Grazing cows: it’s all about efficiency

Grazing cows: it’s all about efficiency

New Zealand’s producers have a wealth of experience when it comes to maximising grazing utilisation and turning grass into milk. Is there anything UK producers can learn from their Kiwi counterparts?

Grass is the cheapest feed there is, and as soon as a machine is placed between the cow and the grass, extra costs are incurred. That’s the view of CRV’s New Zealand-based breeding specialist Peter van Elzakker. He explains why Kiwi herds opt for grass.

More than two thirds of New Zealand’s herds are managed on a fully grass-based system, using no or minimal levels of additional feed. That ‘menu’ of almost exclusively grass, as well as the seasonal calving pattern, places specific demands on the cow. She has to walk significant distances to grazing and has to be able to handle high levels of protein in her ration, as well as calve at the same time every year.

“Kiwi cows have good feet and legs and high fertility. Cows with poor feet and legs won’t last long in the herd. And cows that struggle to get back in calf, or to cope with high levels of dietary protein, are also unlikely to complete many lactations or produce replacement heifers,” says Mr van Elzakker.

In 2021 almost half of New Zealand’s dairy cows were Holstein Jersey crosses. “Everything revolves around efficiency: kilogrammes of fat and protein per kilogramme of body weight”, says Mr van Elzakker. “Jerseys are light in weight and have high milk components. Holsteins bring milk, robustness and capacity to consume large quantities of feed. Combining these breeds results in cows that are easier to manage.”

Aggressive eaters

With its large herds – the average size is 440 cows – breeding problem-free cows is a top priority for New Zealand producers. They also use crossbred bulls to achieve this.

“Breeding cows to suit the Kiwi system has to be simple,” says Mr van Elzakker. “First-generation crosses are great, but what do you do after that? A three-way cross approach would be too complicated here. And another advantage of using crossbred bulls is that the herd is more uniform compared to crossing with pure-bred sires.”

He says Kiwi producers also select for production ‘drive’. “‘Lazy’ cows are of no use in a grass system where the weather conditions are not always ideal. This is when aggressive eaters are essential.”

Southland Herd, New Zealand

Robust cows

New Zealand-based producer Craig Rowe runs his 700- cow herd, yielding and average of between 550 and 600kg of fat and protein each year, on 270 hectares in Palmerston North on the North Island. “We aim to breed robust cows with good feet and legs, who can consume lots of grass. Our cows walk on average 2.5 kilometres a day. Heavy cows don’t suit our system or set up. Our ideal cow weighs between 550 and 600kg.”

During the past 20 years, protein has become a primary focus for the herd’s breeding programme. “Volume in litres is secondary. The cows shouldn’t have to carry too much milk around when they cover such long distances. And fat is becoming increasingly important to us, as payment bonuses have improved during the past three years.’

Mr Rowe, who also dabbles in ET work and supplies bulls to AI organisations, uses New Zealand and imported bulls, including several from The Netherlands. “We do this to add genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding. We simply look for sires that suit our grazing system.”

Kiwi facts and figures

New Zealand has almost the same number of dairy cows as people. Close to 4.9 million cows produced 21.1 billion kilogrammes of milk in 2019/2020. The number of dairy units in the South Island is growing and it’s home to 42% of the country’s cow population. The South Island also has the largest units, with the average herd size standing at 645 cows. New Zealand has 11,000 dairy units in total, with an average herd size of 440 cows.

Three New Zealand breeding programmes

CRV Oceania has three breeding programmes – for Holsteins, Jerseys and cross-bred sires. The New Zealand breeding programme focuses on health and efficiency, according to CRV’s James Smallwood. “The focus here is on cows that suit a full grazing system. Feed efficiency is important, but the programme also focuses on breeding cows that can cope well with large amounts of grass. Udder health and somatic cell counts, as well as fertility and components, are also high on CRV’s agenda.”

View CRV’s grazing sire catalogue on CRV’s website.