New Zealand is looking for climate friendly grazers

Category: About CRV
Grazing cows New Zealand

Stricter environmental standards, an increasing emphasis on animal welfare. In New Zealand too, cattle farming is facing close and critical scrutiny. CRV has responded with bulls that pass on a lower milk urea nitrogen content, with a growing offer of sexed semen and research into breeding climate friendly cows. Time for an introduction to our overseas branch.

From the largest AI station in South America to a TPI breeding programme in North America, from bulls with a mixture of Holstein and Jersey bloodlines in New Zealand to dual-purpose Fleckvieh bulls in Central Europe. Our international markets also make an important contribution to the company's turnover. This series of articles introduces them one by one. From South America we will travel to Oceania. This is part 2 in this series.

Dairy farmers in New Zealand are gradually preparing for their annual moment of peak labour. The new calving season is due to start at the end of July. Approximately 90% of New Zealand’s dairy herds will calf in the period up to October. ‘Our system in New Zealand is based on a very high intake of fresh grass’, says James Smallwood, who has been at the head of CRV Oceania since August 2020. ‘Cows here graze twelve months a year. They calve at the moment the grass starts to grow again.’

Grass plays a key role in the dairy farming sector in New Zealand. The aim of many dairy farmers is maximum milk production using their own grassland with minimal costs. As early as the 1980s, the government stopped granting subsidies to the agricultural sector. ‘That significantly drove growth in herd sizes. Many former sheep farms transitioned to dairy farming because cows were more profitable than sheep’, James Smallwood explains. Consequently, there was a steep rise in the number of cows, from about 2.3 million dairy cows in the mid-1980s to around five million today. In fact, New Zealand has almost the same number of dairy cows as inhabitants.

440 cows per farm

However, that growth has now levelled off. At its peak in the 2014-2015 financial year, New Zealand numbered just over five million cows. In recent years, that figure fluctuated around 4.9 million. These cows accounted for production totalling 21.1 billion kg of milk in the 2019-2020 financial year. About 95% of dairy produce from New Zealand is exported. The main markets are China and the Middle East.

Of those 4.9 million dairy cows, a growing number can be found on South Island: currently about 42% of the population. This is also home to the larger farms. On average the herd size on farms on South Island is 645 cows. In total, New Zealand has just over 11,000 dairy farms with an average of 440 cows per farm.

The seasonal calving pattern ensures that work peaks in spring. This not only applies to dairy farmers but also to AI organisations like CRV, as insemination is also a seasonal activity. ‘Our AI technicians have to try and ensure as many cows as possible get pregnant in just a few weeks. On average, they can inseminate around 5,000 cows per season. And about 10% even manage to inseminate 8,000 to 10,000 cows,’ says Smallwood.

Unlike competitor LIC– which has the largest market share in New Zealand – CRV Oceania does not work with fresh semen. ‘LIC uses its “Premier Sires” concept, a selection of bulls they have chosen. We also offer packages of selected bulls, but our farmers generally prefer to decide which bull they want to mate with their cows themselves. This allows them to choose the bulls that best suit their herd.’

Breeding programme focuses on grazing

CRV Oceania has three breeding programmes: for Holsteins, for Jerseys and for bulls with mixed Jersey and Holstein pedigrees. Crosses are popular in the country. Last financial year, almost half (49.1%) of the dairy cows in New Zealand were a blend of Holstein and Jersey bloodlines. About a third (32.7%) of New Zealand's herds comprise pure-bred Holsteins, with Jersey accounting for 8.4%.

CRV's bulls are housed at its own AI station in Hamilton. The young waiting bulls are raised on Peninsula Farms nestled in the idyllic hills near a coastal cove on the west of North Island. The New Zealand breeding programme focuses on health and efficiency says James Smallwood. ‘But different traits apply here than in Europe. The focus here is on cows that suit a full grazing system. Feed efficiency is very important to us, but we also focus on animals that can cope well with the plentiful supply of grass. The somatic cell count, fertility and components are also high on our agenda.’

Semen from bulls suitable for intensive grazing systems is also in demand abroad Smallwood notes. ‘We are noticing an increasing demand for these genetic products from regions such as South Africa, South America, Australia, Ireland and some parts of the United States. We export around 400,000 doses each year.’

Share of AI in excess of 70%

Over 70% of cows are inseminated. ‘Many farmers choose to use their own farm bull for the young stock. And high numbers of farmers also work with two insemination cycles. After that, a beef bull is allowed into the herd for cows that aren't yet pregnant.’

Smallwood also notes that dairy farmers are increasingly choosing to inseminate part of their herds with a beef bull. ‘Last year we sold 60,000 straws of semen from beef bulls. That's not much in comparison to our total sales of about a million doses, but there is an uptick in growth in that segment.’ According to Smallwood, this growth is down to the rising popularity of sexed semen. ‘We expect sales of straws of semen to triple this year’ Smallwood adds.

The popularity of genomic bulls is also increasing, although sales of semen from daughter-proven bulls still account for the majority of the straw sales. As well as genetic solutions, CRV also offers information products. For example, CRV provides services such as MPR and SireMatch, as well as a herd management program and app for farmers. The company will soon add HerdOptimizer to its offering.

Grazing cows in New Zealand

Sector under scrutiny

The CRV BU in New Zealand enjoys a reputation for innovation. For example, the company has an exclusive offering of bulls with an increased tolerance for facial eczema, a skin disease caused by toxic fungus spores. Its symptoms negatively affect milk production. ‘Daughters by these bulls are 25 to 30% less sensitive to this condition than an average cow’, explains Smallwood.

The range of bulls also includes so-called ‘LowN’ bulls, bulls with a lower breeding value for Milk Urea Nitrogen. ‘Through these breeding values, we are responding to farmer demand for genetic solutions to tackle challenges around the environment, herd efficiency and animal welfare’, James Smallwood indicates. ‘These are compelling issues in the dairy farming sector in New Zealand. We are faced with increasingly stringent environmental requirements. And the focus on animal welfare is gaining impetus. The sector is increasingly facing close and critical scrutiny.’

Dairy companies are responding with special programmes. For example, from the coming season, Fonterra, the largest dairy processor in New Zealand, will pay a premium of up to seven NZ dollar cents (more than €0.04) per kilo of fat and protein if farmers produce according to standards relating to the environment, animal welfare and people and community focus areas. For example, farmers must establish an animal health plan with their veterinarian. This plan must include details of how farmers ensure a sufficiently high body condition score of their cows. They should also consider the option of using polled bulls, for example. Once the above standards have been achieved, farmers then become eligible for an additional three cent premium for milk that meets the ‘Excellence’ standard under the Milk Quality framework. ‘Our focus on health and efficiency is a good fit with Fonterra’s new initiative for sustainable dairy’, explains Smallwood. ‘We are also expanding our portfolio of polled bulls in the coming season. In addition, our LowN bulls, sexed semen and the range of A2A2 bulls also answer the current market demands.’

Climate friendly cows

CRV recently started a trial project with fellow artificial breeding company LIC to breed climate friendly cows. ‘Here in New Zealand, we are also facing the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That is too big an objective to tackle alone. That's why we are cooperating with LIC and the government’, Smallwood explains.

The pilot trial measured feed intake and methane emissions – in the form of burps – from 20 young bulls. ‘We found a link that suggests genetics plays a role in a dairy bull’s methane emissions. In a scaled-up trial with 300 young bulls, we want to see if we can collect more data to confirm that link’, says Smallwood. The researchers are also studying the genetic relationships between methane and traits such as milk production and fertility. ‘We obviously do not want to compromise on fertility if we select based on methane emissions. But if the results are successful, farmers will soon be able to breed low methane-emitting cows from low methane-emitting bulls.’

Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe

Craig Rowe: ‘Too heavy cows are unsuited’

His herd of 700 cows covers quite some distance each day. ‘On average 2.5 kilometres a day’, estimates Craig Rowe. He farms on the 270-hectare Maire Farms in Palmerston North on North Island. ‘We aim for robust cows with good feet and legs, who can consume lots of grass. Too heavy cows are unsuited; our ideal is a weight of 550 to 600 kilos.’

Unlike many of his fellow farmers, Rowe has no Holstein x Jersey crosses in his herd. ‘From a young age I have always been interested in Holsteins’, he says. His herd realises average production of 550 to 600 kg of fat and protein per year. ‘In the last twenty years, protein was our primary focus in breeding. Volume in litres is secondary to that; the

cows shouldn't have to carry too much milk around when they cover such long distances. Fat is becoming increasingly important to us, as the payments have become better in the last three years.’

The breeder, who also flushes cows and supplies bulls to AI organisations, uses bulls from New Zealand and imported bulls, including a number of Dutch bulls. ‘We do this to safeguard enough genetic diversity. We look for bulls that suit our grazing system.’ Rowe milks his herd in a carousel milker capable of milking 54 cows at a time and works with two groups: a group of 350 two- and three-year-old cows and a group of older cows. ‘That's easier to work with than one large group of 700 animals. Plus, the young cows have fewer problems with competition from the older cows.’

New Zealand

population: 5 million

surface area: 268,000 km2

number of dairy cows: 4,921 million

number of dairy farms: 11,179

average herd size: 440

share AI: 70.3%

average production: 376 kg fat and protein

percentage of crosses: 49.1%

percentage of Holsteins: 32.7%