Award-winning breeder shares some secrets

Johannes Uys of Cohanma Jerseys in the Overberg bred McIvor, the 2013 Taurus Jersey Bull of the Year. Denene Erasmus looks at the man and the herd behind this bull.

The Jersey performs well even on low-potential grazing systems.
Photo: Denene Erasmus

Johannes Uys of Cohanma Jerseys bought his first Jerseys in September 1996 at a production auction in Porterville. “At the time, I ran a herd of mixed breed dairy cows. I decided to convert to Jerseys because I wanted a hardy breed adapted to the environment and conditions in which we farm,” he says. Cohanma Jerseys is situated on a long gravel road halfway between Bredasdorp and Swellendam, on the doorstep of the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Overberg of the Western Cape.

“Here it makes no sense to keep dairy cows indoors all day. They graze on pasture and walk some distance to and from the milking parlour,” explains Johannes. His strategy is to keep input costs (calculated per litre of milk) as low as possible and maintain a balance between yield and input cost, instead of aiming for very high yields.  Johannes milks 180 Jersey cows twice a day, and plants barley and wheat on about 300ha and oats as grazing forage on 120ha. To spread risk, his diversified farming operation consists of dairy, crops and about 300 Dohne Merino ewes.

“We initially bought in five cows and inseminated them in 1998. This gave us our first calves in 1999,” recalls Johannes. ”That batch of semen was from Taurus. We now use semen from a variety of sources, but mostly from Semex.” A cow is artificially inseminated two or three times until she conceives. Cows failing to conceive after the third AI are put to a catch bull.

“The most important aspect of breeding in a dairy herd is to improve the herd’s genetic potential through strict selection and by using the appropriate genetics,” says Johannes. “We can select semen from bulls with specific traits and match this to specific cows to improve the overall quality of our herd. “Putting our cows to self-bred bulls would restrict us to a few genetic lines.”

Johannes Uys (right) with his son, Hanro.

When selecting breeding material, Johannes looks for longevity, positive scores on protein and other milk solids, a good feminine dairy cow conformation, depth of body, a large, wide and well-attached udder, and balanced teat placement. “The herd’s inter-calving period is about 390 days with ratio of 50:50 bull to heifer calves,” he says. “We start inseminating cows from 60 days after calving to get speedy re-conception. We use semen from five bulls to correct shortcomings in our herd. We’ve deliberately limited the number of AI bulls to five.

Although we want some genetic variety in the herd, we also want a certain degree of uniformity.” A heifer first enters the breeding programme at about 18 months. She is inseminated once before being run with a bull for three months. If she does not conceive during this period she is culled. Johannes says that fertility problems can be passed from one generation to the next. There are only two catch bulls on the farm.

Grazing on oats and lucerne
In winter (from June to October) cows graze dryland oats for about three hours a day. The pasture is divided into camps of 15ha to 20ha and grazed in rotation. In summer, the cows are run on dryland lucerne supplemented with crop residue hay.
“We try to produce all the dairy feed on the farm,” says Johannes. “When we start buying in feed, the production cost becomes excessive.” Farm-produced oat hay is also used as supplementary feed in summer. The only bought-in feed is a protein supplement. Cows are fed 3kg per day each in the dairy parlour daily.

‘Natural’ Milk production
Johannes’ cows produce an average 15l to 16l of milk a day. His cows average five lactations which is more than the industry norm. Johannes ascribes this to the fact that the cows are not pushed to perform at maximum potential or to achieve record yields.  “Doing so is unnatural and I don’t think the amount spent on feed and supplements to get a cow to perform at such a level is warranted,” he argues. “It makes no economic sense to push a cow to produce 22l or more daily. The few extra litres that can be squeezed out of her by feeding additional high protein feed, and milking her three times a day, simply doesn’t warrant the additional expenditure.”

Apart from the 180 cows in milk, there are 180 dry cows and heifers, bringing the size of the herd to 360 animals.
Johannes retains the 10 best bulls from every round of calving, rears them until they are 18 to 20 months old, then sells them as breeding stock. “My motto is never to sell a breeding bull I wouldn’t be happy to buy,” he says. In addition, the herd is constantly improved with replacement heifers brought in to reduce the average age of the cows in the herd. “Our replacement rate is fairly high, often above 20%,” says Johannes. Those not used in the herd are sold as pregnant heifers.

The Dry period
Cows are dried off two months before calving. The dry cows are put on pasture with a phosphate lick, along with the rest of the following herd. Two weeks before calving (at steam-up) they are moved to smaller camps where they can be monitored more easily. New-born calves stay with their mothers for three days. After that they go into the calf pens where they get 2l of milk per day and formulated calf pellets. They are weaned at three months.

The Future
“The dairy industry is not performing well enough right now to encourage new entrants,” says Johannes. “But I think dairymen who have survived should stick it out, because the wheel will turn.” The profit margin remains painfully narrow, with the average production price currently between R3,80/l to R4,30/l, while the milk price hovers at about R3,90/l. However, the tight margin that dairy farmers have been forced to operate under has not been without its benefits to the industry.

As Johannes points out, dairymen were once able to get away with milking cows that yielded as little as 10l/day, it is now unthinkable to keep a cow in the parlour if she milks less than 12l/day. Dairymen have had to improve herd genetics and productivity, and they have learnt to farm efficiently to stay competitive.

Phone Johannes Uys on 082 333 8306, or email [email protected]