A Welsh dairy farm is taking back control of future herd health and performance by breeding its own heifer replacements.
The Jarman family have operated a herd policy of flying all their replacements for 12 years since first producing milk at Gwern Hefin, near Bala, where they previously ran a traditional beef and sheep system. All those cows were fertilized for beef.
The Jarmans are now transitioning from a year-round (AYR) calving system to a spring milk profile to simplify the system and maximize their farm’s grazing potential.
To inform this change and transition to their own replacement breeding system, they worked with Farming Connect as a focus site project, with input from consultant Andy Dodd of WhiteAvon Consulting.
Although the cost of breeding replacement females varies from operation to operation, Mr Dodd estimates that it typically costs £1,141 from birth to 24-month-old foals.
He told farmers attending a recent Farming Connect open day at Gwern Hefin that there are clear benefits to a dairy farm by growing their own replacements.
“A farm can produce the type of animal it needs, not just secondary heifers from other herds,” Mr Dodd said.
“Surplus heifers coming to market will generally not be the seller’s best animal because they will want to keep them for their own herd.”
Because of this, the replacement rate in the flying herd is usually higher — generally around 26-28%, he added.
Farmers have less control over genetics when buying stock; by breeding their own heifers, they can produce cows that fit their system and bring uniformity to the herd.
Although the Jarmans make a good secondary income selling beef animals from their flying herd, the value of the beef animals in their spring herd would be lower because they now have smaller cows.
“Calf prices from pasture-type breeds are typically lower than progeny from year-round calving herds,” Mr Dodd noted.
To ensure a faster transition to prevent calving, the Jarmans bought 128 heifers in two batches from Ireland and sexed them to reduce the number of dairy bulls; Genetic center on a frieze cross shape. This year, out of 62 synchronized and inseminated heifers, 42 dairy heifers were produced.
Some of the existing herd has also been open for a while to move in line with the spring milk profile. In 2023, sexed sperm will also be used in cows.
Gwynfor Jarman, who runs the farm with his wife Leisa and daughter Gweno, said that by breeding their own heifers, they are able to produce genetically superior animals.
“We have control of all the usual traits, including better legs, feet and udders, but it also allows for uniformity in the herd.”
He added that flying herds can be a risky business in terms of biosecurity, even when buying cattle with clean health records and reliable sources.
“Buying cattle from foreign sources always carries the risk of introducing disease into a herd,” Mr Jarman said.
The herd turnover rate is currently 25%. “We hope to reduce this to 20% by breeding better animals,” added Mr Jarman.
Calving begins on February 20 to accommodate Hill Farm grass growth and minimize seasonal penalties associated with early calving. All heifers are bred to a contract breeder.
Pasture management and rotational grazing form the basis of the new system at Gwern Hefin. Mr Jarman said he was inspired to convert the farm to extensive grazing after attending the Farming Connect Master Grass course.
“This course really opened my eyes to what we can achieve,” she said.
In 2021, the grazing platform produced 13 t dry matter (DM)/ha (5.3 t DM/acre) from 225 kgN/ha of fertilizer – Gweno measures grass weekly during the growing season.
“We’ve tested our soils through Farming Connect and we don’t need any P and K other than what we produce on the farm,” Mr Jarman said.
The farm has 77 hectares of grazing platform and currently has a stock of 2.85 lu per hectare. Infrastructure investment to support the new system includes a 36-point swivel to replace its 10/20 cabin.
The herd produces an average of 5,700 liters per cow per year, with a 12 month rolling average of 4.72% butter and 3.73% protein.
By using more grass grown in conjunction with a changing breed of cow, Mr Jarman said he could cut costs and increase stock while meeting new agricultural pollution control regulations.
“By making better use of grass, not only is it more abundant, but it’s also of higher quality,” he said.
Farming Connect is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales and funded by the Welsh Government’s Rural Communities – Rural Development Program 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.