The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 04 - How do I breed healthy organic cows?

August 15, 2021 VikingGenetics Season 1 Episode 4
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 04 - How do I breed healthy organic cows?
Show Notes Transcript

Organic farming can be a lucrative business due to higher milk prices. But because sick organic cows are often more time consuming and costly to treat, you want your organic herd to be as healthy as possible. 

In this episode, two breeding experts share their best tips on how you can breed healthy and profitable organic cows. They share insights from advising organic farmers around the world—and also present the latest trends and solutions in organic farming.



Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingRed, VikingGenetics

Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager VikingJersey, VikingGenetics



Louise Rønn Svane

How to avoid sick cows in your organic dairy business


Organic farming is a growing trend amongst dairy farmers.

Especially in the Western part of the world. 

10% of all farms are assessed to be organic and the number is growing.

Organic farming can be a lucrative business due to higher milk prices, but it also demands for an even healthier herd because sick organic cows are often more costly to treat.

 To help give us the best tips on organic dairy farming, I've invited two breeding experts in the studio; Jakob Lykke Voergaard, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingRed and Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingJersey.


This is the Breed Cast produced by VikingGenetics.

 I'm your host Louise Roenn Svane.


Hello and welcome, Jakob and Peter.

Thanks for being with us today.


Thank you.


Peter, let's start with you.

Why is organic farming and organic production in general a growing trend in the western world?


First of all, it’s about the price of milk.

That’s from a farmer perspective the most important. 

And that’s what we have seen under Nordic conditions that it has been driven by a higher price, better profitability in your dairy production but it has also - and it's becoming more and more important - been a matter of change of lifestyle, change of the way you run your business in a more sustainable way - putting more emphasis on animal welfare.

It was actually also how it is started early on. It was not pushed from outside. It was some farmers wanting to produce their products in a different way and in more sustainable way.

A combination of price and profitability and lifestyle.


And when did we see some of the first steps towards organic farming for instance in the Nordic countries?


We saw the first steps back in the 80s but especially when the big dairy companies started to push for more organic milk in the 90s and adding extra to the price of the organic milk, we saw a huge increase in production.

That's when we saw what we called ‘money organic farmers’ - those that change for the money. Some of them went back to conventional afterwards, but we saw the effects of raising the price.


And now organic farming is a growing trend actually around the world - especially in other Western countries.

Jakob, what are the conditions? What else can sort of encourage organic farmers to move forward with this production? Or convince conventional farmers to switch to organic farming?


Peter talked about the higher milk price and if you want a higher price then you need a demand. One of the things we are seeing around the world is that there is a bigger trend especially in the countries with a high income.

Now they have money to buy special products.

Now they have money to say “I want a product with more animal welfare, with less antibiotic used in the production” and so on.

They have the capacity, the money and the economy to buy more organic products.

They want more organic products which are increasing the price.

We also see some governments that are pushing for more organic production in some countries because of the environment.

So, this is way to make some areas of the country with a small amount of nature for example.

So, they put pressure on to get more organic production in their country too by putting in different regulations but also giving subsidies to organic production and organic products which increase in the consumption of organic productions.


Peter, what are some of the biggest challenges for organic farmers today?


There are restrictions for organic farmers or different production conditions.

You have to graze your cows. It's not all under our conditions that they normally graze their cows. You have to do that.

But there are other rules for use of antibiotics, hormones, fertilisers, and chemicals.

So, there is a huge set of rules that you have to take into account when you're an organic farmer.

And then also you have to put different emphasis on some of the traits that we work with in breeding when you are an organic farmer.

Because they come more in play when you have to farm under different conditions.


What about some of the grazing requirements? I know that they are different from conventional?


Under our conditions you have to graze from mid April until November.

Of course, in other parts of the world, you have to graze all year round, but that's not possible under the Nordic conditions. We have winter and the grass stops growing and it gets too humid and cold, but from mid April to November.


Jakob, what are the rules around treating sick organic cows?


There's different rules between organic treatment and conventional treatment.

And it's also varies around the world so there can be different rules in different countries.

In general here in our conditions it is that if you're treating a cow, the way you have to hold back the milk for example, it is double.

Normally if you have treated a cow, you have to take the milk away for four days.

In an organic farm, you have to do it for eight days.

So that's extra costs for the farmer. 

Also when sending cows to slaughtering. That's a longer time before you can send the animal so that has some consequences.

In some other parts of the world, you are not allowed to treat animals.

So, if you have a sick animal, you either need to do something else by using natural medicine. Or you need to sell or cull you cow

It is very much depending on where you are in the world - what you can do.


What is the ultimate consequence of having a number of sick organic cows in your herd?


First of all, it can be very expensive and for some countries it is for example a rule that you can only treat a cow tree times in its life.

So, if you have a lot of diseases, you suddenly have cows that you need to slaughter or sell to a conventional farmer.

And then you certainly end up not having enough cows for replacement and your business cannot run around.

 It sounds like in organic farming health is even more important to be aware of due to the restrictions around treatment.

Peter, you've travelled the world for the past 30 years. You advise Jersey farmers around the world and more than 10% of them are organic farmers.

What are some of the first things you recommend looking into when an organic farmer comes to you and tells you: “I'm really struggling with sick cows in my herd”?


First of all, I look at the conditions he's working under.

Are there any special climatic conditions, we have to take into account? Is it extreme heat, drought, cold. Something like that - humidity - that can affect the frequency of diseases and can affect the fertility if conditions are extreme.

And we need to take that into consideration and put extra emphasis on some of the traits but then also take into account that there are some traits that he has to put emphasis on.

Some of the conformation traits are very important when you farm organically because your cows have to exercise more.

They have to graze, they have to walk more.

It might be that the grazing area is not just outside the door so it will challenge the feet & legs, the hooves, the udder – especially the ligament or udder support - and those traits have to be prioritised.

And then I go into analysing what type of genetics will fit this farm and this breed the best and come up with recommendations.


How can I get some of these favourable traits? How can I get those into an organic herd?


We have a huge lineup of bulls that will fit well, but you need to distinguish between the profiles of the bulls.

So, a highly fertile bull that breeds extremely good health, that breed long-lasting, strong, well-attached udders, they will have a profile that fit well for organic farmers.


Jakob, what else needs to be in place for me to have healthy and thriving organic cows?


When you as a farm say I'm going to organic, first I would say you need to look at your frame on the farm.

How can the condition of my farm fit very good for the production? The size of the stable – is there anything here I to look on?

Where's my grazing area – is it just outside the door as Peter said? 

Will they have to walk a long way?

So, you need to define your conditions, your frame and then you can make your breeding strategy for the herd to put emphasis especially on the health traits.

And that is very important for organic production.

Investigations have shown that if you have an organic production, you should put more emphasis on health and fertility and those traits.

They have a higher economic value, for example milk production.

So, if you are an organic farmer, you should go after the profiles that have normal or average production but have high indexes for health.

It’s udder health, general health, hoof health and you need to have a good calf survival, longevity and so on. Good fertility. That’s giving better economy and not just adding the extra milk.


The reason for that is even though they pay more for the milk, but getting these extra kilos per cow is also costing a lot extra feed.

And the organic feed is a lot more expensive.

So, focusing on health and fertility is best for the organic farmers.


Peter, in the Nordic countries, historically and still is today, has been some of the lowest use of antibiotics in cattle breeding combined with the highest milk production.

Why is that the case?


I think it's tradition. We have always in the Nordic countries put emphasis on sustainable products, so it’s driven by consumers, it's driven by government or parliaments.

It has always been very highly prioritised so I think farmers also like to give their input to this.

And they also dislike sick animals, they dislike problems, extra work, worries so that's actually something that we all agree on.

We want to be world champions in this low use of antibiotics and hormones for that sake.

And we're nearly there and as you said in the introduction that we are among the lowest, I think we are the lowest in the EU.

And the Nordic countries are leaders in this.


And I can see why that's now becoming attractive to organic farmers around the world because of the restrictions on using antibiotics.

Can I use if I am an organic farmer in New Zealand, Australia, the US or other parts of the world, can I use antibiotics on my cows?


Yes, of course you because this is also part of the animal welfare and sustainability that you treat your animals with antibiotics when needed. 

So, if you have a sick animal, of course you need to treat it and take good care of the animal but by using the bulls with a profile like Jakob mentions and putting emphasis on the health, longevity traits then of course you will lower the incidence rate.

And we see that the organic farmers have a lower incidence of diseases.


Just commenting on Peters because what's really driving a lot of it is also our history.

We have been breeding for udder health for more than 40 years.

We have a long history of these welfare indexes - the health indexes - so many years with the udder health indexes, with general health, hoof health – we were the first countries in the world coming with this index with very high reliability in many animals.

So we've been working with this for many years and have been driving this a lot also.

Of course, farmers want to lower the use of antibiotic and have less sick animals but it's also very costly to drive production in Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

So, a way to cut down is to have less sick animals so it have also been related a lot to the cost side in our Nordic countries.


Jakob, what other new breeding solutions can be attractive for an organic dairy farmer?


In the last years, maybe decade, we have seen more and more farmers that say they want polled animals - animals without horns.

So, they don't have to dehorn the animals.

It will increase the animal welfare even if they do it under very good condition where the calf is sleeping and cannot feel when it happens.

But it will still hurt a little bit afterwards and if we can avoid these things, it will increase the animal welfare.

But it will also increase the consumers’ way of looking on farming.

If we do these things, it's a very good signal.

And for the organic farmer, it’s an even clearer signal - for them it's more important so they are looking more into polled animals.


What are the trends in crossbreeding?


If you have an organic farm what you can do to have more health and more fertility is to start crossbreeding.

When you are mixing breeds, you will obtain what we call the heterosis effect.

And that's especially on the health and fertility and longevity traits.

So, in some of the traits that the organic farmers is looking for and going for, you will boost by using crossbreeding as a part of your breeding strategy.


So that can also be attractive to an organic farm and I'm glad you mentioned it because in one of our upcoming BreedCasts, we will talk about crossbreeding which is trending generally in cattle breeding.

Peter, what are some of the current trends you're seeing with Jersey cows and organic farming?


I see new breeding strategies being introduced.

Of course, genomic selection is a very important tool also for organic farmers and we see that more and more farmers genomically test their animals to get more reliable selection tools.

So, when you do the genomic selection, you do the genomic tests, you will have higher reliability on your breeding values and you get a better or more reliable result when you select the animals to breed next generation. 

So, we see also that the organic farmers are going for strategies where use sexed semen on your best part of the herd and on the rest of the herd you use beef.

Under our conditions we are restricted a little bit. We can't use all breeds in organic herds but beef is recommended for the poorest part of the herd and then you optimise on profitability and for Jersey you will get rid of these purebred Jersey bull calves that have very little value.


Jakob, you are the breeding manager for VikingRed.

What's happening with VikingRed in organic farming?


We have been looking into different investigations that have been made. 

If you look on the breeds, Jersey, VikingRed and Holstein in our conditions they have the same economy.

But if you start calculating on the organic part of it, they're doing it quite well.

They are superior here.

And because of the health traits where they are very good, they're very high in the health traits so on the cow level they do very well here.

And this is very good in line with the new strategy that we have just approved in VikingRed where we put extra focus on health, survival and especially the climate friendly and sustainable part of the VikingRed.

But the health part is definitely a very good trend in it.

Then hopefully the feed efficiency when that comes out, will boost it even more.

Right now, we see some very promising investigation of feed efficiency with heifers. Some preliminary results now have shown that the Reds are doing well compared to Holstein and cross breeding between them.

I will be looking very much forward to getting more data on the feed efficiency.

It will be very interesting to see how the feed efficiency and size of the cows will affect each other so we are looking very much forward to that.


I'd like to comment on that for Jerseys because we have done some preliminary trials on feed efficiency and also on the CO2 emissions or greenhouse gas emissions and looking promising for the Jerseys. 

And that's also something that is driving the trend toward more and more Jerseys and not only here but in the rest of the world as well.

It will be very interesting as Jakob mentions with the saved feed or feed efficiency.

I think it looks great what we've seen so far, and I certainly think that we will be able to create some interest for our breeding programme here in the Nordic countries when we can push sales of our bulls on the saved feed index.


We see a trend all over the world that farmers want a bit smaller cows. 

They have come to a place now where they say that the cows are starting to get a little bit too big for the breed that they have now.

And if we are looking on the Jersey we have, we have a very nice size. If we look to the red, they are getting a little bit smaller, having a very average size, fitting very good into the crossbreeding programme.

And then our VikingHolstein have a moderate size so they're one of the smallest Holsteins in the world which also is very much into this efficiency where they have very good efficiency, they use less feed to maintain themselves while they still have one of the highest productions in the world.

So, all our breeds, we are working with in the Nordic countries are very much into this size because we know there's money in having the right size of animals.


Why is saved feed - this new index - why is that important to an organic farmer?


I would say it's very important to all farmers and that is because feed is one of the greatest costs.

It is the greatest various cost in production.

So, if you can cut down on your feed costs, you would save a lot of money.

For all farmers, good saved feed will be very good.

But for the organic farmer, I would say it is a little bit extra on top of it because the feed cost for organic is higher.

It costs more money to produce the organic feed so for them it will have high economic value to cut down on saved feed.




We've looked at some of the breeding solutions that might be helpful to organic dairy farmers.

Let's take a look at future trends.

Peter, when you look ahead from an organic dairy farmer perspective - what do you see on the horizon? What do I need to watch out for in organic dairy farming?


In organic dairy farming, you will see in the future that there will be strategies that are especially designed for organic farmers where you put more emphasis on those traits that are of high importance and of high economic value, especially for the organic farmers.

Not all have been aware so far around the world, but we will do our best to try and teach farmers and help farmers to realise what is actually fulfilling your goals in the best way.

Both seen from an economic perspective but also seen on sustainability or climate friendly perspective.

And that is as Jakob has mentioned also those traits having the highest economic importance for the organic farmers.

You need to realise that.

You also need to realise that the very big cows we see around the world today, they will not be the best suited for organic farming.

So, a lot of farmers around the world will have to reconsider.

And of course, new trends related to efficiency will also change dramatically, I’m sure.


I would just like to say that we see that organic farmers definitely will use more genomic selection, use of sexed semen and use of beef semen as Peter mentioned earlier because health is very important so with the genomic test of animals, they can see that these animals are very good for these traits I want so they can start to make this better selection on herd level.

And then when we look further ahead, we are going to have - hopefully in 2022 – genomic selection on crossbreeding animals so they also can start genomic testing and selection in their herds.

And that's going to be a very helpful help for tool for them in the future.


In some of our indexes, we have sub-indexes.

That might not be well-known to all.

Jakob mentioned hoof health earlier. Hoof health is not only one trait. It's a combination of sub-indexes for different diseases in the hoof. 

So, several different diseases are included in our hoof health index.

That also counts for our udder health. Udder health is not only one index. There are sub-indexes, and they are related to somatic cell count, treatments for mastitis and even some conformation traits.

So, you can dig deeper because we have this huge data set behind our breeding values and that's an advantage by using our breeding tools.


Thereby the farmers can say that in my herd there may be these seven traits or diseases in hoof health but for me this specific disease is a problem for me.

So, instead of just going for the hoof health overall index, maybe it would be better to go more specific into this trait and get bulls that are very positive for this trait.

You can design the bulls that fit your herd and your conditions wherever you are around the world.


What do you think, are we going to continue to see an increase in number of organic farms and organic production in general?


Definitely, we will.

And it will be consumer driven. 

Consumer driven in that way they will demand organic products and they will push the strategy of the dairy companies towards more organic products.

We have some organic dairy companies or some dairy companies only producing organic products already today under Nordic conditions.

But that's also the case in many other countries around the world.

We will see more of that.

So, definitely.

Consumers will drive it and then dairy companies and politicians will follow up.


I totally agree with Peter.

It is a growing trend - organic production - and will be all around the world.

And it will be driven by the consumer mainly.

And we talked earlier that it was mainly in countries with good economy in it, but we also see that some of the countries - for example China where they have a big group of consumers with high income in the big cities - and they also say now they're going for the organic.

So, it's all around the world - people are looking more and more into it.

Yes, it is a growing trend.




Thank you so much for joining our BreedCast today.

We've looked at how to breed healthier cows for organic farming.

And we've also learned more about the solutions and heard about the trends coming up.


For more tips on organic dairy farming, I encourage you to visit our Organic Farming page in the Your Business area on the VikingGenetics website.


I want to say thank you to Jakob Lykke Voergaard and Peter Larson both of you for sharing your experience and these very valuable insights with us.


Thank you all of you out there for listening.


If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding, you'd like us to focus on, please let us know via the VikingGenetics website. You can contact us by filling out one of the forms or you can send us a message on our VikingGenetics Facebook page.


My name is Louise Roenn Svane.


Please join me for our upcoming BreedCast on crossbreeding and other topics related to innovative cattle breeding.