! Agriculture and Forestry Research, Special Issue No 362 (Braunschweig, 2012) ISSN 0376-0723
Download: Comparison of two different dairy cow types in an organic,
low input milk production system under Alpine conditions
MARCO HORN1, ANDREAS STEINWIDDER2, LEOPOLD PODSTATZKY2, 1 University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences-Division of Livestock Sciences, Austria,, eMail: and 2 Agricultural Research and Education Centre Raumberg-Gumpenstein-Institute of Organic Farm- ing and Farm Animal Biodiversity, Austria,; eMail: andre- and 3Agricultural Research and Education Centre Raumberg-Gumpenstein-Institute of Animal Hus- bandry and Animal Health, Austria,; eMail: jo- Key words: dairy cow, breeds, comparison, seasonal, Alps Abstract
The core task of sustainable milk production is the conversion of forage into milk, dairy products
and, as a by-product, into meat. In Europe and North America, for decades dairy cows were select-
ed for a high genetic merit for milk production under high input farming conditions. It is therefore
questionable whether these "high input genotypes" are suitable for forage-based, organic farming
systems. The objective of this study was to compare two cow types concerning their suitability for
an Alpine organic, low input dairy production system. The cow types used were conventional
Brown Swiss (BS) on the one hand and a specific strain of Holstein Friesian (HFL), selected for
lifetime performance, on the other. Both cow types were managed within one herd in an organic,
pasture-based system with seasonal calving. Data from 89 lactations showed that BS animals were
heavier and superior in milk production. HFL cows lost less body weight during lactation and
showed a higher reproductive performance, which may indicate a greater suitability for low-input
dairy production systems.

Alpine dairy farming suffered severe changes during the last fifty years from traditional, small
scale, forage based dairying towards larger and more specialised non seasonal dairy systems with
strongly reduced pasture reliance and a marked increase of concentrate supplementation. To reduce
costs of production and to meet consumers´ expectations, the implementation of a seasonal, site
adapted, pasture based milk production system similar to those applied in New Zealand and North
Western Europe might be an alternative for the near future in Alpine regions also (Thomet et al.
2011; Steinwidder et al. 2011). It is questionable whether animals selected under high-input condi-
tions are most suitable for low input systems, in which fertility and reproductive performance rather
than individual milk yield are of key importance (Veerkamp et al. 2002; Dillon et al. 2003). There-
fore the objective of this study was to compare two cow types concerning their suitability for an
Alpine organic, low input dairy production system.
Material and methodology
Data was recorded during a four year period from 2008 to 2011 at the organic dairy farm of the Ag-
ricultural Research and Education Centre Raumberg-Gumpenstein, Trautenfels, Austria (680 m
altitude, 7°C average temperature, 2000 mm precipitation year-1; latitude: 47° 31‘ 03‘‘ N; longitude:
RAHMANN G & GODINHO D (Ed.) (2012): Tackling the Future Challenges of Organic Animal Husbandry. Proceedings of the 2nd OAHC, Hamburg/Trenthorst, Germany, Sep 12-14, 2012 14° 04‘ 26‘‘). The dairy herd was managed in a pasture based, low input system with block calving and consisted of conventional Brown Swiss (BS) and a specific strain of Holstein Friesian (HFL). While the BS cows represented the average breeding goal of the Austrian BS population, the HFL animals were selected for superior lifetime performance and fertility for more than 30 years. In to-tal, data from 89 lactations were collected (40 lactations from 19 individual BS and 49 lactations from 23 individual HFL cows). Average lactation numbers were 3.3, 3.0, 2.3 and 2.6 in experi-mental years one, two, three and four, respectively. For BS and HFL mean numbers of parities were 2.5 and 2.9, respectively. Calvings were aspired between November and March and breeding started after 30 days in milk (DIM). Animals which did not conceive until June 30 were culled after 305 DIM or were newly inseminated after January 15 of the following year. Mean calving date was bal-anced between years and breeds. Individual rations were calculated throughout the experimental period, taking into account individual milk yield, milk composition and body weight. Detailed ra-tion composition during dry period and lactation, as well as during barn and pasture feeding period was reported previously by Steinwidder et al. (2011). During the barn feeding period, the diet con-sisted of 5 kg of hay and grass silage ad libitum. Concentrate supplementation was increased until 21 DIM and depended on milk yield afterwards. Grazing period lasted from the beginning of April until the end of October (± 15 d). Cows had free access to a continuously grazed sward (height Ø 4.0-5.5 cm, estimated with Filip´s Folding Plate Pasture Meter). Pasture yield and botanical compo-sition has been reported previously by Starz et al. (2010). At the beginning of grazing, a gradual transition from barn to pasture feeding was done. At the beginning of day and night grazing (end of April), silage feeding in the barn was stopped. During the grazing period cows received 1.5 kg hay per day and only cows yielding more than 28 kg per day received concentrate supplementation. At the end of October daily grazing time was constantly reduced and the grazing period was terminated at the beginning of November. In parallel, the quantity of hay and grass silage offered in the barn was increased. Individual milk yield was recorded twice daily. Milk samples were taken three times per week for determination of milk fat, protein, lactose and urea content as well as somatic cell count. Cows were weighted weekly after morning milking. Rations were provided in Calan gates and daily feed intake was recorded during the barn period. During the grazing period, herbage in-take was estimated taking into account hay and concentrate intake, milk yield and composition, live weight and live weight change. The dataset was analysed using the MIXED procedure of SAS 9.2. The model contained breed, year, parity and barn feeding regime within year as fixed effects and days in milk at the beginning of the grazing period as a covariate. Animal within breed was includ-ed as a random effect. P-Values <0.05 were considered to be significant. Results
Table 1 shows the least square means and the effect of dairy cow breed on milk production and
composition, life weight and reproductive performance over the four experimental years. Lactation
length for BS cows was significantly longer than for HFL animals (294 and 285 days, respectively).
In terms of milk production, BS was superior. It produced significantly more milk, milk solids and
energy corrected milk. Comparing milk yield and energy corrected milk yield differences between
breeds tended to increase as HFL had lower contents of fat and protein than BS, but only the differ-
ence in protein content was statistically significant. No difference between the two breeds was
found for somatic cell count and persistency. Body weight of HFL cows was about 60 kg signifi-
cantly lower than that of BS. Comparing the breeds in terms of live weight development during
lactation BS animals reached nadir about 50 days later than HFL animals. Conversely, HFL animals
started to regain live weight significantly earlier than BS cows. Moreover, HFL animals lost signifi-
cantly less weight (18 %), comparing pre calving measurements and live weight at nadir, than BS
cows (23 %). HFL animals were superior for compared parameters of reproductive performance.
Interval from calving to conception was about one month shorter for HFL, but not statistically sig-
nificant. Calving intervals were 395 and 353 days for BS and HFL, respectively, the difference be-
ing statistically significant.
! Agriculture and Forestry Research, Special Issue No 362 (Braunschweig, 2012) ISSN 0376-0723
Table 1. Effect of breed on milk production and composition, life weight and reproductive
performance 2008 - 2011
a Brown Swiss, b Holstein Friesian Longevity, c Standard error of difference, d Energy corrected milk e Ratio of milk yield of 101-200 days in milk and milk yield of 1-100 days in milk, f Live weight Discussion
The results illustrate the impact of the alternative breeding objectives of HFL as compared to BS
and the trade off between breeding for high milk production and selection for high longevity. BS
cows achieved higher milk yields, but mobilised more body reserves over a longer period of time as
compared to HFL cows. This indicates that HFL animals went through a less pronounced period of
negative net energy balance, which lasted not as long as for BS. Dillon et al. (2003) and Roche et al.
(2007) stated the positive effect of a lower degree and shorter duration of body tissue mobilisation
on reproductive performance. Animals with high genetic merits for fertility tend to partition nutri-
ents towards reproduction and not milk production (Cummins et al. 2012). Comparing both breeds,
HFL seems to be more suitable for a pasture-based dairy system, particularly if block calving is
involved. It meets the goal of high reproductive performance and therefore ensures an optimal use
of pasture, which is a key factor for sustainable, low-input dairying. Taking into account the topo-
graphic conditions in the Alps, the lower live weight of HFL can also be an additional advantage.
Suggestions to tackle the future challenges of organic animal husbandry
Seasonal, pasture based systems of milk production will be of crucial importance in the future of
(organic) dairy farming. If managed adequately, these systems guarantee a highly efficient and en-
vironmentally friendly conversion of forage into milk, low use of concentrate supplementation, high
standards of animal welfare and elevated consumers’ acceptance. To achieve this aim, dairy cow
breeding needs to be adapted towards an increased importance of fertility and other fitness traits,
resulting in animals which are more suitable for organic, low-input systems.
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the European Community financial participation
under the Seventh Framework Programme FP7-KBBE.2010.1.2-02, for the Collaborative Project
SOLID (Sustainable Organic Low-Input Dairying; grant agreement no. 266367).
RAHMANN G & GODINHO D (Ed.) (2012): Tackling the Future Challenges of Organic Animal Husbandry. Proceedings of the 2nd OAHC, Hamburg/Trenthorst, Germany, Sep 12-14, 2012 References
Cummins SB, Lonergan P, Evans ACO, Berry DP, Evans RD & Butler ST (2012): Genetic merit for fertility
traits in Holstein cows: I. Production characteristics and reproductive efficiency in a pasture-based sys-tem. Journal of Dairy Science 95, 1310-1322. Dillon P, Snijders S, Buckley F, Harris B, O´Connor P & Mee JF (2003): A comparison of different dairy cow breeds on a seasonal grass-based system of milk production – 2. Reproduction and survival. Live-stock Production Science 83, 35-42. Roche JR, Macdonald KA, Burke CR, Lee JM & Berry DP (2007): Associations Among Body Condition Score, Body Weight and Reproductive Performance in Seasonal-Calving Dairy Cattle. Journal of Dairy Science 90, 376-391. Starz W, Steinwidder A, Pfister R & Rohrer H (2010): Continuous grazing in comparison to cutting man- agement on an organic meadow in the eastern Alps. European Grassland Federation Symposium 15, 1009-1011. Steinwidder A, Starz W, Podstatzky L, Gasteiner J, Pfister R, Rohrer H & Gallenböck M (2011): Milk pro- duction from grazed pasture in mountainous regions of Austria – impact of calving season. European Grassland Federation Symposium 16, 329-331. Thomet P, Cutullic E, Bisig W, Wuest C, Elsaesser M, Steinberger S & Steinwidder A (2011): Merits of full grazing systems as a sustainable and efficient mil production strategy. European Grassland Federation Symposium 16, 273-285. Veerkamp RF, Beerda B & van der Lende T (2003): Effect of selection of for milk yield on energy balance, levels of hormones, and metabolites in lactating cattle, and possible links to reduced fertility. Livestock Production Science 83, 257-275.


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