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Sexed plus beef sees Devon farm's success

Sexed plus beef sees Devon farm's success

Market-topping prices for beef-cross-dairy calves and the use of sexed semen to breed all replacement heifers has banished the black and white bull calf from a North Devon farm.

North Devon farmer, Mark Simpson, knows the importance of good fertility in his 500-head herd. He recalls the days around five years ago when he struggled to get cows in calf, saw milk production held back by late lactation cows and delivered too many black and white bull calves with little commercial value as he sought to breed replacement heifers.

So, it is all the more remarkable that today, the herd at Cleave Farm - which was founded by his in-laws, David and Elizabeth Moore exactly 50 years ago, and is now a family-run enterprise which also includes daughter, Jo, and grandsons, Hayden and Blake - earns a place high in the national rankings for reproductive performance.

Its 12-month rolling pregnancy rate now stands at 23 per cent - almost 10 per cent more than the UK's national average - and calving interval has tightened to 380 days for the 10,000 litre herd of Holsteins.

In fact, so good is the herd's fertility that sexed dairy semen is used with confidence across both cows and heifers, leaving around two-thirds of the herd to be bred to beef - mainly British Blues for the older cows and the Angus stock bull for maiden heifer and first calver repeats.

It is this sexed semen and beef combination which has transformed the fortunes of this family partnership which farms at Weare Giffard near Bideford, close to the border between Devon and Cornwall.

"In the past, the black and white bull calves would have been sold at two weeks," explains Mark. "We would have got around £40 a head.

"But now we are selling British Blue-cross beef for an average of around £400 at just over 12 weeks of age. It makes a huge difference to the business - we are far better off having fewer cheques for £40 and more for £400."

In fact, his modesty forbids him to mention that British Blue-cross calves which are sold from Cleave Farm regularly top the local markets, sometimes selling at over £500 and occasionally taking a championship in the process.  

But the road to good fertility has been a bumpy one to ride and Mark admits the team had struggled to reach breeding targets for many years.

"We've never been able to spend enough time with the cows, so fertility has always been a problem," he says, failing to add that the farm's hotchpotch of buildings has evolved in a piecemeal fashion over several decades, and is neither conducive to good heat detection, nor the ideal environment for optimising yields.

"We have contracted out the breeding in the past to a chalking service which was okay, but we didn't have much success with sexed semen and always wanted to be better," he says.

With this in mind, the team at Cleave Farm made the decision to invest in state-of-the-art activity monitors and the full Cogent Precision fertility management service around four years ago.

"I wanted to move the herd up to the next level and was very happy to hand fertility management over to someone else," he says. "And in fact, I now feel far more involved than ever before."

The service involves the use of Cogent's PinPoint activity monitors and daily visits from the local Precision technician, Shaun Nott.

The combination has proven to be formidable, with morning meetings between Shaun and Mark, and decisions jointly taken on whether a cow is suited to sexed semen or best inseminated to beef.

"The herd now uses 2.2 straws per conception for sexed and beef semen combined," says Shaun. "The official voluntary waiting period is 42 days but this is a herd of good, strong cows; health is high and lameness is minimal and we may inseminate individuals which look really good from day 35."

At the other end of the spectrum he uses Triple Impact beef semen for potentially difficult breeders, which increases the chance of conception.

"Triple Impact straws contain semen from three beef sires," he explains. "It exploits the variation in each bulls semen and the higher dose rate in each straw, which gives better pregnancy rates especially in older cows."

The overall result of the policy across the herd sees high rates of heat detection, a 40% conception rate, with an average 60 days to first insemination and 100 days to conception. And today, less than ten male dairy calves are born on the farm each year.


Using sexed semen with this degree of success has also enabled the herd to place a new emphasis on breeding from its best genetics.

"It's allowed us to cherry pick our cows for breeding replacement heifers," says Mark. "We have set the threshold at 4% fat for the animal being bred or her dam, and we look at her health, including her status for Johne's and won't use anything that's tested positive for breeding dairy replacements."

Genomic testing of all the herd's heifers at six months of age has refined the process further and helped identify the best genetics for future generations.

Alongside the rapid genetic improvement across the herd - which, together with fertility, has helped lift production by 2,000 litres over the past four years - the rearing of calves has been critical to the policy's success.

Continuing with the calf-management role into official retirement, Mark's father-in-law takes a pride in achieving optimal growth and presenting the calves to local buyers, including through Sedgemoor and Holsworthy Markets.

"All calves get their dam's colostrum for four days," says David. "Then, black and white heifers move on to calf milk replacer but the bulls stay on fresh whole milk.

"The whole milk definitely gives the best results and the beef calves do really well on it, but we don't have a pasteuriser so don't want to risk feeding it to heifer calves," he says.

Weaning takes place at 10 weeks but is a gradual process, occurring over three weeks, as milk intakes are stepped down.

"By the time they are weaned, they are consuming around 3kg of concentrates per day," says David.

A stickler for cleanliness and good ventilation (the calf shed has a pressurised system blowing in air), he says: "Once the calf presents itself well it is ready to sell."

As for the black and white heifers, he says the aim is to calve them in a three to four month block between June and August, despite the year-round calving herd - an aspiration made possible by the success of sexed semen.

"Calving them in a block makes them so much easier to manage and they'll be at least six months old by the time they go out to grass the following spring," he says.

For the future the team at Cleave Farm is optimistic and has recently replaced the herd's original PinPoint collars with the new generation technology.

"The second generation collars are extremely impressive," says Mark. "Monitoring rumination has certainly helped us notice health problems before they smack us in the face."

Equally, he says he looks forward to PD'ing his next batch of 100 heifers which was inseminated to Cogent's SexedUltra 4m semen - which packs twice the number of sperm cells into a straw compared with the product it replaces.

"We are very excited about 4m as we think it will move our fertility to a new level," he says.

As he awaits his vet's imminent PD visit he mulls over the next step for the herd.

"The next thing on my wish list is a shed for the heifers so I can manage them as a separate group," he says.

Chances are he may need his shed sooner than expected - and if current performance continues, he may even need two!