Dairy farmers need to fine tune their breeding programmes to improve efficiency and make more genetic gain Waikato farmer Ben Watson says. Sheryl Haitana reports.

Ben Watson encouraged farmers at the South Island Dairy Conference (SIDE) to be more selective with their breeding programmes and use the advanced genetic tools on the market to improve their herds.

Speaking at SIDE, Ben also emphasised the importance of selecting on Breeding Worth (BW) to build more efficient herds.

New Zealand farmers should no longer be breeding big numbers of dairy replacements, he says.

“People need to tailor their mating plans. We are past ‘peak cow’ in NZ now, we don’t need heaps of dairy replacements anymore. Gone are the days of having one recipe for the whole herd.”

Using more Jersey and cross bred genetics over South Island herds could be a good way for those farmers to breed a lighter, more efficient animal, he says.

“Using more Jersey and crossbred straws across their herds will produce more milksolids for the same amount of feed. They will also get the benefits of hybrid vigour, good fertility, feet and importantly, more of that valuable fat.

“Our biggest wins from an environmental footprint standpoint can come almost immediately from more efficient feed converters and lower replacement rate, one breed can offer that.”

Ben, 42, and Stacey Watson are equity partners in the Watson family farms in the Waikato, with Ben’s brother Pearce and wife Kate and their parents Tim and Wendy. Ben’s two sisters Amy and Becky also have minor shares.

The Watson Jersey and crossbred herd is one of the highest index herds in the country, with a 167 BW, having been in the top 10 BW herds for most of the last decade.

‘Farmers have to work out where their appetite for risk is, as the technology has improved, reliability has also improved and the risk has diminished. There will be some awesome benefits if we embrace genomics more widely.’

The family own two farms at Richmond Downs near Matamata and a dairy and drystock farm at Piopio in the King Country.

Ben’s great grandfather Henry Watson bought the Stoney Creek farm at Richmond Downs in 1919, and the family will mark the centenary this year.

Ben studied a Certificate in Agriculture at Waikato Polytech before heading to the South Island to work on a dairy farm. He was sharemilking 150 cows in Southland before moving home to work on the family farms.

He and Stacey bought in to the business as equity partners two years ago and Ben is the general manager overseeing the three farms, managing 12 full and part-time staff.

This year they’ve created a 500-cow A2 herd on Stoney Creek to supply A2 milk to Fonterra so Ben will be working closely with that herd.

Having really high BW cows is like driving a race car when most of your mates are in a Mini, you can get incredible results when managed well, he says.

“They are really responsive to management, good or bad.”

Ben believes the A2 milk will eventually become another commodity so they want to leverage off it until then.

“There is no doubt it’s a strong brand, but personally I think the A2 premium is not going to be long term. We want to make the most of it while we can.

“I think the ‘built in’ premium for having Jersey and Jersey cross cows is way better than having A2 cows long term.”

The world has moved back to fat and it’s a really good time to be a Jersey farmer, he says.

“I think the case for having Jersey or Jersey cross cows has never been better in mine or even my father’s lifetime.”

The Richmond Downs farms are tough contour and it’s down to good Jersey genetics that the cows do so well, Ben says.

“Stony Ridge would be the steepest dairy farm in the Waikato and maybe NZ. Stony Creek is a little more rolling. Both farms can get really dry and it is really challenging land.

“Our C quality dairy land shows how good our genetics are. The cows use a lot of energy walking up and down the hills so efficiency is even more important here.”

The operations are a DairyNZ System 2 and Ben has an aspiration to get to a low System 2 or System 1.

“It’s really difficult to get a response to supplement on challenging land so we’re focused on the amount of pasture harvested to improve our profitability.”

They are driven by grazing residual management, making sure to not let pre- grazing covers grow more than 3200kg drymatter (DM)/ha.

“We are really focused on using grass first. Our stocking rates are quite low on a liveweight per hectare basis and we can’t get around and top paddocks so we can’t leave residuals too high.”

Despite a really tough autumn this year, with the cows dropping under 1kg MS/day, they bounced back really well in April and May when the grass finally grew.

That’s again a testament to superior genetics, Ben says.

“I put it down to top genetics. after a feed pinch those cows bounce back well in the vat and when fed well they will put it on their backs.”

Ben uses Once-A-Day (OAD) milking as a tool strategically through the season.

He put the lightest cows on OAD two weeks prior to mating last year and it worked extremely well. Their production didn’t drop at all and the cows all cycled and got in calf.

“We had about 10-15% of the herd grazing in front of the main herd and having unlimited feed.

“We break all the OAD/TAD rules. That was my trial last year, we did it after they had passed their post-calving peak (40 days) at about 50-60 days post calving was ideal for us. You don’t want to be putting them on OAD when they’re trying to peak and have unlimited feed as it puts a lot of pressure on their udders.”

Historically the farm’s breeding programme has been just BW focused, but their key parameters now are BW, udders and capacity.

The rest of the desirable traits, such as good feet, fertility and temperament are typically taken care of by the Jersey breed, Ben says.

The farm steered away from Jerseys for a couple of years, which in hindsight was a mistake.

“We were wanting to have better calves for beef, but on a financial basis it would have been better for us to buy beef calves, but M bovis has made that a challenge.”

Now they are focused on their Jersey-Angus cross calves which grow well and there is always good demand for Jersey bulls, he says.

This season they are making some significant changes and will be breeding all their dairy replacements from the Richmond Downs farms. Ben’s plan is to target their highest BW cows to breed replacements from and use beef semen across their low BW and production worth (PW) cows.

Spending money to inseminate all cows to a good bull is expensive and farmers shouldn’t be aiming for replacements out of their less-productive cows, he says.

They will use Angus, Red Wagyu and short gestation, easy-calving Belgium Blue semen. The Red Wagyu is supposed to be hardier and easy to rear than the more common black Wagyu.

He is aiming to bring their replacement rate down to 15-18% this year. They have reared up to 30% replacements in the past to build numbers for their Piopio farm.

They will use this beef semen approach for three weeks, then tail with Angus bulls across their entire 900-cow herd at Piopio with no dairy semen used at all.

Ben is investing in 200 sexed semen straws to use at Richmond Downs this year and will mate 50% of the remaining cows to genomics bulls and 50% to nominated proven sires.

The rest of the world is making big genetic gain through the use of genomics and NZ needs to keep up, he says.

“The technology has come a long way since the initial use of genomic sires 10 years ago.

“People often only hear the negative things about sexed semen and genomics. Farmers have to work out where their appetite for risk is, as the technology has improved, reliability has also improved and the risk has diminished. There will be some awesome benefits if we embrace genomics more widely.”

Farmers can’t be so conservative if they want to accelerate genetic gain in their herds. The pressure is coming on dairy farmers to be milking and rearing only the most efficient animals, he says.

“I don’t care if the BW is not 100% accurate on all of these genomic bulls, on average I will still be getting more genetic gain out of it.”

He used 300 genomic straws last year with good results as some of the bulls’ proofs have strengthened under LIC’s new one step genomic model.

The extra cost of using sexed semen and genomic bulls is ironed out to breeding a bigger percentage of cows to beef straws.

A sexed semen straw costs $60, while genomic packs are $26 compared to a classic pack for $20.

“When you only pay $8 for a beef straw and you use more of those, the cost evens out.”

Ben is an artificial insemination (AI) technician and does all the matings for Stoney Creek and Stoney Ridge farms so they don’t have to pay the extra cost for a technician.

Breeding companies and AI technicians are going to have to factor in the extra time for more tailored breeding programmes, Ben says.

It can’t be a bulk one-size-fits-all approach anymore so it might take a bit longer at each farm to cater to more selective AI programmes.

Using sexed semen also requires a different approach to normal AI, which farmers and technicians need to factor in, he says.

Ben is feeling enthusiastic about the future of genetics and the NZ dairy industry.

“I’m concerned about many things when it comes to farming in the future, genetics is not one of them – I’m really excited.

“I’m passionate about breeding cows and Jerseys are the best feed converters fullstop.”

Genetic advancements of using amazing tools like JIVET (Juvenile In Vitro Embryo Transfer) from a dairy heifer calf and mating the embryo with a year-old genomic bull is an example of what is possible.

“That’s exciting because your generation interval is getting down to one year. That will really kick start the job and create more quality bulls for the dairy industry.”

He would like to see NZ genetic companies and associations, NZAEL and DairyNZ to be more centralised in the next few years so that data and knowledge is being shared openly for the benefit of NZ dairy farmers.

“If we are going to go back to leading the world in genetics and having the most efficient converters of grass to milk that we can, we all need to be heading in the same direction.”


Farm equity partners: The Watson family

Location: Richmond Downs, Piopio

Farm System: DairyNZ System 2

Farm working expenses: 5.37/kgMS

Breeding costs: $59/cow

Animal health costs: $70/cow

Supplement grown onfarm: 9ha maize

Supplement bought in: 600kg/cow on shoulders and dry


Milking Platform: 170ha

Cows: 500 Jerseys and cross bred (A2 herd)

Production: 155,000-180,000kg MS

BW: 130

PW: 168

Farm dairy: 46-aside herringbone, Protrack draft

Empty rate: 9.8%

6-week in-calf rate: 68%


Milking Platform: 100ha

Cows: 300 Jersey and Jersey crossbreds

Production: 90,000

BW: 167

PW: 240

Farm dairy: 31-aside herringbone, ACRs

Empty rate: 8.2%

6-week in-calf rate: 71%


Area: 860ha

Milking Platform: 400ha

Dairy cows: 900 Jersey and Jersey crossbreds

Drystock: 1000 units (700 Dairy beef cattle, 300 Dairy replacements, 35 Angus bulls)

Production: 220-250,000kg MS, 600 beef cattle sold (prime and store)

BW: 117

PW: 135

Farm dairy: 60-bail rotary protrac Vantage

AI: All beef, tailed with Angus bulls