It’s at Newstead where these animals will live their lives, with a select few ultimately ‘making the grade’ in being marketed as one of the elite Premier Sires.
Here, Dave outlines what a typical year on the main 260-hectare bull farm looks like (LIC owns two other bull farms: Awahuri , 130ha, and Feilding, 77ha. The cooperative also commercially runs an ‘Innovation’ dairy farm at Rukuhia, 104 ha).
This season about 270270 bull calves were carefully identified, inspected, and formally purchased by Simon Worth, Casey Inverarity, and Malcolm Ellis – LIC’s specialist Livestock Selection team, says Dave.
“Once their work was done in late spring, the new Sire Proving Scheme intake began arriving at Newstead within the first fortnight of December.
“We have our own bull farm trucks for North Island pick-ups, so as soon as we had the list of calves purchased, the pick-up schedule was prepared and we collected the new animals almost immediately.”
South Island bull calves followed their northern counterparts in the New Year, with the full complement of 270 young potential sires on farm by 20 January.
Prior to the calves being born, significant foundation work had already taken place: between 5000 and 6000 elite cows were identified within the national herd. Contracts were negotiated and signed between the farmers who owned the cows and LIC, providing the cooperative with the ability to purchase offspring if a bull calf was born.
Daughter and sire information formed the basis of the contracts, identifying what LIC believed would be the most-promising progeny born during spring (based on genetic profiles, herd test information, paternal and maternal performance, and other cow-family information).
Once born, the list was firmed up and about 2000 bull calves were genomically-screened in the United States (tested for parentage, disease, and genetic defects). This whittled numbers down further, before initial bull calf and dam inspections took place in November.
The best 270 bull calves were formally purchased by LIC’s sire acquisition managers, and by January all arrive on farm.
January therefore marks the peak period on the bull farms, Dave says.
“About 700 bulls at Newstead, including castrated decoy bulls, are fully fed, with close attention paid to health requirements (a further 300 bulls are located at the Awahuri and Feilding bull farms).
“The calves that flood in to Newstead are mostly four or five months old. We like to get all of the North Island bull calves in prior to Christmas so they can go through their first round of health testing and vaccinations,” Dave says.
Health treatments include tuberculosis (TB) tests, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) tests, and – although no BVD- (bovine viral diarrhoea) positive bulls will have been initially purchased – another BVD screen is carried out on arrival at Newstead.
The New Year also heralds the beginning of a four-month quarantine period for many of the young bulls: As part of the IBR screen, two vaccinations, 30 days apart, are given to each yearling bull – followed by a waiting game as the animals lose their positive maternal antibodies.
“The IBR process represents a fairly significant constraint to our operations,” Dave says.
New Zealand’s IBR strain is not an issue in this industry’s dairy animals (it is believed up to 70% of the mature population would test positive for IBR), but in Europe a separate strain causes significant reproductive issues.
“With exports crucial to LIC’s strategy and future growth, European Union regulations need to be followed; only bulls that test negative for IBR (among other test requirements) can have semen exported to the EU countries,” Dave says.
“So we run our farms as close to IBR-negative as practicable; any IBR-positive animals, normally between two and six annually, are vaccinated and farmed with a lot more control and segregation.”
As health issues are navigated, the other big focus is feeding.
“Our ultimate target is to grow the young bulls as well and as fast as we can so they mature early and are ready for the first round of handling and training in May.”
Handling involves a disciplined approach to training, including the task of being calmly and safely led by farm staff, before the first round of semen production begins.
"In the first week of training our aim is to get the bulls familiar with the chain they'll be led on," Dave says. “We start handling the sires, leading them, quietening them down, and getting them used to the environment.”
"The lead is an essential safety tool for our handlers, and it prevents use of alternative methods, like having to work with the animals in a confined space - in our experience that doesn't work for them, and therefore it doesn't work for us!"
The chain is fitted to the sire's nose, meaning it is led by the head - much in the same way as horses in the bloodstock industry are led.
The lead helps farm staff to walk the sire through the barn or paddock, guide the animal left or right, and to stop the animal when required.
Once the bulls are up to a disciplined, safe standard, they're introduced to the 'collection barn'.
“By June we’re introducing them to decoy teasers (castrated bulls). Puberty is arriving, and their natural inclination to ride other animals has begun – our focus is to encourage that behaviour.”
Between 20 and 40 bulls can be in the barn at a time.
“Once they’re riding the decoys freely, we introduce them to the artificial vaginas (AVs): We’re getting up beside them while they’re riding to provide the opportunity of thrusting through the AV.”
The big issue from this point is dealing with the minority.
“They’re the ones that don’t want to work (serve) for a variety of reasons – they might be shy, suffer from low libido, be slow to mature, or have special nuances.”
Typically cross-bred bulls are the first to reach puberty, followed by the Jerseys, and finally, up to two months behind the cross-breds, the Holstein-Friesians reach adolescence.
Semen processing begins in early July, with evaluations done on semen quality. Processed semen is frozen for back-up in the field during spring; for contract-mating purposes, and; for breeders to use that season (the bull breeder gets the right to 30 straws of semen from their own bull).
Four years later, the first daughters of the young sires will begin milking.
As long as they pass conformation benchmarks, the bulls that prove to have the best results (identified through milking daughters’ herd test results) are then marketed through LIC’s Premier Sires teams.
Prior to bulls having milking daughters (as two- and three-year–olds), LIC’s genetics team selects what it believes to be the most promising young bulls based on their genomic profile; these sires get marketed as part of LIC’s Premier Sires Forward Pack.
Peak semen production at Newstead lies between mid-September and late-November, before another promising new crop of potential SPS bull calves arrive on farm in early December.
“The season will begin again,” Dave says.