Breeding the grain out and the cream in

by Allan Nation

ALEXANDRIA, Alabama: North America loves ice cream but is running out of cream. The shift to high-fluid volume, low-butterfat dairy cows is putting a real crunch on premium ice cream makers due to the shortage of cream.

This cream shortage is particularly dire in the Deep South where most cows are bred for fall calving to escape the heat, but where most ice cream is eaten in the summer.

David Wright is an Alabama dairyman who has been turning an increasing amount of his farm's milk production into high butterfat, premium ice cream. With a small, on-farm store he also sells unhomogenized whole, skim, buttermilk and yogurt made from his own milk.

The Wright farm primarily utilizes annual ryegrass in the cooler months and crabgrass and signalgrass in the summer. Bermudagrass and alfalfa/brome provide transition grazing in the spring and fall.

As a production balancing mechanism, Wright sells all of his milk to a dairy cooperative and buys back the milk he uses for his own sales and manufacturing. This is strictly a paper transaction but it guarantees him a market for all the milk he produces.

Like other ice cream producers, he is feeling the cream shortage. Also, his on-farm ice cream sales have exploded. However, unlike most other dairymen in his area he is trying to do something about the summer cream shortage by breeding a more heat-tolerant, high butterfat dairy cow.

He said he had been experimenting with crossbreeding to try and produce a more heat-tolerant dairy cow and noticed that as fluid milk production fell as the Holstein influence was diluted, the butterfat didn't.

For several years, Wright has been breeding his virgin Holstein heifers to Senepol bulls as Senepols are famous for the calving ease. The Senepol is a non-Zebu (Brahman) heat tolerant, polled beef breed from the Caribbean.

It was his hope that he would get an F-1 dairy cow which would be more heat tolerant, more fertile, have greater calving ease and be polled.

"Heat tolerance and polled are both highly heritable," he said.

While he carefully chose the Senepol cows he bought for good udder conformation, the crossbreds' udders could not stand up to the huge milk increase the Holstein genetics produced. A high percentage of them had to be culled due to udder problems.

"The F-1s milk at about 75 percent of the Holsteins (14,000 lbs) but there was an increase in milk components," he said. "And, they are willing to go out and graze when it's 95 degrees."

The surviving F-1s were then bred to a polled Jersey bull from New Zealand. These crosses maintain the same size as the F-1s (1200 lbs) but have had no udder problems and have a long, persistent milk production curve like a Jersey.

The Jersey influence jumped butterfat a whole percent (3.6 to 4.6 percent), all calves were born polled and the breed back has been excellent. So far, none of these three-way cows have been culled for any reason.

"In retrospect, I should have gone to Jerseys first and then to Senepols. This would have prevented so many udder blowouts."

These three-way cross cows are now being bred to French Tarentaise for even more butterfat in the milk.

Also, Senepol/Holstein F-1s that milk below 15,000 lbs of milk are being bred to Tarentaise as well.

The final breeding will be half Tarentaise, quarter Senepol, quarter Holsteins bred to half Jersey, quarter Senepol, quarter Holstein.

The result will be a cow that is quarter Tarentaise, quarter Senepol, quarter Jersey, quarter Holstein. The composite cows should also be red in color and polled.

"I want a cow that will produce five percent butterfat milk from summer grass with no supplemental grain," he said.

The desire to end grain feeding in the summer is not to produce a premium-priced, high CLA product but to cut costs.

"One of the biggest checks I sign each month is for supplemental grain. They say when you want to cut costs cut your biggest ones first."

"Summer is ice cream season and I am on the verge of running out of cream in the summer. I can take the four-ways' milk and skim it to 3.5 percent for whole milk sales and two percent for skim. Cream is the most important word in ice cream. If you're out of it, you're out of the ice cream business."

Wright said his premium ice cream generated a return to milk of nearly $100 a cwt when sold in small containers.

"The ice cream business is now subsidizing the dairy farm rather than vice versa," he said. "That's why I am willing to cut grain feeding. Why would I want to spend more money to produce more low value commodity milk?"

Wright said his experience with dairy crossbreeding had taught him that Gearld Fry was right about the bull being the weak link in grass and genetics.

"Bulls have much more influence on offspring than the cow does. For example, a Holstein bull bred to a Senepol cow produces a lot more milk than the reverse. I never believed this until we started crossbreeding."

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