles of environmental health and sustainability.
Part of the long-term strategy for ASF was to convert the farms to certified organic to tap into higher prices and premiums for organic milk powder. Along with that, Jess Craig, general manager, said the big reasons for switching over to European Union-certified organic were animal health, land improvement and herd quality improvement.
Each farm runs independently with a farm manager in charge of day-to-day running and hiring, a 2IC, a herd manager and a dairy assistant, depending on the size of the farm. The ASF management team oversees and supports the decision-making to ensure compliance with the organic certification, so all the A2 milk can be supplied to Open Country.
One of those changes was the decision to create their own custom organic breeding index through collaboration with Professor Nicolas Lopez-Villalobos from Massey University.
“When we started organic conversion, the makeup of the herd needed to look different because we weren’t only chasing milk production anymore. Our own organic breeding index has a different weighting to traits like lameness, mastitis, somatic cell count, teat placement, udder conformity and fertility, as well as milk production,” Craig said.
The priority for the 5200-strong herd changed to longevity, health and fertility, and ASF started looking into alternative breeds that could help improve these traits.
“That’s where Samen NZ came in. They started talking to us about Scandinavian Red breeds that did focus on these things.”
ASF is in its third year of using Scandinavian straws, including Norwegian Red, and this is its first year introducing the in-calf heifers to the herd.
“We’ve got two herd test results to see how they’re performing and the feedback I’ve had is that they’re really well-framed animals,” she said.
Choosing breeds with genetic traits like the Scandinavian Reds can help the farms keep their organic certification. Being certified organic, the ASF farms have a limit of three courses of treatment within a 12-month period for each cow. Craig said this means they need to be more selective about what they do on farm.
“Although we can use antibiotics, we can’t use them as a preventative treatment; we need to justify why it’s needed,” she said.
Knut Ingolf, Kate Stai and Håvard Tajet from Geno Global came to New Zealand and visited the farms at Aquila to observe the progress of Norwegian Red.
According to Ingolf, about 98% of farmers in Norway participate in keeping health records and have done since the 1970s. All medication must be administered by a veterinarian, and antibiotics aren’t used unless absolutely required. He said this has helped them keep stringent data on the breed. The data has helped them make great strides in genetic progress with the breed, and it’s because of this that, he said, “we can safely say we are the number one breed for fertility in the world”.
The high fertility and similar systems mean Norwegian Reds can be a good fit for organic farming systems like ASF. Without synchronising tools, hormones and CIDRs, Craig said, they are reliant on the performance of the animal without much help, so having breeds that are known for high fertility is important because they can’t risk getting too few replacements.
To help with this risk, one of the limited options they do have in their arsenal is sexed semen. Lopez-Villalobos uses herd data to work out each cow’s BW, PW and traits to inform the quality of each animal. These details are then entered into a spreadsheet, and he lets the teams know which semen each cow is best equipped for.
Craig said that while it may sound a little complicated or like a lot of work, it’s actually as simple as putting a flow chart in the shed.
“The farm teams, they like the system. As long as you set them up with a really clear system, then it’s no different than spending 30 seconds trying to find out if she’s on heat.”
The system they run at ASF means top-quality cows on their second cycle get sexed semen. First cycles get Scandinavian/Norwegian semen and the lowest 20% get mated with the bull.
“That means that the bottom 20%, they’ll always drop out, and we’ve seen our quality increase over the last two years. Using sexed semen means we can get high-quality replacements, which means we can be more targeted with our culls.”
Alongside the genetics, she credits the team at ASF for the success they’ve found. “We have a focus on leadership and make sure we do training every year. We’ve got farmers leading really good solid teams, and we’ve seen our turnover drop. That’s really assuring because it tells me the people are happy, which means the animals are happy and fed well. We must be doing something right.”