This month George Brown, our East Midland’s Cowman, tells us about the great grass growing season and how he is using teams of 16 Hereford bulls to get his 630 spring calvers safely back in calf.
Well what a fantastic grass growing year 2019 has been, at least so far. Consistently we have bettered growth rates that we achieved in 2017, which was widely heralded as a great year for grass growth, and it has come as welcome relief after the challenging growing conditions we had last year.
For reference, by mid-July we had already grown more this year than the full 12 months of 2018, with perennial ryegrass paddocks on our 184ha milking platform having already averaged 9.5 tonnes DM. As a result, forage stocks are looking promising.
With the farm having received 330mm of rain to the end of July, we are slightly below target for average rainfall for the year, but the timing of showers has more than compensated for the low total. More than half of this rain has fallen in June and July, which has been a blessing given low soil moisture levels through April and May.
An important lesson for me from 2018 was to keep a tighter record of monitoring our rainfall through the year. In spite of having a rain gauge set up in the garden, it was previously purely for interest as I wasn’t recording the amount of precipitation received.
This had left us under-informed when discussing the dry weather, having to rely on average rainfall information taken from our local weather station some 11 miles away. By simply noting down the millimetres received in a diary, we now have a much clearer picture of what is going on, and it will be interesting to compare with future seasons.
In what feels like an achievement for a farm milking 600 spring-calving cows in the East Midlands, we have only had to feed seven bales of silage to the milkers this summer.
Ironically this was caused by wet weather meaning grazing plans had to be changed last minute, as cows were diverted into some low grass covers that were well-accessed by hard tracks. This aside, instead of feeding silage we have been quick to respond to any sign of a deficit by altering cake feeding levels in the parlour, and have grazed half of what would have been third cut silage to drop our demand on the milking platform. Quality of this has been variable, but the cows have milked well and done a reasonable job chewing out some heavy pre-grazing covers.
Rolling milk from forage figures have been rising, as we look to get this figure back up to 4,000 litres. The weather has of course played a part in this, as has our herd’s maturing age profile, with only 22% of the cows being in their first lactation this year. Milk quality has now also corrected to better than last year’s levels, having struggled this spring with butter fats being 0.4% down on March and April last year.
Bulls were taken out from the cows at the end of July to conclude our 12-week mating period. This year we ran 16 Hereford bulls in two teams of eight, rotating the team every 24 hours so that the bulls were well rested.
Every milking the bulls were segregated from the cows as they came towards the collecting yard, and drafted into a shed for some cow cake and a rest on a bed of straw. Although at first this was labour intensive, within a week the bulls had learned the procedure and would head straight to the sorting gate, wanting to get some feed.
For one thing, we were keen to reduce the amount of time bulls spent stood on the yard in order to minimise lameness, and for another we were keen to eliminate the possibility of bulls serving cows stood on concrete. This was something which we believed to be particularly essential given the relatively large number of beef bulls we had working in each team.
As yet we don’t have any scanning information, and will instead opt for one whole herd scan in early September. Our three weeks submission rate was just below target, with 85% of the herd served in the first 21 days of mating, but by the end of six weeks of AI, 97% of cows had been served.
It was then left to the bulls to sweep up any stragglers and repeats, and it looked as though bulling activity tailed off towards the final three weeks of breeding.
This season saw us trialling sexed semen on the cows for the first time. Our none-return rates suggest we still have some way to go in managing how we use this product, with it appearing that conception rates will be about 20% lower than on our conventional straws.
We were pro-active with our cow selection for animals to be bred to sexed semen, only using it on early calving animals which had been free of any problems in early lactation and which were having strong heats. Frustratingly most of them returned for another strong heat 21 days after being inseminated.
Dabbling with sexed semen while simultaneously stabilising cow numbers on the farm also presented us with the opportunity to be more selective with the animals we have mated to dairy semen. The bottom 10% of the herd were mated to beef from the start of mating, with this group selected as being any animal that produced under 400kg of milk solids last year when adjusted for age, as well as cows with poorer udders and feet.
If we can improve our conception rates to sexed semen, it is hoped that we will be able to be increasingly selective with this group of animals, reducing the number of dairy calves while driving herd improvement.