cows in field

Irish Research Finds Norwegian Red x Holsteins and Jersey X Holsteins Most Profitable Dairy Cows

By E. B. “Ted” Burnside, Global Technical Advisor, Geno Global, Norway
Article originally published on the Geno e-Bulletin December, 2009

Added November 15, 2010. A well-designed research project carried out under direction of the Moorepark Dairy Production Research Centre, in Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland, has culminated in finding clear economic advantages for the crossing of the Norwegian Red breed on Holstein-Friesians, as well as Jersey x Holstein-Friesian crosses for dairy production. Direction of this project from its beginning some 9 years ago has come from Dr. Frank Buckley, Geneticist at the Moorepark Research Centre. Data have been derived from an extensive on-farm project on 47 commercial grazing herds in Ireland, where nearly 400 purebred Holstein-Friesians, Norwegian Reds and the F1 crosses of these breeds were calved out and milked through three lactations under the same grazing management conditions on the farms. Extensive detailed records on heifer and cow fertility, calving performance, reproduction, health costs of replacements, grain and all variable costs and sales of milk as well as value of culled cows and bull calf sales, and cullings and survival of the two purebred groups and the Norwegian Red x Holstein crosses were kept throughout the 3-year, 3-lactation period. These data were then fed into the Moorpark farm planning model, leading to robust estimates of the profits to be obtained in a 40-hectare grazing operation, with seasonal block calving and limited grain inputs where one of the three breed groups was milked and managed.

The Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesian crossbred herd produced annual farm profits of 50,356 Euros ($ 75,534 US), a 34% advantage in profits over the purebred Holstein-Friesian herd, but only a 15% advantage over the purebred Norwegian Red herd which had much lower replacement costs because of superior reproduction compared to the purebred Holstein-Friesians. The advantage of the Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesians was in part based on higher milk returns of 161,223 Euros ($241,834 US) vs. 158,675 Euros ($238,012 US) for the Holstein -Friesian herd, as compared to 157,226 Euros ($ 235,839 US) for the purebred Norwegian Red herd. Profit/kg milk was 1.23 Euros ($1.84 US)/kg for the Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesians crossbreds vs. 1.09 Euros ($1.78 US)/kg for the Norwegian Red purebreds and 0.92 Euros ($1.38 US) /kg for the purebred Holstein Friesians. Profit/ hectare also followed the same trend, at 1,259 Euros ($ 1,889 US) for the NR x HF crosses, 1,090 Euros ($ 1635 US) for the purebred Norwegian Reds and 938 Euros ($ 1407 US) for the Holstein-Friesians.

What are the factors that make the Norwegian Red Crosses on
Holstein-Friesian superior to Holstein- Friesians in profits?

The herds were calved in the spring and aimed at calving annually, so female fertility, calf liveability and resistance to mastitis and other diseases, which have been in the Norwegian Red selection goal for more than 35 years contributed to much lower culling rates and shorter calving intervals for the NR x HF crossbreds, with a savings in replacement costs of 12,189 Euros ($18,284 US) compared to the Holstein-Friesians! Replacement rates for the Norwegian Red purebreds and the Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesians were 18.1% versus 26.2% for purebred Holstein –Friesians and Jerseys. Annual milk yields were also higher, as the Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesian crosses calved back faster than the purebred Holstein-Friesians, with an extra 11,386 kg milk produced per year, generating an extra 2,548 Euros ($ 3,822 US) milk sales. Similarly, the Norwegian Red purebreds had much superior fertility and disease resistance compared to the Holstein-Friesians and as a result, the replacement costs were lower by 11,457 Euros ($17,186 US). This explains the superior profitability of Norwegian Red purebreds (+16%), and Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesian crossbred herds ( +34%) compared to purebred Holstein herds.

What About Jersey x Holstein-Friesian crossbreds?
Purebred Jersey herds were the least profitable in the grazing model; - 32% below the Holstein herd, and -77% below the Norwegian Red purebred herd , even though the Jerseys fetched the highest returns for milk sales because of very high prices in Ireland for solids. Performance of Jersey x Holstein-Friesian crosses at the Moorepark Research Centre farm compared to purebred Jerseys and Holstein-Friesians, although based on limited numbers and only one farm location indicated that this crossbred will also outrank the purebreds and even the Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesian crosses under the high solids prices for milk in Ireland. Clearly the advantage of the Jersey crosses is a result of very much higher returns for milk sales compared to all but the Jersey breed and better prices for cull cows and bull calves from the Jersey x Holstein-Friesian crosses than for the purebred Jerseys.

What AboutThree-Breed Crosses?
Backcrossing either of the F1‘s to one or the other original breed will reduce heterosis by 50% compared to the F1. Therefore, the authors speculate that a three-breed cross should maintain the heterosis levels at essentially 100% initially in the first generation three-breed cross, gradually settling down to 87.5% of the maximum heterosis after one uses sires of each breed in the subsequent generations, particularly if they are related to the first generation sires. Therefore, the Moorepark Research team is planning another ambitious follow on trial in 20 commercial herds, by breeding Norwegian Red x Holstein-Friesian females to Jersey sires and breeding Jersey x Holstein-Friesian females to Norwegian Red sires, and comparing these three- breed crosses to Holstein-Friesians. This should allow comparisons of two- versus three- breed crosses. Geno Global has preliminary data which suggests this three-breed cross employing Holsteins, Norwegian Reds and Jerseys is the most profitable rotational cross available today.

What Can North American Dairy Operations Learn From This Research?
The grass season for Ireland is a little longer than for the northern United States and Canada, but there are now many dairies in North America predominately aimed at producing milk from grass and grass silage. The results of this well designed research may be directly applicable to the grazing operations of North America. Norwegian Red crosses on Holsteins , New Zealand Friesians, Jerseys or crosses of Jerseys and Holsteins or Holstein-Friesians will be more profitable that any purebreds. Moreover, the Norwegian Red purebred is demonstrated to be superior in its additive genetic potential for calving ease and low stillbirths, fertility, and disease resistance, which means shorter calving intervals, and lower replacement costs, as well as reduced health costs and more milk for sale/ year, once it is introduced into the grazing herd. The Norwegian Red as a pure breed was substantially superior to either the Jersey or the Holstein-Friesian in this study in all pricing and cost scenarios. A three- breed rotational cross incorporating Jerseys, Holsteins and Norwegian Reds is the most logical mating approach for grazing herds. The Irish Holstein Friesians in some herds were primarily of New Zealand descent, as were the Jerseys, while in other herds they were of North American descent, so these results are robust as far as North American grazing herds are concerned.

Are These Results Relevant For Larger Intensive Dairying Operations?
Geno Global has extensive trials under way in intensive dairies in both Canada and the USA, with results pending within the next 12 months. Preliminary data from the Canadian trial indicates that F1 Norwegian Red x Holstein heifers are producing as well as their Holstein herdmates, and breeding back faster. Dairy farmers were asked to rate the NR x HO crosses compared to their purebred Holstein herdmates, and rated them superior for all health traits (digestive problems, mastitis, feet and leg problems and reproductive problems), as well as for body condition score , feet and legs conformation and calving ease, and equal for fat and protein yield and overall dairy merit. University of Guelph analyses of the data are pending, but results are promising!

Edward B. “Ted” Burnside, Ph. D. , North Carolina State University, is University Professor Emeritus in Animal Genetics, University of Guelph. Ted grew up milking and showing Holstein cattle in an Eastern Ontario farm, then attended the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, returning as a faculty member after Ph.D. studies. He cofounded and Directed the Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock in the mid-80’s, which continues to spearhead genetics research in Canada. Ted can be reached via email:, and phone: 519-787-8091 .

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