First in the queue for industry stars

category Genetics
Ben and Melissa Lilley - CRV Progeny Test Clients

Imagine having first use of a potential industry superstar, years before the rest of the country.

That’s part of the appeal of CRV Ambreed’s Progeny Test programme.

By joining the 30-year-old programme, farmers can jump the queue and get genetic gain earlier and take advantage of world-class genomic selection at a fantastic price.

CRV Ambreed is calling for Canterbury farmers to join the programme, which has produced generations of daughter-proven sires from elite Jersey, Holstein Friesian and Crossbred bull calves.

All of the young bulls are selected for the Progeny Test programme with the goal of them becoming daughter-proven sires. They form the nucleus of product development for CRV breeding, and farmers using  these bulls are the first to benefit from industry innovations, such as the recently-released LowN Sires team and polled bulls.

The Progeny Test bull team enjoys a 12-point lift in BW (Breeding Worth) each year, compared to the national average of 10. So, while Progeny Test farmers use non-daughter proven bulls, they receive a greater lift in BW than they may have using other products.

The herd testing involved in being a farmer in the Progeny Test programme is also a powerful management tool, as the information collected at each herd test is used to strengthen the breeding values for protein, fat, volume and Somatic Cell Count (SCC). This contributes significantly to the national breeding objective, BW.

On the farm, joining the programme adds to the value of a herd and helps farmers to make more informed decisions about their herd and breeding goals.

When a heifer calf is born, the breeding values, NZMI and BW, are calculated as the average of the sire and dam. This parental average remains in place until the heifer enters the milking herd and records, such as calving, mating and herd testing, begin to be collected on her.

The programme has worked for for Ben and Mel Lilley, who have a 50:50 sharemilking business, Millydale Pastures, under the Mid Canterbury foothills.

Farming at Alford Forest, near Methven, they have a 780-cow herd and started herd testing with CRV Ambreed three years ago.

The Lilleys run a combination of older cows from a previous sharemilking job at Winchmore and a younger herd from the West Coast, where Mel grew up.

“We had some friends on the West Coast who had talked to us about the Progeny Test and how they had seen some benefits. Then, when we went with CRV Ambreed in the 2016/17 season, the technician who came out to AI told us about the Progeny Test programme”.

The couple weighed up the cost/benefit, including the likely savings. Mel says the Progeny Test programme gives them flexibility to continue with breeding goals within their mainly crossbred herd, while keeping good control of their costs.

“It was a no brainer for us, mostly because we’re getting genetic gain earlier. That’s important to us because we’re 50:50 sharemilkers and we own the cows.”

It’s also rewarding, knowing that their animals are likely to be among the pick of the national herd. “You’ve already got those genetics early, so you’re ahead of the game.” The couple also have a lease block, where they see their young stock growing every day, all the way to the day when enter the shed. “So, we see the whole story, really.”

The Millydale herd contains a small line of pedigree Aryshires which the couple want to keep pure: then they breed their own Jersey bulls for putting over the heifers each year.

The flexibility of using progeny test semen across 80% of the herd gives them room for their Aryshires and use of Jersey bulls while still benefiting from the latest genetics of progeny test bulls across most of the herd. They progeny test across CRV Ambreed’s Friesian, Jersey and Crossbred packs.

The Progeny Test programme wasn’t onerous, Mel says. “It doesn’t require much extra work at all. This is the first year that we’ve had those progeny test daughters come into the herd. We’ve done four herd tests and the CRV Ambreed people are great; it runs really smoothly.”

“It’s a fantastic service, the set up was really, really smooth with two testers coming to set up the shed for our first time. We find having meters in the middle of the rotary is a great set up.”

The one-day TOP (Traits Other Than Production) inspection of the heifers was also easy. “It’s quite cool to see a person come out, grading each heifer on her weight, how she looks and conformation.” There’s always something to learn from being part of the Progeny Test process, Mel says.

Mel and Ben employ a 2IC and a farm assistant, on a property owned by Andrew and Val Jackson. CRV Ambreed has also had a hand in supporting their farming generally, Mel says.

“I’ve done a DIY AI course with them and the rep, the herd tester and the Progeny Test people have all taken a high interest in our herd and are willing to help us whenever we need it.”

In central Canterbury, Ange Ward and family run a 400 cow Friesian herd with an all grass-based system at Leeston. They have been with CRV Ambreed’s Progeny Test programme for 13 years, joining the programme because they preferred the temperament and reliable production of their CRV Ambreed animals and wanted to keep ahead with genetic gain.

They like the constant feedback and evaluation that the testing process provides for a variety of genetic markers and traits.

And there’s a certain thrill in getting first use of bulls that could go on to become stars of the breeding industry by graduating into the sire catalogue. “It’s quite cool to know you’ve had those genetics in the herd for the previous three years,” Ange says.

Ange farms Pitcairn Farm Ltd in partnership with brother Matthew, his wife Priscilla, and parents Paul and Jenny on a property bought by her grandfather in the 1970s. Pitcairn Farm was a stud back then – and while the Wards are purely commercial operators, they love seeing proven genetic gain.

The family value their cows less on index but more on having the good performing, healthy animals that they enjoy milking.

Ange says the Progeny Test programme is excellent value for money considering the number of heifers that are assessed and being involved isn’t much extra work.

“We’ve found progeny test cows to have reliable production, with good udders and capacity and don’t find the testing obligations required of a progeny test farmer to be much more involvement than we would with the herd anyway.”

When first-calving heifers first come into the shed the Wards give them a score from zero to 10, for temperament traits including milk let-down and behaviour in the shed.

The Wards have about 90 first-calvers at a time so assessment isn’t a particularly big job. In November an official from the Holstein-Friesian Association inspects the animals and gives them a TOP (Traits Other than Production) score.

Constant improvements in genomic science means there’s minimal chance of receiving a less-than-ideal animal.

“There’s always a slight risk of having a bull that doesn’t perform but 95% of the heifers that come here, you would put them into any commercial herd and they would do well,” Ange says.

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