Beefing up Jerseys with Simmentalers

While the Jersey breed produces star dairy cows, its bull calves are dead weight commercially. Pierre Laesecke, 2007 Western Cape Master Dairy Farmer bronze medallist, crossed his Jersey females with Simmentaler bulls, also known as Fleckviehs in other

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While the Jersey breed produces star dairy cows, its bull calves are dead weight commercially. Pierre Laesecke, 2007 Western Cape Master Dairy Farmer bronze medallist, crossed his Jersey females with Simmentaler bulls, also known as Fleckviehs in other parts of the world, for high-performing heifers and feedlot-worthy males. Wouter Kriel reports.

Pierre Laesecke, co-owner and manager of Dundonald farm in the Suurbraak Valley, Western Cape, is successfully converting his pure Jersey stud into a Simmentaler herd via absorption crossing. Originally from Bavaria, Simmentaler cattle have excellent dairy and beef qualities. The herd’s full conversion is scheduled for 2008. Pierre’s 1 000ha farm consists of 65ha kikuyu and ryegrass, receiving 700mm annual rainfall with additional irrigation during dry spells. A few years ago survival was difficult in the dairy industry, and Pierre was open to ideas for making his farm more viable. “I basically had two problems,” he recalls. “The expensive concentrate feed my Jerseys needed for decent milk production, and the fact that all my bull calves were carted off as crocodile and tiger food generating almost no income. Then saw a purebred Simmentaler herd in a dairy near Malgas in 2002. These cows received only 1,5kg concentrate on dryland pastures with no additional feed, but still produced excellent milk.”

Experimenting for seasonal dairy farming

Cautious by nature, Pierre borrowed one of these cows for an experiment. “It was immediately evident this animal was adaptable to different pastures, and needed less concentrate to achieve the same production as Jersey cows,” he says. Pierre subsequently inseminated his 15 worst-performing Jersey cows with Simmentaler semen, hoping to be able to sell the offspring for meat. But the dual-purpose heifers outperformed their mothers, and in 2004 Pierre inseminated a further 50 cows, convinced of the crossbreed’s production capabilities on his farm. Pierre is a seasonal dairy farmer. “I plan my year to coincide with my pastures,” he explains. “Ryegrass is the better pasture, so I try to have my herd in peak production in September, October and November when it’s at its best. The kikuyu is less nutritious and takes over during the cows’ late lactation. Calving is in July and August, with no additional feed in winter.”

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This approach has several advantages. “Each activity happens at the same time for the whole herd,” Pierre says. “Insemination, calving and production peaking and drying up can be better managed, and there’s a two-month period when I can go on holiday, fix fences or do maintenance work in the milking parlour.” Pierre believes producing more than 6 000â„“ in a cow’s first lactation damages the udder and shortens the cow’s productive life. His cows also have to walk long distances to and from the milking parlour, making oversized udders a problem. He considers 4 000â„“ break-even, and the rest profit. His philosophy is “quality milk and meat from grass”. “Over and above the grazing, my cows receive only 6kg of concentrate and straw daily. I don’t use transponders or chase big production targets, as this can make the operation unprofitable. I don’t want to buy my milk, I want to sell it!” he explains.

Crossbreeding with Simmentalers

Pierre believes in getting the basics right. He advises farmers to spend more time on their farms, especially in their pastures. Crossbreeding isn’t the answer for those struggling with a purebred breeding programme, he warns. Thys Swart, vice-chairperson of the Simmentaler Milk Interest Group agrees. “Correct bull and cow matching is crucial for long-term success in a crossbreeding project,” he explains. “The first generation (F1) of crossbreeds will likely benefit from heterosis, where even weak parents can have strong offspring. But heterosis decreases from the second generation onwards, putting more pressure on the farmer’s ‘eye’ for matching animals. Long-term, the same set of rules applies as for pure breeding.” Simmentaler cows are known for a lower-volume first lactation, which picks up strongly through the second and third lactations, and for a long productive life, says Thys. He adds that Simmentalers have excellent feed conversion characteristics. This is confirmed by research done in Zurich with Simmentalers, Jerseys and Holsteins. Research is also underway at Elsenburg, where Dr Carl Muller found that Simmentaler x Jersey crosses need less food for the same growth performance as pure Jersey calves (See Farmer’s Weekly 22 February 2008).

Braam’s Feedlot, outside Durbanville, has recently done a feasibility study, and found Simmentaler x Jersey F1 crossbred feed conversion percentages are within the parameters for successful feedlot rearing. “I can now sell a six-month-old bull calf for R3 000 to a feedlot, instead of giving it to a non-paying crocodile,” Pierre confirms. Simmentalers also have a calm temperament and are easy to handle, making them attractive to the feedlot industry, says Thys. Pierre’s low-cost approach was rewarded with a bronze medal for Master Dairy Farmer in the Western Cape in 2007. Milking 350 cows, he achieved an average production of 5 994â„“/cow per lactation. Butterfat was 4,39% and protein content 3,87%. His intercalf period was 394 days. With Pierre’s Simmentaler crosses coming into milk, the herd will consist of 500 cows from September. “Simmentalers add value to my business through the sale of bull calves, and their low feed requirements keep my overheads low,” he says. “For me, they work beautifully.” Contact Pierre Laesecke on 082 377 1329, or Thys Swart on 082 498 8788.