Making targeted improvements to cow health, feeding and genetics is boosting performance on a family dairy farm in the Midlands.
A passion for dairy farming led Dave Richards to bring milking cows back to the family farm after his father retired.
Now he manages one of the most progressive herds in the area and is constantly seeking ways to improve cow health and welfare and milk from forage.
The Richards family has farmed at Ridgend, near Wichenford, Worcestershire, for 75 years, initially as tenants but then they were able to buy the farm in 1981.
Dave Richards’s father worked hard to repay the mortgage so by the time Dave entered the business in 1997, his father had opted for a quieter life and sold the milking cows.
Mr Richards started out small with just 20 cows but he has gradually built up the business and he now milks 300 cows.
Grass forms the mainstay of his system and most of the forage is home-grown.
Mr Richards says: “Our milk contract requires us to graze all the cows for at least six months so making sure our grassland management is right is very important.
We have a fantastic climate here for growing grass because it is warm, but with enough rain for the clay loam soils.”
He adds: “We are on a paddock grazing system so I am using a plate meter to measure the sward.
We reseed regularly and more recently we have opted for a seed mix which tends more towards a grazing ley.
“Over summer cows are out at grass most of the time, but when they come in we top up with TMR which contains the grass silage together with crimped maize, protected rapeseed and a blend.
After a challenging year last year where forage was in very short supply on-farm, Mr Richards experimented with a catch crop of forage rye and was very impressed by the results.
He says: “We grew forage rye between the maize and the grass reseed and it worked really well.
It provided some much needed additional forage and it also re- booted the system so the grass ley established very well afterwards.
“I do not like to see any bare ground on the farm, so we are hoping to do the same this year if the weather allows,” he adds.
Trying to make many small improvements to all aspects of the system at Ridgend Farm has paid dividends for Mr Richards as performance has improved year-on-year across a range of parameters.
He says: “I work very closely with the vet and my nutritionist to maximise cow health and to ensure their diet precisely matches their nutritional requirements so they can reach their productive potential.
Life is simple if our cows are healthy so we will make the best use of any tools available to help us maintain a robust, easy system,” Mr Richards says.
Although he has had few specific health problems in the herd, Mr Richards has been adding Zinpro performance minerals to the TMR for several years.
He says: “We have been feeding a tailor-made mineral to the ration based on any deficiencies identified following the forage analysis.
We have quite high molybdenum levels and because this can act as an antagonist, particularly affecting copper availability, the addition of Zinpro performance minerals ensures the cows receive everything they need.
“Achieving high herd health status is very important to us.
We are very proud to be BVD free but TB remains the biggest threat and we are now in a cull area.
“Our cows have excellent foot health and we have a very low percentage of lame cows.
Overall, the performance of the herd is consistently good and now we are focusing on tackling the very occasional spike in mastitis cases.
“We are working hard to reduce our somatic cell count, because while more than 80 per cent of cows in the herd are below 100 cells, we have a few repeat offenders.
We are trying to increase cow numbers and so we have held onto these cows when we really should have moved them on.
“We need to become tougher because these cows are causing our herd average to be too high.”
Mr Richards’ aim of expanding the herd size was thwarted initially by being short of grass.
So while he has focused on selecting the best genetics to improve the herd, he has not been able to be as selective as he would like to be when rearing replacements.
“We are now using genomics to identify the bottom proportion of the heifers so these can be bred to beef.
It is our intention to phase out these low performing families so we can focus on rearing replacements from those heifers with the best genetic potential,” Mr Richards explains.
Producing calves which ‘hit the ground running’ is another priority and the correct mineral supplementation of the cow during early pregnancy through to the transition phase has been instrumental in achieving this.
“We measure colostrum intake to make sure calves are taking sufficient quantities.
The calves are then reared in small groups and the target is for them to gain a kilo a day while on milk and then averaging 0.8kg per day once they are weaned.
“We are aiming for a target weight of 380kg at 12 months and they are aged between 22-23 months old at calving and weighing 630kg when they join the herd,” Mr Richards explains.
Observing the dynamics and behaviour among the heifer cows after calving persuaded Mr Richards to make some changes to the management of this group to reduce stress.
“We have formed a separate heifer group and this has been very successful.
The heifers seem much quieter when kept apart with their pier group and there are no signs of bullying.
“We have found the conception rates in the heifers have increased since doing this.
After their second calving, they join the main herd.”
Assessing the relative benefits of different options has resulted in a change in strategy when serving this heifer group after first calving.
“We have increased the voluntary waiting period from 40 days to 70 days and have found a marked increase in the conception rates.
Our heifers were joining the herd at a young age and then we were serving them again soon afterwards.
“We were drying off some heifers that were giving 12,000 litres.
By allowing them an extra 30 days, they continued to give good yields and it gave them the opportunity to put on more condition before calving.
“Another benefit is they are now giving more milk in their second lactation.
So, on balance, it has worked very well,” Mr Richards says.
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