Dry cow nutrition has become an important part of herd management at Martin Wilson’s Broadlea Farm, Lockerbie, with the aim of reducing metabolic disorders and maintaining high herd health. Bruce Jobson reports.
Martin Wilson has a pragmatic approach to dry cow feeding along the lines of the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it’.
This has been a maxim for his 245-cow herd at Broadlea Farm, Eaglesfield, near Lockerbie, for the past 10 years, where he considers paying ‘attention-to-detail’ as paramount.
Martin owns and operates the 214-acre holding with the aid of two staff and a relief milker. He also rents a further neighbouring 60 acres and some in-calf heifers are reared off-farm.
Late lactation cows are dried off 56-60 days prior to calving and are fed a specialist ration in a separate cubicle building before calving down in straw pens.
“Managing cows in the dry period has advanced considerably over the past decade or more,” he explains. “We started feeding Almins Biochlor 10 years ago and had fantastic results. We cut it out of the ration after 18 months but noticed within two months we had a few concerns. We then put the supplements back into the ration and haven’t had any problems, and it has remained in the ration ever since.”
Dry cows receive a diet of 19kg silage, 8kg of wholecrop and 2kg straw. Biochlor Down Calver concentrates are fed to cows and heifers during the dry period for the three-week transition period leading up to calving at a recommended rate per cow or heifer per day, depending on ration content, explains Martin.
He said: “The aim is to successfully adapt the cow’s rumen for her lactation and give her as good a start as possible by helping to prevent some of the troublesome metabolic problems, while maximising the cow’s dry matter intake during this crucial period.
“Milk fever rates run at between 1-2% on an annual basis and we have virtually eliminated retained placentas – including cows which have had twins. When cows start to calve down we have the confidence to give them time to deliver the calves themselves – 95% of our animals have natural calvings. We monitor what’s happening, and obviously if there is a concern, we get involved.”
Martin applies the same down-calving philosophy to replacement heifers coming into the herd. In-calf heifers return to the farm onemonth prior to calving and this gives the animals time to adjust back to the home farm environment.
The target is to reach a weight of 350kg at 12 months of age.
Cows are housed in cubicles and graze outdoors for about half the year.
New born heifer calves are all reared at Broadlea Farm in purpose-built rearing units including an igloosystem with adjoining 25-metre exercise areas. The five igloos are 4.4 metres each in diameter, with calves being fed by automatic milk replacer at feeding stations and the diet is supplemented with a starter concentrate at a rate of 2kg per day.
Heifer calves are weaned at 60 days and fed a diet of straw and concentrate mix at a recommended rate of 1-1.5kg per day before moving into a specialist rearing shed at five months of age. At eight months, the heifers are fed a diet of silage, wholecrop and straw, and concentrate at a rate of 2kg, reducing to 1.5kg per day.
The new facility was built in 2012 and was designed by Martin as a continuation of the beneficial health and welfare aspects of the igloo system. The rearing unit incorporates calf cubicles, an automatic scraper system and centralised feeding passage, and is designed to provide adequate light, ventilation and exercise.
Calf diseases such as pneumonia have been virtually eliminated and this has helped calves achieve specific target goals, especially calving age, explains Martin.
“We have specific targets and our dietary requirements are designed to achieve a target weight of 350kg at 12 months of age. We also want our maiden heifers to be 1.26m at the withers and be strong and healthy at service. Age at first calving has gradually been reduced over the past few years and today our heifers are calving down from 22 months onwards.
“We use sexed semen on the maiden heifers and are achieving 75% conception rate. All the heifer matings are a result of using Heattime transponders to help accurately identify the onset of oestrus. After first service, the heifers run with a natural service beef bull that helps ensure we have ‘tight’ calving age appropriate groupings.”
Once the maiden heifers have been served, the groups are reared off farm from the age of 15 months onwards. Moving forward, Martin is considering the option of using more sexed semen on specific milking cows and using beef semen on a greater proportion of the herd.
The milking herd is provided with pedometers and the monitoring process is proving highly successful with the herd currently achieving a 380-day calving interval. Martin does not rely on visual identification of animals in heat, either as maiden heifers or as milking cows, but has placed complete confidence in Heattime transponders and pedometers.
A pregnancy is achieved for every 2.2 units of semen used and the herd has a current replacement rate of 22%.
The igloo system has an adjoining 25-metre exercise area.
Dry cows are housed separately at Broadlea Farm.
The cows are housed in cubicle facilities and fed a TMR ration in winter and graze outdoors for six and a half months per year. The herd is milked through a 20:20 Westfalia parlour and averages 9000 litres per head milk sold at 4.3% fat and 3.3% protein. Due to the high compositional quality, milk is supplied to Arla for cheese production at its nearby state-of-the art factory at Lockerbie.
Paying attention to detail on all aspects of farm management has enabled Martin to achieve a series of targetdriven goals. The process has enabled him to identify specific criteria during each stage, starting with dry cow transitional diet and supplements, through to calf housing and heifer rearing, and finally onto entry into the milking herd.
“We start at the earliest point in order to get our cows calving down healthy and trouble free, without potential concerns of milk fever and retained cleansings. This allows the cows to start well in early lactation, achieve optimum production and in turn return to early oestrus cycles. High herd health and animal welfare, including high levels of reproduction, starts 60 days before calving not 60 days post partum,” he says.