Breeding for feed efficiency gives economical cows

Jan Nieuwenhuizen: ‘Genetic differences in feed efficiency create a wealth of new opportunities for breeding’

‘How efficiently a cow converts feed into milk is a key economic figure on a farm’, believes dairy farmer Jan Nieuwenhuizen. He has always been convinced that feed efficiency is hereditary. But until recently he had to estimate how well bulls would pass on this trait himself.

‘How is it possible that the daughters of one bull produce 10 kilos of milk more on the same feed ration than daughters sired by another bull?’ A question Jan Nieuwenhuizen has asked himself many times during his career in dairy farming. ‘Feed efficiency, the number of kilos of milk a cow produces using a kilo of feed is a key economic figure’, says the dairy farmer from Zevenhoven.

‘And that trait is set to gain in importance if we intend to reduce the CO2 footprint of milk production’, he thinks. ‘If we can identify the genetic differences between animals, a wealth of new opportunities will be created for breeding.’

Continual quest for improvement 

In partnership with his wife Pauline and daughter Maryse, Nieuwenhuizen has 140 head of dairy cattle and 100 head of young stock on his farm of 60 hectares. As well as the dairy and breeding activities, the family also runs a farm shop and rents apartments, as well as organising recreation with a countryside theme. In the 2016-2017 financial year, the herd achieved average production of 12.479 kilos of milk with 4.16% fat and 3.42% protein. The actual production of  the herd – who are milked by robots – is, with a BSK (farm standard cow) of 60, slightly higher in reality. Although he ranks as a master of his craft, the breeder behind the illustrious Newhouse lineage, Jan is on a continual quest to improve the genetic pool of his herd.

Jan Nieuwenhuizen: ‘Big, broad and heavy cows that eat a lot are nice to look at in the barn, but they are not efficient if they don’t produce more milk in return.’
Good dairy types with average frames

‘The focus of our breeding goal is the economic aspect’, explains Jan. ‘Our bull dams are all ordinary dairy type cows, with average frames. The kind that fit it well on any farm. Big, broad and heavy cows that eat a lot are nice to look at in the barn, but they are not efficient if they don’t produce more milk in return’, he says drawing on his many years of dairy experience. Nieuwenhuizen is no stranger to the significant differences between individual animals in terms of feed efficiency. And for many years, he has firmly believed that an important factor in these differences is genetically determined.

It’s all in the numbers

The breeder is also enthusiastic about the new breeding value ‘saved feed costs for maintenance ‘ (see box). ‘Until recently I had to estimate how well feed efficiency would be passed on by bulls myself’, he explains. ‘It’s great that hard figures are now available. It’s something CRV simply can’t pay too much attention to’, he thinks. ‘But, having said that, it does not do to concentrate blindly on feed efficiency’, he advises. ‘We naturally don’t want to end up breeding cattle that produce milk at the expense of their own health. That’s why I always take the total inheritance pattern into consideration. Luckily there are enough bulls around that demonstrate that breeding efficient, healthy and durable cows is possible.’

Breeding value ‘saved feed costs for maintenance’

Since December 2017 the breeding value ‘saved feed costs for maintenance’ has been published for all bulls. This value is expressed in euros per cow per lactation. The breeding value is based on data relating to the measured feed intake and milk production. Feed that a cow does not convert into milk production is used for movement, digestion and maintenance. The breeding value SFCM can be used to breed cattle that efficiently convert feed into milk.