Welsh dairy farmer Andrew Thomas says that making small changes to his transition cow management is delivering dividends in terms of cow health, performance and productivity.
Farming at Leighton, near Welshpool, Andrew Thomas has been there since 2001 when the farm consisted of a 20.2-hectare (50-acre) unit with one cubicle shed and a Dutch barn.
Following an amalgamation of the land on the estate he was able to extend to 89ha (220 acres), building more cubicle sheds and a milking parlour.
He says: “Since then we have just grown organically.
Initially we brought heifers in and gradually increased our cow numbers.
We now have a 270-cow high-yielding Holstein herd with all-year-round calving and provide all our own replacements.
Heifers are contract reared between six and 13 months when they come back onto the farm.
“We have now put cubicles with locking yokes in for the heifers to improve breeding management as we couldn’t get heifers in-calf early enough.
As a result, the calving age has come down to 23 months.
“We feed 50% maize and 50% grass.
In addition to our own land we also rent land for maize, meaning we are farming around 360 acres in total.”
While the herd used to be spring-grazed, it is now fully housed.
Yields have increased from about 7,000 litres per cow per year to a current level of 10,900 litres.
All the milk from the farm goes to Müller for liquid milk.
“The first cows that we housed were actually the closeup cows,” says Mr Thomas.
“We had a spate of milk fevers one summer and we tried to keep the dry cows tight on the paddock and feed them straw and calve them on the paddock, but it never really worked.
We housed the close-up cows and that reduced the milk fever.
Then we got to the point where none of the dry cows went out and finally, following a poor summer, we housed the whole herd, although a very small number of low-yielding, far-off cows are let out to graze.” As far as silage is concerned, Mr Thomas maintains that if anything the dry cows get the best silage, but the quality overall is very good.
He says: “The ration is consistent across the board including the dry cows, although the close-up cows also get a dry cow roll three weeks before calving.”
Mr Thomas admits that in the past his dry cows got a raw deal, he says: “The dry cows were the ones which got the poorer silage, they were crammed at one end of the cubicle shed and on the whole they were a bit forgotten.
Five years ago we decided that we needed to build a shed for the dry cows.
“We built a shed with 34 fourfoot-wide cubicles and Wingflex mats.
They had plenty of room and an outside yard.
There is a footbath and they footbath themselves just by us leaving a few gates closed.
Overall there is no pressure on them and it sets them up well.
We also focused more on the dry cow diet and more recently we have moved to a semi-DCAD system that works well.” Prior to opening the separate dry cow facility, Mr Thomas says there were definitely more milk fevers, more metabolic disorders and cows which calved needed to be left on a straw yard for longer.
He adds: “We were getting DAs and now we haven’t had a DA for a long time.
As far as performance in the long-term is concerned, we have seen a big increase in overall milk yields and in peaking levels.”
Independent consultant Sam Evans is Mr Thomas’ nutritionist, he says: “Where a lot of people have concentrated on ‘how can we increase production?’, Andrew’s focus was on ‘how can we increase the health and the welfare of the cows?’, which in turn will increase profitability.
By doing that, the performance and the productivity have increased, as well as there being a reduction in disease.
We try to maintain a system that is consistent across the whole cycle, with the same mix of feed throughout the year.” Mr Thomas has also taken out the straw yard where the newly-calved cows were placed.
“We have done away with the straw yard and we have put in large cubicles for 23 cows with a sand pack.
They are in there for 48 hours and it means we can keep an eye on them.
As well as the increase in yields we have seen a massive reduction in mastitis and we haven’t had any cases in the milking herd in the last two months.
We have also seen cell count go down considerably in the last six months.” The new regime has also helped to reduce antibiotic use, which is one of a number of health measures specified in the farm’s Müller contract.
Another recent initiative has been an increase in zinc input to combat digital dermatitis in all the milking cows.
Mr Evans says: “We have used Availa® 4 for some time and then Zinpro came out with some research recommending increased levels of zinc and we decided to try it.
It made a real difference, so we extended it to the dry cows.
After working with producers in America and Europe we adopted the principle further and started a farm trial.
We didn’t think there was a problem there, but when we started doing the trial we realised that there was an underlying issue.
It has been a great success, knocking digital dermatitis on the head.” The transition facilities on Mr Thomas’ farm have been developed as a result of recommendations coming out of the FirstStep® program which has been developed by Zinpro to assess hoof health and provide actionable recommendations to the farmer, including specific recommendations for transition.
On hoof trimming around transition, Mr Thomas trims all his cows a month before dry-off and all heifers’ feet are modelled before getting incalf.
This reduces the stress to the cow at drying off.
Mr Evans says: “Upgrading the transition facilities has made a massive difference to the overall herd health.
The next step was to address other recommendations including renewing and widening all the cubicles in the existing housing and putting in new mats.
We had to work with what we had, so even though they are not perfect, they are significantly better than before.” Mr Thomas says: “In making the improvements we lost 10 cubicles but we actually get more efficient use of the cubicles we have with them all being used all the time.
We have also increased lying times.
Overall, the health of the herd has improved greatly and we just don’t get the sick cows that we used to.”
He adds: “The FirstStep® program has been really helpful in making recommendations and we have made lots of small changes.
You don’t have to make massive changes.
Small changes can make a big difference, particularly in transition.
Once you’ve set that cow up it makes a difference to everything including getting them back in-calf and milk production.
“We also have a lot fewer involuntary culls.
Cows leaving the herd are now selected based on their production because we can afford to be picky about the ones we keep.” Mr Evans says that many of his recommendations have involved spending money, but ultimately all the changes that Mr Thomas has made have paid for themselves in better herd health and increased performance.
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