North Florida Holsteins- Farming for Profit not for Glory

Never one to shy away from controversy, Don Bennink of North Florida Holsteins has strong opinions regarding the direction the Holstein breed is heading. “Our Holstein industry needs to wake up and start thinking about what is important to the commercial dairy farmer” says Don. “Profitability is the single most important factor dairy farmers are concerned with, yet this is being largely overlooked.”

Management
Thirty-six years ago Don Bennink made the move from New York to Florida. Starting with 125 cows, within ten years they were milking 2000, today they have a 4,800 milking herd and house 10,000 head at the one location.

Don Bennink, founder and owner of the North Florida Holsteins (NO-FLA)
Don Bennink, founder and owner of the North Florida Holsteins (NO-FLA)

With 110 full time employees, the team at North Florida benefits from a global workforce, including a number of international interns. Overseeing the milking herd and embryo programme, John Karanja received his degree in Kenya, and worked at the Amari Dairy in Saudi Arabia. Responsible for all the feeding and calf departments, Mohamed ElSheikh gained his veterinary degree in his home country of Egypt. General manager J.C Hammond, joined the business 18 months ago and together with Steve Christman the herd manager, they oversee the day to day running of the farm and herd oversight respectively. “The quality of the team at North Florida Holsteins is without doubt the major contributor to whatever success we can claim,” appreciates Don. It’s apparent that Don values each of his staff highly. Driving through the farm and touring the facility, Don stops and speaks with each one of them.

“Managing cows in a sub-tropical climate is challenging but rewarding,” says Don. Heat indexes during summer months repeatedly reach over 100⁰F, with frequent storms and rainfall. Counteracting the extreme heat and humidity, the cows benefit from three types of cooling systems in place; Wind being pulled through the tunnel barns, skin cooling by conduction and evaporative cooling via misting the air.

Cows are kept cool in five tunnel barns, with an 8-10 mph air speed circulation. Droplets of water are sprayed on the cows at the feed bunk to cool the skin by conductivity, whilst misting the air ensures evaporative cooling.
Cows are kept cool in five tunnel barns, with an 8-10 mph air speed circulation.
Droplets of water are sprayed on the cows at the feed bunk to cool the skin by conductivity,
whilst misting the air ensures evaporative cooling.

Every animal is genomic and Clarifide Wellness Trait tested at birth. The calf programme utilises a De Laval Robotic feeding system, with eight stalls. Following the weaning transition, youngstock are housed in paddock feedlot systems, with over 40 individual lots on the 2,400 acre holding.

SHARING KNOWLEDGE
It’s well documented that there is a thriving international student program at North Florida Holsteins. Over 300 students from every inhabited continent having benefitted from time at NFH.

“Don Bennink is an innovator. They say that early adaptors are the ones that make the most of a new technology, and innovators win and lose. Don is willing to take a risk, to make mistakes as long as he is moving towards the goal. The goal is always to increase profitability through genetics, cow comfort and animal well being- working at NFH for 12 months was a great experience and I look back with fond memories.” Gonzalo Busso, ARG (2003-4) Nutrition and Management Consultant, Progressive Dairy Solutions

“My Time at NFH was one of the very best experiences I could have had working with cows and great people. It set me up for a life long career in the dairy industry and I will be forever grateful to Don and his team.” Nathan Back, NZ (2001-3) Owner Dairy Vet Services.

“Don Bennink is a gentleman, whose passion and enthusiasm is infectious. Working at NFH was a fantastic and cultural experience. Working with so many cultures and languages gave me a huge opportunity to start my own business in the International Market.” Cesar Pierobom, BRA (2012-13) Gauger GmbH

Strategy
“High Production, strong health traits and feed efficiency,” says Don Bennink, “They are the bywords for breeding profitable cows.”

Realising that milk in the tank pays the bills, Don’s breeding focus has always been to produce volumes of milk as efficiently as possible. Shipping approximately 140 million pounds (61.5 million litres) of milk a year, whilst managing 10,000 head of stock, certainly focuses the mind.

No-Fla Jedi Aliyah 43967- high ranking in both the GTPI & NFH indexes GTPI +2690 (NFH 67.1), there can be massive variation between the index systems. One of the top ranking GTPI animals within the herd, a Montross (GTPI +2706) doesn’t feature within the top 70 ranked on their own NFH index.
No-Fla Jedi Aliyah 43967- high ranking in both the GTPI & NFH indexes GTPI +2690
(NFH 67.1), there can be massive variation between the index systems. One of the top
ranking GTPI animals within the herd, a Montross (GTPI +2706) doesn’t feature within the
top 70 ranked on their own NFH index.

“We are breeding for the traits that determine real bottom line profit,” declares Don, “I am certainly not a fan of the taller more angular cow that is favoured in the show ring, classification system or the current PTAT formula- this cow is so far removed from what most milk producers want it is irrelevant to the majority of dairy operations.”

Exhaustive research has shown that stature has a notably negative correlation with Productive Life (-0.44) and Daughter Pregnancy Rate (-0.27), two of the key traits associated with profitability. “When large scale units are saying that cows have got too big, and involuntary culling due to reproductive or health issues is taking the decisions out of their hands, we have to ask if the current index system
reflects their requirements,” says Don.

“Neither GTPI or Net Merit (NM) meet our needs at North Florida Holsteins,” states Don adamantly. “What is really misleading and a major portion of both the GTPI and NM index is Udder Composite, the correlation here with stature is 0.57, that means if you bred 100% for Udders you would increase stature at more than half the rate than if you bred for stature alone,” remarks Don. “Inevitably, both indexes increase the size of our Holstein cow. Studies have proven that taller cows have a lower feed
efficiency, and I am not prepared to sacrifice efficiency on 4,800 dairy cows,” says Don, preferring to select bulls negative for stature.

North Florida Index
Disillusioned with GTPI and NM, four years ago the North Florida Index was masterminded by Don Bennink and his team. The idea was to follow the basic genetic principle that the fewer things you select for, the more progress you make. “We felt that most indexes contained too many factors that had no economic significance,” says Don, “Why not breed directly for the characteristics we are after
rather than something that may or may not be related to the traits at all?”

“Our formula is controlled by pounds of protein and health traits which affect longevity, daughter fertility and calving ease,” says Don, “whilst we don’t get paid on protein, it has tremendous significance with a lot of producers and is highly correlated with pounds of milk and fat.”

Formula changes have been discussed but not made. In the future the NFH Index may replace some of the pounds of Protein with Fat and incorporate some of Clarifide Plus’s Wellness Traits into it.

TOP 25 Milk PTAM Protein PTAP Calving Ease (CE) Stature (ST)
NFH 1992.92 69.52 6.944 0.754
GTPI 1787.44 62.96 7.108 1.2788

*With the August 2016 summaries, we compared the top 25 females (dead or alive) in the world on the GTPI list with our top 25 live females on the farm ranked on the North Florida index (NFHI).

“Comparing our top females with the top 25 in the world, gives us some confidence that we are heading in the right direction to get productive, feed efficient cows,” enthuses Don.

Extensive IVF
In 2016, North Florida Holsteins will transfer about 7000 embryos. The majority of donors are heifers, ones typically who have the highest genomic scores for production and health traits, and rank within the top 1% of the herd on the NFH Index. Utilising extensive IVF, they rotate 25 animals every 2-3 months at TransOva in Maryland, aspirating 50% on a weekly basis, and flushing a further 25 animals conventionally at home each month.

Some of the flush cows in front of North Florida Holsteins
Some of the flush cows in front of North Florida Holsteins

Ranking everything internally on their own NFH index, allows them to prioritise the most important females for their own breeding programme, sometimes allowing them to sell a full sister, possibly with a higher GTPI. “We generally don’t sell females if other high numbered family members are not available,” says Don, “most buyers want high GTPI or Net Merit, often one full sister is the favourite of the buyer whilst in our eyes another is the best.”

“Genomics has increased our progress at a rate we could never have dreamed of previously,” enthuses Don, “a huge difference between the profitability of herds that use genomics and those that don’t is developing.” Whereas the gains of milk production and the improvement of health traits on a widespread scale has increased profitability throughout the herd, sales from the genetic programme have also boosted cash flow.

No-Fla Supershot 43459, sparked unprecedented interest amongst the A.I studs, when she emerged as one of Supershot’s highest daughters. Purchased by Peak Genetics privately, she has a GTPI +2772 NM$969 (08/16) with big scores for PL +8.8. “For us, it’s been an asset that bull studs established their own female programmes, it ensures there is a competitive market for high ranking females,”
smiles Don.

“Alta Genetics and North Florida Holsteins have partnered for many years to provide breed-leading AI bulls for our most progressive dairymen. More recently, Peak Genetics has continued this partnership by purchasing elite females such as NO-FLA SHINE and NO-FLA SUPERSHOT 43459 to enhance our donor portfolio. We believe that there is no better source of production, health, and overall profitability than the NO-FLA prefix, and we will continue to pursue females like SUPERSHOT 43459 to accomplish our Peak breeding objectives.” Mike Menendez, PEAK Programme Specialist and ALTA sire analyst.

Added Value
With a successful track record in producing top ranking sires, the bull studs genomic test approximately 1400 bulls per year from North Florida Holsteins. About one in twenty finishes up at stud. “You cannot make an A.I bull for less than $50,000,” Don tells each sire analyst he works with, when referring to the bull studs’ nucleus programmes; and noone has disagreed. Buying donors, recipients, setting up a special farm and paying people to cover all the details is expensive, Don calculates that it costs them at least $15,000-$20,000, even with their genetics and infrastructure in
place. Preferring payment up front, with or without royalties, Don recognises that it’s already a three-year wait from the time you make the mating until you get paid for a bull producing semen.

North Florida Holsteins- one of Florida’s largest registered dairy farms
North Florida Holsteins- one of Florida’s largest registered dairy
farms

In addition to the 60-70 bulls they sell to the studs each year, they have a thriving herd sire programme. “We were losing lots of money on bulls until we developed a market selling genomic tested bulls to commercial dairymen,” Don acknowledges. Today well over 1200 natural service sires are sold annually. Preferring to sell them in semi-trailer or gooseneck loads, bulls are sold by weight. Bulls averaging around 1000lbs in weight normally return around $1.60/lb, with younger bulls
realising $3/lb. “Clients specify what they want, but most commonly high health traits and outcross bloodlines,” says Don, “whilst we get plenty of orders for high Productive Life, Daughter Pregnancy Rates, Calving Ease and Somatic Cell Scores, we don’t get too many requests for taller and sharper-these are folks looking for bottom line profitability.”

Breeding
Following every proof approximately 15-16 bulls are selected to meet their breeding requirements, whilst maintaining low inbreeding coefficients. “We try and choose a selection of bulls which score high on our own NFH index, with varied sires, typically this may include two sons of Supersire, Mogul, Oak and Stoic,” says Don, “we usually limit each bull to between 250-300 services.”

Milking so many, Don can pinpoint and admires the bulls which have been influential in shaping the herd. In the early days bulls like Blackstar and Tesk made great older cows, followed by Diehard, Duster, Formation, Mtoto, OMan, Outside, Rudolph and Wizard. Of the genomic bulls whose first daughters have calved in the last 12 months, Don’s favourites would be those sired by Mayflower, Jacey and Oak. “Their progeny are consistently productive and strong with practical udders, though we have tried to mate all three to improve their genomics for sire calving ease.”

The bulk of classifications done are through the SET (Sire Evaluation for Type) programme, to assist the studs and Holstein USA with data. A few bull mothers and brood cow families are scored to complete the pedigrees, but apart from looking nice on paper, Don believes the classification system in its current form serves no purpose to the breeding programme at North Florida. “In addition to stature, the push for sharpness is totally contrary to breeding a more profitable cow.”

Every animal is DNA tested when they are tagged at birth. NFH is home to over 5000 head of youngstock (including bulls) Primarily these are house in feed lots and fed a TMR diet
Every animal is DNA tested when they are tagged at birth. NFH is
home to over 5000 head of youngstock (including bulls) Primarily these are house in feed
lots and fed a TMR diet

Having focused on health and fitness traits for years, does allow them to utilize extreme sires like the current leaders of the TPI list, Sandy Valley Saloon and Seagull-Bay Supersire. Don recognises both are great bulls with extreme production, but both have a weakness in low daughter fertility numbers. “The bull studs are currently in a Supersire craze, most studs are wanting to mate his daughters and granddaughters to his sons and grandsons. The release of the August Genomic Young sire list exacerbated this,” states Don.

Answers

Today in the U.S 3% of the dairy farmers produce half the total milk, whilst the number of farms milking over 20,000 cows has reached double figures. Concerned with a growing trend for these farms to milk or convert to Jerseys or cross breeding, Don points out that a decade ago the population of that type of cow was 3% of the national dairy herd, todays it’s approaching 20%.

“These businesses are the ones that have studied the economics of the industry,” says Don, “What does it say about the type of Holstein we are promoting if they are moving the opposite direction?”

For dairies contemplating the switch to cross breeding, why not pay North Florida a visit. If economics is on the verge of forcing you to look for an alternative, then perhaps a solution lies here. A past recipient of the World Dairy Expo Dairyman award in 2010, Don is well-informed, well versed and well-travelled. At 75 years young, Don’s passion, enthusiasm and drive for the industry shows no signs of wavering, instead its full steam ahead. Currently deliberating and chewing over contingency plans, Don wants to safeguard the future of North Florida Holsteins and everything it stands for.

With smart management, purposeful breeding goals and constant commitment, you can be sure that the influence of North Florida Holsteins will continue to be felt right across the Holstein industry for years to come.

NORTH FLORIDA (NO-FLA) HOLSTEINS, Bell, FL

  • Located 75 minutes North West of Ocala and 50 minutes West of Gainesville
  • Owned by Don and Marianne Bennink
  • 2400 acres –Main crops grown are corn, Tifton 85 Bermuda grass, Triticale and Rye
  • 4,800 cows (4,200 milking at any one time), 4500 heifers, 900 bulls (All registered Holstein)
  • Rolling Herd Average: 29,357lb (13,316kgs) 3.6%f 3.0%p (3X)
  • Average daily yield 94 pound (43kgs) 3X
  • Milking Cows housed in 5 tunnel barns and 2 naturally ventilated barns with fans and
    sprinklers/4000 sand bedded freestalls
  • Main herd milked in a double 40 parallel (500 per hour), late lactation cows, hospital unit and excess are milked through a double 12 herringbone
  • TMR ration consists of Corn Silage, Grass silage (Tifton 85 Bermuda grass, Tritical, rye), Canola Meal, Wet Brewers grains, Cottonseed or Citrus, Cornmeal, Lacto Whey, Molasses
  • 110 full time employees
  • Current Service sires include: Altabayou, Altak2, Altanixer, AltaTopshot, Burley, Chico, Dignified, Hutton, Jovial, Ligero, Mansfield, Mills, Morris, Outsiders, Pageone, Ramp Up, Romney, Turbo, V Wonder, Zigzag *used for the lowest inbreeding coefficients
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