Having a second pair of eyes on-farm to carry out a system appraisal has helped one Welsh dairy to improve milk yields, boost calf growth rates and lower transition disease, as Farmers Guardian finds out.
Aled Potts believes the changes in transition cow nutrition and subsequent improvements in cow health have been the main factors behind a 700-litre per cow increase in the last 12 months.
In that time, fresh cows have been peaking at an average of three litres per cow per day higher and also holding the peak for longer.
Mr Potts, who runs 75 British Friesians with his uncle Dilwyn and grandfather Ivor, says: “They are also bulling a lot sooner. We have had a cow bulling nine days after calving. Something is obviously working.”
That in itself means cows are being served earlier, so there are fewer stale cows, which is helping the milk production picture. The family is starting to pull together fertility figures, but the hope is their observations will be reflected in performance data.
Will McNiece, of Mole Valley Farmers, who carried out a ‘lifetime dairy appraisal’ of the herd, believes there are several factors behind the improvement.
The appraisal looked at the four main stages of the cow’s life: the calf; the heifer; the transition cow; and the lactating animal.
By walking the farm and collating information on calf and transition cow performance, Mr McNiece was able to identify areas for improvement and quantify some of the potential benefits.
Transition cow mineral nutrition and a lack of energy were identified as some of the key issues. Cows were also over-conditioned and gaining weight in the dry period, which was leading to higher than desirable levels of disease around calving.
This in itself is highly costly, with the level of milk fever at the time estimated to be costing the business thousands of pounds a year.
The fact the Potts family was also choosing to bottle every cow with calcium at calving, in an attempt to prevent problems, was adding even more costs.
Dry cows were originally kept on either a bare grass field with silage and then run through the parlour for cake, or in loose housing and fed silage and cake.
Mr McNiece says the fact silage was high quality and also high in potassium was adding to the milk fever risk.
Consequently, he advised moving to a 50:50 straw and haylage diet, fed ad-lib and top-dressed with 2kg of dry cow rolls, six to eight weeks before calving.
This increases to 3.5kg/cow close to calving. With cows achieving intakes of 11.6kg dry matter in the close up period, this provides 125 MJ/kg DM. Magnesium licks are also provided.
Mr McNiece adds: “This ration allows targeted mineral nutrition. Grass silage has also been taken out of the diet as this is high in potassium, which locks up calcium and increases the risk of milk fever.”
Mr Potts believes the improvements have been marked.
"The cows are peaking better,” he says. “The heat signs seem to be better and we hardly use calcium any more. The cows seem to be calving a bit better on their own too.”
Better mineral status means cows are also cleaning up better post-calving, while they are also maintaining body condition pre-calving, not putting it on. Disease incidence around calving has dropped considerably, bringing the business an estimated yearly saving of more than £16,500.
The milkers are also now fed a fully mineralised dairy cake, containing yeast through the parlour.
This is balanced to complement the silage in the clamp, which is aiding performance.
Considerable savings and gains in efficiencies have also been made in heifer rearing. As part of the calf assessment, Mr McNiece used the appraisal’s ‘lifetime calculator’ to highlight how reducing age atfirst calving from 28 to 23 months could result in extra margin over purchased feed (MOPF) per lactation worth £81.26.
Across the whole herd, this equates to an MOPF worth £6,500.34.
Mr McNiece adds: “Younger heifers will also have better yields and last longer. Research by Van Amburgh in the United States shows that heifers calving at 23 months produce an average 38,345 litres in their lifetime and last 3.7 lactations. Those that calve at 27 months last just 2.1 lactations and yield 19,960 litres.”
Having weigh-banded all the baby calves, Mr McNiece identified that weight gains were well below the target 800g/day minimum needed to hit targets to calve at 23-24 months. At an average of 580g/day, calves were taking about 11 weeks to double birth weight – the target parameter for weaning.
To increase gains, colostrum feeding protocols were reassessed and Mr Potts now uses a refractometer to test all colostrum. Now, rather than freezing everything, only quality colostrum with a Brix value of of more than 22 per cent is stored and fed.
The best quality colostrum will be prioritised towards the heifers.
Calves are no longer fed whole milk and the same calf milk replacer is fed to avoid problems with feeding consistencies when changing between products.
The business has since shifted to feeding a quality milk powder which is high in protein and energy and includes probiotics to aid gut health.
This is fed at 150g/litre, with three litres fed twice daily. This provides 900g of milk solids a day, which is needed to hit growth requirements.
Calves are also now consuming about 2kg a head at weaning of a quality calf pellet, compared to the previous 1kg of course mix with sorting previously a problem.
Mr Potts says calves are eating and growing more, which means they are being weaned about three weeks earlier than before. Across 80 calves, this is saving about £2,000 in milk powder alone.
Weighing is now a regular occurrence, thanks to a weigh scales syndicate, which includes the Potts family’s farm and three other nearby farms. By paying about £100 each, they all get the use of calf scales which Mr McNiece moves around the farms, while also collecting and analysing the weight information.
Results show that those heifers enrolled on the new management programme are on track to be served at 14 months and calve at 23 months.