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Breeding Elite Bulls

Breeding Elite Bulls

Artificial breeding bulls are amongst the most elite in the world, because their selection is so intensive.

LIC operates contract mating and progeny test programmes (to find our elite bulls) which identifies, breeds, selects and raises a team of bulls whose semen is used in cows being milked on a variety of New Zealand farms.

It's called 'progeny testing' because the programme generates daughters of promising young bulls that are milked and tested for milk production and a number of other traits. These results identify around 20 bulls each year (from an initial intake of 200) which are found to be 'good enough' to be LIC artificial breeding sires.

LIC's progeny test programme, known as the Sire Proving Scheme (or SPS) began in 1961. Today it is one of the largest progeny test schemes in the world.

Each year, LIC uses it's  database to identify the top 6000 cows in New Zealand's national herd of around 4,800,000 cows. (LIC's database is similar to the Births Deaths and Marriages Register for humans, recording all cow births, matings, deaths and production records since records began - more than 25 million records in all!)

The top cows are identified by a genetic ranking called Breeding Worth (BW). The better the cow the higher her breeding worth.

The production records of these 3000 cows are scrutinised by LIC's Livestock Selection team and the list is trimmed to around 900 of the most elite cows. These cows are then inspected by the team which checks for all the attributes LIC wants from bull mothers. For example:

  • conformation which enables her to calve easily each year so she will last several years in a commercial pastoral herd.
  • good udder attachment (meaning the udder is well attached to cow's body and has a good shape so the milking machine sits evenly on each teat when she is being milked) and capacity (the udder is able to hold a quantity of milk).
  • ability to forage (eat).
  • good feet so she can walk long distances (there is often a long distance to walk between the paddock and the farm dairy where she is milked).
  • milking speed (ability to let her milk down quickly when the milking machine is attached to her udder), and
  • good temperament.

The inspection usually sees the original list of 900 cows whittled down to 400. Specially selected yearling and heifers are then added to the list, making a total of 650 cows.

The farmer owners of these cows are then contacted by LIC to see if they are interested in their cows becoming potential bull mothers (that is being mated to top bulls in the hope that the pregnancy will produce a bull calf good enough to be a future artificial breeding sire). If the farmers agree they sign a contract which says that LIC will provide the semen for the mating and will buy the resulting calf if it's a bull. If it's a female (heifer) calf, that's the farmer's good luck and he/she keeps it.

The following year, when these cows calve, LIC representatives go to the farms and inspect the bull calves.

Provided these three month old calves meet:

  • strict conformation requirements
  • disease testing
  • genetic defect testing
  • confirmation of their parentage

The calves are purchased and transported to LIC's farms where they are raised. Around 400 bull calves are purchased each year.

These young calves spend their first year of life eating and growing. They are also trained to wear a halter and allow themselves to be led and handled. Over the year some are discarded from the team through a number of factors, like temperament , a change in the Breeding Worth of their parents, or failing health tests.

The makeup of the final 300 yearlings to be progeny tested reflects farmer demand for the various breeds - 150 Holstein Friesians (black and white), 90 Jerseys and 60 KiwiCross™ (a mix (crossbred) of the popular breeds Holstein Friesian, Jersey, Ayrshire). Semen is taken from these young bulls and sent to LIC's 700 Sire Proving Herds.

Sire Proving Herds are specially selected because the farmers are very good record keepers, are committed to improving the genetic gain of the national herd and represent a range of farms across all the types of land found in New Zealand. The reason herds are spread around New Zealand is to generate information about cow performance on all types of farms - from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island and in between.

The semen from these young bulls is inseminated into the cows in these Sire Proving Herds, and the heifer calves (born nine months later) are mated (at one year of age) and become milking cows when they are 2 years old. These cows (around 22,000 of them) are milked and their production results, combined with a variety of data including:

  • Milk production (protein and fat content and volume)
  • Calving ease (cows that become pregnant and calve easily)
  • Traits Other than Production (TOP) which covers a range of physical standards that the cow must meet, such as the conformation of the udders - whether the teats are evenly placed or too far apart, too high or low; the jaw position (cows have no top teeth so if their jaw is undershot they will have difficulty grazing) etc.
  • Live-weight (the weight of the cow).

All this data gets linked back to their sire - hence the term 'sire proving'. The data proves whether the bull is an elite bull or not.

With all this information, LIC can now identify around 15 to 20 truly elite bulls from the original 300 - these are the bulls which go on to become a member of its elite team of artificial breeding bulls, known as Premier Sires.

So of the original 300 bulls which entered the progeny test programme, around 270 will not make it into the team and are culled (sent to the meat works) at that point.

The successful bulls which have made the grade and which become members of the Premier Sires team place pressure, of course, on current team members whose breeding worth must justify them remaining in the team.

It's a bit like the All Blacks - there's always pressure from up and coming talent!

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