The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 05 - How to future-proof your Holstein herd

September 20, 2021 VikingGenetics Season 1 Episode 5
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 05 - How to future-proof your Holstein herd
Show Notes Transcript

Are you struggling with Holstein cows that are too big, too hard to get pregnant or too inefficient? Or you might be facing new demands and requirements that can be difficult to navigate?

To help guide you to a future-proof Holstein herd, two experts will share their perspective. They will guide you through how you can meet what the consumers, retailers and governments are asking for — and run a profitable dairy business all at the same time.

Claus Langdahl, Senior Breeding Manager for Holstein, VikingGenetics
Matthew Stott, Country Manager UK and Ireland, VikingGenetics

Louise Rønn Svane

Holstein Friesian cows dominate the global dairy industry, in more than 150 countries.


But like many other Holstein farmers,  you may be struggling with cows that are too big, too

 hard to get pregnant or too inefficient.


You might also be facing increasing demands for animal welfare and sustainability driven by consumers, retailers and regulations worldwide.


So, to give you the best advice on how to breed healthy, efficient Holstein cows for the future,

 I've invited two experts to join me. 

Claus Langdahl, senior breeding manager for VikingHolstein,


Matthew Stott, Country Manger.


This is the BreedCast produced  by VikingGenetics. I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane.


Well, hello and welcome, Claus and Matt.

And thank you so much for joining us today.


Thank you for having us.


Well, Claus is here with me in the studio.


And Matt, you're calling in

from the south of the U.K.






Well, let's begin with you, Claus.


Why has Holstein Friesian been the world

 dominating cattle breed for dairy farming


around the world, really,

 for the past few decades?


Well, to me, I think the easy, simple answer

is a really high production level.


I think that’s one of the key elements

that you will always find in a Holstein Frisian cow;


a really high production

and creating a lot of turnover for the farm.


A lot of a good income for the farm.


So that is the main part I see, because it has

been from a genetic point of view,


highly selected genetics for production in this.


And so, yeah, that's the main issue in this.


From a breeding perspective, what are the

Advantages of having such a widely spread breed?


There are some elements related to having

a more efficient breeding scheme,


if there's a lot of animals.

You get more to choose from,


you have more diversity from the biology

because of many animals in this.


And so, that's one aspect in this.


And I would say, especially during

the last years with genomic selection,


I think it has been very obvious that there is

a great benefit from having a lot of animals,


having a lot of data underlying all your decisions

and being very efficient in the selection you can do

 from a genetic point of view.


And then there are, of course,

 also more elements.


Like you say, there is more research.


Money, you can say it’s easier to get some

research focused on the Holsteins,


because there is a lot of money

in the industry related to this breed.


So, of course, some of the research going on

is highly intense about the Holstein.


So that's, of course, a benefit also from

the breed’s point of view.


And what we've also seen in recent years 

is this focus on an increase in production.


For instance, a Holstein cow today gives three kilos

more milk per day than she did just five years ago.


What are the costs associated

 with this increase in production?


Yeah, it's even an increase measured from

the calf is born until she leaves the herd.


So, it's three kilos more a day,

that's a huge growth in production.


And you see more elements to this.

It is because she's longer living


and she's producing more kilos of milk

 that she's actually in production.


So, there are some efficiency traits here that have improved,

but it's a Holstein. 


It has a lot been related to better production,

more efficient production in this. 


And there have been some downsides to that.


In the negative relations between high production

and the health traits, and the fertility traits.


I think it’s quite visible in the Holstein

 breed that she's high producing.


But she is also to an extent that high producing,

that she's actually having trouble keeping healthy,


keeping fertile and so on.


So, that's some of the downsides

 about this high focus on production.


Another issue is that it's been high production,

a huge, big Holstein cow is also higher producing.


So, she has to some extent

 also become too extreme in stature.


So, it's been a little bit moving too intensive towards

higher production and forgetting a little bit


all these cost reduction traits related to health and fertility,

at least if you take it from a production point of view.


And Matt, in addition to the struggles that Claus is

mentioning with fertility, you mentioned the size.



We've read about inbreeding as well.


What are the challenges that

Holstein farmers are facing today?


Yeah, I'd say the other demands

 that are coming into the dairy industry now,


are the drivers from consumers, retailers and obviously

new regulations that are coming in constantly at the moment,


particularly with regards to health and

welfare, efficiency and sustainability.


And I think this focus on animal

 welfare we’ll be starting to see


with regards to not being able

 to slaughter bull calves at birth.


That certainly is getting more

 and more widespread now.


So, we're starting to see legislation with

regards to withdrawing calves from mothers


and also for the demands for not dehorning animals.


So that we're going to see an increase

 in polled genetics as we move forward as well,


which is certainly the case already in some countries.

And that's starting to pull through. 


But, also the sustainability

 side is also growing rapidly.


And I do know that one

of the main milk processors now


is looking at methane emissions

very hard on individual farms


and looking to drive that down so

 that's going to be a key forward as well.


Yeah, we're going to talk about just that

climate and methane emission, etc., later on in the show.


From your perspective, how are the Holstein farmers

in the UK and Ireland coping with these new demands?


Yeah, well, I guess it's adjustment to the way

they've kept some things in the past.


So, if you look at the removal of

slaughtering of bull calves for example,


we see that they're using a high percentage of sexed semen.


So, in the UK, particularly now, the use of sexed semen

is now at 65 percent of the dairy semen that's being used,


which is a very high percentage,

 and that's grown 15 percent since 2020.


So, we're seeing a huge increase there,

which then means that we're seeing an increase


in the use of beef semen - beef on dairy semen,

thereby changing the whole strategy


that perhaps they've used five

 or six years ago with conventional semen.






So, Holstein farmers today,

 they're facing a whole range of new challenges,


 both in terms of health and fertility,

but also with the demands from the world.


Claus, you've worked with Holstein cows

 for more than 20 years.


What solutions are you starting to point 

modern Holstein farmers today towards?


As I see it, there's actually a quite good

relation between what Matt is telling


 about the consumer demand and also

on farm focus on profitability and efficiency.


There's a nice link between this. 

There's luckily no discrepancies in this.


So, I think that's definitely the message that we hear

from farmers also saying  that they buy in on this idea


about having a closer, more careful

 look at the efficiency in the production.


Looking at saved feed to reduce feed costs and some

of these elements that cost a lot on an everyday farm, of course.


From a genetic point of view 

there are several tools to bring in on farm level


to move towards a direction

 of a more efficient production.


As I mentioned, you say the Holsteins

have been selected so heavily for production.


So, that's not an issue, actually.


Of course, we still need the cows to produce milk.

That's where their earnings come from. 


But the part about the health traits, the fertility

traits, the efficiency traits and so on, 


they are accessible

 from a genetic point of view also.


And can be from a farmer's

 perspective in his strategy.


And actually, we have a question

 from one of our listeners.


This is from Flemming in Denmark. 


And he's asking about feed efficiency.


And this question is,

 can you talk about feed efficiency


between Holstein versus, for instance, a VikingRed?

Is there a difference? 


Are we seeing differences in feed efficiency,

you know, between breeds?


Yeah. This is an interesting area 

where we are these years or months


we are learning a lot because we're getting in real data

 from commercial herds on feed intake.


And so, we're still learning

 about this concept about feed efficiency.


But as it looks now, there's huge variation

both among the breed, but definitely also within the breed.


So, it's not easy to give a clear answer,

to say this breed is better than that breed.


I think it's more on animal level deciding

 this is good and this is bad.


So, there is a huge variation. 


And actually, our next BreedCast episode is on

feed efficiency, the new saved feed index, etc.


So, I encourage Flemming and others

 to keep listening.


And then in that episode,

 we'll dive into feed efficiency.


Matt, you have a background

 in the ruminant industry.


So, I was wondering, in addition

 to looking at genetics,


what else do you tell farmers,

 not just in the UK and Ireland?


I know you work with other

 countries as well. 


What do you tell them when they approach you

for guidance on being Holstein farmers today?


I think the key here is that there needs

 to be collaboration on the farm.


So, we, as the genetics business,

 can go in and recommend the best genetics.


But if you have factors on the farm,

that aren’t the most efficient,


and then they're going to struggle

 to get the best out of that genetics.


So, it's important that there's a team of people

working on the farm.


So, you've got the breeding advisor,

 then you've got the feed advisor, the vet


hoof trimmer; various people

 involved on the farm to make sure


that what we supply is also being backed up

by the best advice across the board.


So, we certainly look at collaboration,

 and I think that's something


that will change as we move forward.


So, this working with all those influencers

is really, really key to a successful, profitable business.


How has this collaboration

been historically?


I would say probably not fantastic.


I think people have

 perhaps worked in silos. 


So, the breeding advisors,

have gone in and recommended the genetics.


But then there's been no consultation of other people

 who are involved on the farm in terms of.


So, sometimes you work a bit blind. 


So, if the feeding regime isn't as it should be,

then you're not going to get the best of the animal 


because it's not being fed correctly. 


So, those genetics aren't realized as the animal matures,

 so it's absolutely key to have crossfield collaboration on the farm.


Claus, what benefits have you seen from this kind of

very important collaboration between key players on the farm?


I think it's obvious that we need to respect

that the data that the farmer is creating on his own farm,


that he needs to have as much benefit

 out of this data as possible.


So, you could say whoever interacts with these

data should definitely cooperate in this.


And that's what we see to a large degree.


And when good data is collected on the farm,

it's used, of course, in the management system on the farm,


help him support his everyday decisions,

 making things more easy to manage.


But the same data is what is accessible for

from genetic point of view, for breeding value estimation.


Take hoof trimmers as an example.


Well, the farmers is, of course,

 depending on hoof trimming


and getting the data to what's going on in

relation to adjusting feed ratios and everyday things.


And the same data is added into the index of hoof health.


And in that way, contributing to him

 for the next generations,


but also contributing for his everyday life.


And I think, as Matt says, this

this cooperation is a key point


in exploiting the data as much

as possible to support the farm.


And Matt, I remember you telling me about

 you actually had a recent example of


working with farmers that are approaching

breeding in a new way.


I think it was a Dutch example on efficiency.

Would you care to share that? 


Yeah, it was a few years ago. I was

in Holland. We did some farm visits.


And we're on one particular farm where I

had the opportunity to speak to the farmer himself.


And I asked him particularly what his key drivers

were in terms of his farm business.


And the one word he threw at me

 straightaway was efficiency.


And I followed that with the question in terms of

how have you achieved to be more efficient?


And he said, what he's done

 is that within the breeding program,


he wasn't looking at the highest yielding animals any more.


It actually reduced his overall average milk yield.


And that was actually increasing

 bottom line profitability,


because it was about looking at the other

areas of the business, such as the health.


Particularly, he'd improved his herd health


So, his costs there were lower

 and his longevity was long better.


So, he managed to increase the lifetime

 within the herd.


Thereby his efficiency was better.

His bottom line profitability was higher. 


So, he wasn't chasing yield. He was looking

at the overall efficiency across the herd.


But that was also with regards

 to collaborating with other people


involved in that farm and everybody coming

together to have a joined approach and way of thinking.


That sounds like also focusing on

optimizing rather than always maximizing,


like pushing our resources really to the limits.


And look at all the other aspects. 


Yeah. Correct.


Claus, I think it's also worth mentioning 

 that Holstein is a popular breed for crossbreeding.


In fact, in a lot of crossbreeding

 programs, it's sort of where you start.


What do you tell farmers that are considering

adding other breeds to a Holstein mix?


Well, there's some excellent ideas

 behind the crossbreeding.


And it's obvious what Matt is saying

about optimizing your herd,


being more efficient there,


that's quite obvious that crossbreeding is

an excellent tool to do that,


also considering some of the challenges

 that we do see in the Holstein breed.


Of course, we do improve

the purebred animals.


We, from a breeding perspective,

improve them on fertility,


on metabolic disorders

and all these elements


that are some struggles

 for the everyday life for the farmer.


But one addition to that on a herd

 level is to do the crossbreeding,


and especially on these traits where you get

the hybrid vigor working very effectively on fertility and so on.


So, that is an excellent choice for farmers.


And actually, we have a separate episode

 on crossbreeding here on the BreedCast


where you can learn more about two of

 the programs that Holstein is a part of.


One is ProCROSS and the

 other is VikingGoldenCross.




So, it sounds like a greater focus on collaboration

 between the farmer and the staff on the farm,


like you both mentioned vet, hoof trimmer,

feed advisor, etc, together with selecting healthy genetics


and efficient feed to Matt’s point is a way forward.


Sounds like quite a lucky combination here.


Let's take a look at the future of Holstein breeding,


because I'm curious to hear your perspectives.


Matt, what can Holstein dairy farmers expect in

The years to come if you sit with your crystal ball? 


Well, I think the health, welfare

 and sustainability areas are going


to become more and more prominent

 in the industry going forward.


We're seeing, as I say, we've seen that

 with regards to the slaughtering bull calves.


There are other areas that is being looked at in terms of

dehorning and removal of cows from mothers, methane emissions.


You know, that's a real key. 


The carbon footprint is the buzz word

going around these days - that zero carbon emissions.


So, we're going to see a lot of

that going forward now. 


What we've already seen

 within the breeding side


is that you can make quite a quick impact on methane

emissions by having increased longevity in the herd.


So thereby you're not having to rear

 so many replacements.


So, the number of animals

 on the farm reduces.


So even though we are a genetics business,

 you know, we're looking to promote


good genetics in terms

 of reaching these sustainability goals.


And, you know, farmers investments

 in the dairy have reached substantial.


So, he needs to maximize the lifetime of that animal

going into the herd to get the maximum return.


And, if an animal's only lasting one or two lactations,

that's not going to give him the return on rearing that animal.


So, we've got to look at different ways

 and look at different areas of the business


that drives it forward in terms of not only profitability,

but meeting the health and welfare and sustainability 


Goals are going to be set to the

farmers going forward.


When you speak to UK farmers and the

farmers in Ireland, what are they saying? 


Are they, you know, excited about

trying to live up to all these new demands?


Is it a worry to them, it’s just that there's a lot

for a farmer to be aware of and cope with today?


Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. 


This is a lot and I think it's a step

 by step approach.


You know, you're not going to achieve

 everything in one year.


You know, you've got to look

 several years down the line.


And that's what we've got to do,

 is work with the farmers to help them


achieve these goals

 that are being set to them


in three, four, five years

 so that we can help them


and guide them through the approach

 from the genetics point of view.


And what we have in our armory

 with feed efficiency, et cetera.


So, we've got the tools there,

 but we just need to guide them through.


So, it's a challenge,

 but I think it's what they're expecting,


because, you know, this is

 always been – it’s out there in the in the marketplace,


you know, the consumer

 and the retailers are driving this.


So, these standards have to be met.


So, it's one that we just have to work

 together to achieve.


Well, you know, obviously in 

the UK and Ireland, what Matt is saying that

 the consumers are driving the demand.


We're seeing similar trends in the US

and Australia when we speak to them, etc. 


In Northern Europe, there's a lot of focus as well on

Methane emission from farming and cattle breeding.


How is that going to evolve over the next few years? 


No, I think getting back to

 what Matt is also saying, I think that


the farmers, they definitely honor

 the consumer demand in this.


And I don't see any problems in this.


I hear you have farmers saying that it's logical.

Longer living cows, it sounds good.

The daily profit is often

 how the farmer would see this,


that if he can optimize

 his daily profit per cow,


it's of his interest as well.


And as Matt is saying, if a cow is only

 having two or three, or one or two lactations.


Well, that's not enough to pay back

even the rearing costs on this cow.


So, the part about looking at

at efficiency on farm level


from farm perspective is very much in line with what

the general society's asking for in this.


And, of course,

I think it's also important to keep in mind


it's also profit per day and in that

is also a high production level.


So, it's not always reducing cost.

You need the income. 


You need the high production

 from long living cows.


And that's what you will get

 from these long living cows.


Of course they will. Doing their third

 or fourth or fifth lactation.


They will produce a lot of milk

and stay in production for a long time.


We are seeing trends,

 especially in other parts of the world,


farms are becoming bigger and again,

 an increased focus on efficiency,


production, etc.


How are farmers going to balance 

the demand for being big and efficient,


and then at the same time have focus on

animal welfare and have long-living cows, healthy cows?


What tools do they have available from your perspective?


I think, as I said, 

 the efficiency aspect is very similar.


If you see it as a farmer

as a consumer, looking at it


from an environmental point of view,

 a sustainable point of view.


We need an efficient production.

Everybody is aware of that. 


We need to be efficient 

 and sustainable in every way.


And actually, quite often, I think 

the sustainable production is the effective production.


It's the well managed from good genetics herd

that makes the least footprint on the environment.


And so, in that way, there's a good idea to improve

the animals like we do from a genetic point of view.


Matt, any closing remarks, statements

from your end on this big topic?


Yeah, I obviously have more experience

in the UK and Ireland, but we are seeing larger farms.


Across the UK, the average herd size is growing.


But the number of animals in the UK,

 the number of dairy cows in the UK is decreasing.


It is very much going to be driven by…

You know, these are businesses.


That's what they’re regarded as.

So, they got to be profitable. 


And that's going to be driven by

 looking at the business as a whole.


Identify where the weak points

 are and trying to address that.


And I firmly believe that the breeding side of that

has a huge role to play in that


- in achieving the goals that they're looking to get to.


Is Holstein going to continue

 to be the world dominating breed?


Well, if you ask me, then, yes, of course,


I have no doubt about that, because of the things

we talk about here that you would say having animals


in such a high number opens up

 some opportunities.


So, of course, it also depends on

 if we act responsibly


and we should and we are,

 of course, in this.


And I think it's also worth to maybe

 ease up a little bit on the breed thought,


because, well, Holstein crossbreeding

or whatever it can easily in the future


be that we do not look at breeds,

 but more look at productive animals.


However, they are made then. 


But to try to ease up a little bit

 on the breed aspect of it.




Well, thank you for joining the BreedCast today.


We've looked at how you can breed healthy,

 efficient and future-proof Holstein cows.


And we've also looked at some of the trends on

the horizon in sustainable cattle breeding. 


If you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to visit

the Holstein page on the


I want to thank Claus Langdahl

 and Matthew Stott


for sharing these very valuable insights with us.


And thank you to everyone out there for listening.


If you have an idea for a topic,

 you'd like us to bring on the show


or you have a question like Flemming had,

please visit the


My name is Louise Roenn Svane. 


Please join me for the next BreedCast episode

on the latest trends in sustainable cattle breeding.