Pregnancy rate is ‘king’ on dairy farms and, as a result, heat detection and submission rates are key areas of focus. In the first in a series of features looking at IT on the farm, we look at how IT packages help a farmer achieve the best results when it comes to fertility.
Spotting signs of heat, and acting on those signs, can be difficult as farmers and their staff struggle with other time pressures while dealing with high yield milking cows showing quieter and shorter heats.
While there are a range of activity monitors on the market, there are also a number of IT-based systems to help track and improve fertility at all stages.
Cheshire dairy farmer Ed Seaton, of the well-known Styche herd of Holsteins, has recently started using one of the newcomers to this sector of the market and says he was driven by the need to deliver consistent milk production throughout the year.
The 280-cow herd at Kynsal Farm, Audlem, calves all year round with a rolling average yield of 11,000 litres.
Mr Seaton says: “Pregnancy rate is vitally important to us; we need to keep our herd calving.
“If we have not got cows calving, then milk starts to drop off. We only have to miss one or two heats and we will start to see a drop in milk yields.”
He adds the biggest weakness in terms of the herd’s fertility was traditionally heat detection and record keeping. However, he says the new system now being used on the farm, Precision Reproductive Solutions from Cogent, has helped deal with both of these issues.
The system combines heat detection with data management using cloud-based software and technical expertise.
Mr Seaton says he aims to pick up heats as early as possible, fitting cows with a heat detection collar as soon as they calve.
“We have used an activity monitor for some time, but the system we were using before was nearing the end of its life. Things started to slip without it and we began looking for something else.”
Mr Seaton concedes the high yields mean heats can be difficult to spot but he has been able to lower the ‘activity’ threshold on the monitors so cows which are showing only quiet and short signs of heat are flagged up.
Mr Seaton says he wanted a system which did not have a maximum lifetime and he also wanted something which could aid him with record keeping.
“The system’s cloud-based technology means everything can be recorded and accessed through my mobile phone. So everything from calving to heats is automatically recorded and I can easily look them up.
“I used to write everything into a paper diary and then transfer it to the computer when I had chance, but now it goes straight onto my phone.
“If I am in the cubicle shed and I see a cow bulling, I can look the cow’s records up straight away. The system also colour-codes the cows into active, suspect, expected and low activity groups so I can see exactly where a cow is in the cycle, or where it should be.”
The software also allows Mr Seaton to apply for calf passports and make a note of any problems he observes when checking the cows.
Because the system uses cloud-based technology, the data will not disappear if the phone gets lost of broken.
The system can be accessed from anywhere, so Mr Seaton can check what cows are bulling even if he is not on the farm and he can also use it to pull out meaningful information.
“It has to be easy to put the information in but I also want to get information back out. We can pull reports off the system, so at our fortnightly vet visits we can flag up the cows which have a collar but are not showing signs of heat.
“We needed a system which could easily pick out these problem cows.”
Serving starts 45 days post calving and anything not showing signs of heat at 65 days will automatically be presented to the vet for further checks.
Everything is served to artificial insemination (AI) with Mr Seaton and his herdsman, Gary Pemberton, carrying out the AI rather than relying on technicians coming in.
A Precision technician will come, if needed, and a member of the team from Cogent visits the farm on a monthly basis to check the system is working correctly and have a look through the figures.
Heifers are bred to sexed semen, getting two chances, before being served with conventional semen. Sexed semen is also used ‘very selectively’ on cows.
“We will serve everything to the black and white unless we know there is a problem and we decide to discontinue the line in the milking herd,” says Mr Seaton.
The use of sexed semen has meant the herd has gone through a period of rapid expansion and, while TB movement restrictions have also played a part in this, Mr Seaton says the long-term goal is to be able to sell surplus heifers again.
While the technology is now in place to help improve herd performance, Mr Seaton and his nutrition and management
consultant, Hefin Richards of Profeed Nutrition Consultancy, agree there needs to be protocols in place to get cows to this stage in the right condition in the first place.
Mr Richards cites the building of a new dry cow shed and cow comfort features in the main cubicle shed as being the most important aspects affecting the herd’s performance.
The dry cow shed, which has been used since April, has been designed with cow comfort in mind and Mr Seaton says he is already seeing the effect of this with cows and first-calved heifers now entering the main milking herd in better condition.
Mr Richards says: “The big focus has been on getting the dry cows calved and transitioned into the milking herd well. We need cows to calve with minimal problems.”
The shed contains sand-bedded cubicles and plenty of feed space access. The flooring of the feed bunker has been coated with a resin which, Mr Richards says, keeps feed fresh and encourages intakes.
Cows stay in the shed for the whole of the dry period and heifers, which are reared away from the farm from seven-months-old, come back to the farm and into the dry cow shed three weeks before calving.
The shed design also features a footbath which the dry cows have to pass through every day helping to minimise problems, Mr Seaton says.
All cows have a routine foot trim at drying off, with feet picked up again only if there is a problem.
Cows calve in a loose-housed pen within the dry cow shed, where they will remain for a few days before joining the main herd.
“The dry cow and calving area on many farms can be a real weak link. But it is important to remember every lactation starts in the shed, and the environment could have a bigger impact than anything we can do after calving,” says Mr Richards.
The main cubicle shed housing the cows all year has also been adapted to incorporate wider passageways, which Mr Seaton says has helped eliminate bullying behaviour. This, coupled with some grooving work, means less cows are lost from slipping down.
“We have been using sand in the cubicles now for three years,” explains Mr Seaton. “While dealing with the slurry can cause some issues, the health benefits far outweigh the slurry problem.”
The next step will be to improve calf accommodation, which needs some investment to match the herd’s expansion.
“At the moment, calves are in pens for the first six weeks and then, around weaning, they are moved into groups. We might look at calf hutches in the future,” says Mr Seaton.
One thing is clear, while yield might have the biggest impact on the business’ bottom line; fertility plays a huge role in this.
Mr Richards says: “To get production you have got to get cows calving; reproduction is key to production.
“Fertility is as important in high output herds as it is in herds which are block calving. It is still very important to get cows in-calf at the right time and get a spread of early, mid and late lactation cows all year round.”
The ration is fed out twice a day, with no top-up feed offered in the parlour
Dry cow ration:
Milking cow ration: