North Yorkshire farmers Andrew and Alison Holgate were nominated in all five categories at the UK Dairy Day Premier Nutrition Transition Management System (TMS) awards, winning best TMS performance for herds milking more than 8,000 litres. Neil Ryder reports.
Zero tolerance to lameness is a key component in a wide-ranging approach to cow health and welfare in the Aliann Holstein dairy herd of North Yorkshire farmer Andrew Holgate.
He says: “Any cow or heifer showing signs of lameness is pulled out immediately to find the cause and be treated.
“Apart from the fact lameness is related to many other problems, I believe to leave any animal lame longer than is absolutely necessary is cruel and something we will not tolerate on this farm.
“A professional foot trimmer visits the farm twice-a-year to inspect and treat every animal, and I deal with any problems in between. Cows also go through a footbath at least once-a-day. We have used various products, but mostly just use formaldehyde. A footbath is placed close to the drinking trough in buildings, so they have to go through it when they want to drink.”
The farm has a similar zero-tolerance approach to udder problems.
“We immediately pull any animal with mastitis out for treatment. Many farmers leave cows undergoing mastitis treatment until the end of milking, but we always milk a problem animal first to make sure she gets our full attention and the least possible stress,” he says.
The Holgate family took the tenancy of Hard Head Farm, Rathmell, Settle, in 1968, buying it in 1985. Mr Holgate’s father John is a first-generation farmer.
The family team is now made up of Andrew, his wife Alison, and son Edward, plus Andrew’s parents, John and Margaret. A student at Newton Rigg College, Edward works part-time on the farm. Ben Harper also works for them two days a week.
With various additions of land over the years, Hard Head is a fragmented 101-hectare (250-acre) unit, all wet land with black earth over blue clay.
Extensive drainage has been carried out, but maintenance is a major problem, as iron deposits find their way into pipes, some of which are believed to be more than 100 years old. There is also 11ha (27 acres) of limestone pasture which is let out.
The farm lies about 213 metres (700ft) above sea level and everything is grass, with an ongoing reseeding programme based on late-heading perennial rye-grasses. The area reseeded each year varies widely, with about 20ha (50 acres) covered last year, but only 4ha (11 acres) this year.
Along with many farms in the area, the original dairy herd was wiped out in the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and the decision was made to establish a pedigree Holstein herd under the Aliann prefix.
“I felt there was more to dairy farming than just milking cows and wanted to concentrate on sales of pedigree stock. Now we build up stock numbers over a five-year period, then have a major reduction sale on-farm. We may sell a few animals through Gisburn auction between these sales, if needed.
“As we sell young animals, we retain our older cows. These are of relatively low financial worth but are breeding higher value youngstock for sale.
“These older cows will have easily given us 50 tonnes of milk, plus their calves. We use AI and embryo transfer in our breeding work, with bull selection based purely on type. Our cows last five lactations, on average, with our system giving a replacement rate of about 20 per cent,” he says.
Calving is year round, with heifers calving down at an average of 2.3 years of age and the spread reflecting the use of embryo transfer.
A total mixed ration (TMR) is used, plus concentrates in and out the parlour. Feeding is forage-based, with cows outside as much as possible during the day and silage offered inside through the year. With this in mind, most silage is made in the clamp, topped up with some big bale silage for buffer feeding during summer.
Winter feeding is partial TMR, based on silage and straw. Wholecrop was tried, but he says it was not a success.
Housing is in cubicles, with Mr Holgate believing strongly in having more cubicles than cows to minimise stress.
“I would rather have 10 or 15 less cows than cubicles as this would also give plenty of room when feeding. This reduces stress and improves overall health, including levels of lameness, compared to where there is over occupancy of 110-120 per cent. I can see why it may be done when there is expensive housing to be paid for, but is not good for the cows.”
With the emphasis on breeding stock for sale as much as for milk production, dry cow management is an important part of the system.
Stephen Caldwell, of SC Nutrition and Grass Science, is the farm’s consultant. He says: “To help with monitoring the health of his transition cows, Mr Holgate uses the Transition Management System [TMS] service.”
This entails monthly visits by the firm’s TMS manager Rachel Chadwick to record key aspects of health and management, such as rumen fill and hock hygiene.
Mr Caldwell says: “Data is collated to provide information on udder health, energy status, dry matter intakes and metabolic disease risk. An overall TMS score for the farm is also calculated – the higher this score is, the better the management.
“It is obvious the transition phase, whether in the UK, US, Canada or elsewhere, is an area which requires improvement. Andrew’s reports show how well he is managing this period and benchmark his farm against an average TMS score,” says Mr Caldwell.
“These figures are drawn from a range of farms and not just good ones, as this would show us little. There are a range of herd sizes and systems, including some which have a separate transition cow shed, something most units cannot offer.
“The meticulous attention to detail here at Hard Head is reflected in the results. TMS numbers in the short-term are interesting, but it is the rolling average over the long-term which tells the story.”
Mr Holgate says: “We dry cows off two months before they are due to calve and double tube them with dry cow tubes and sealant. The aim is to dry off and calve at body condition three, maintaining condition throughout.
“We do not feed any dry cow rolls or anything special. They are separated from the herd for a month and then go back into it just to get them settled back and into the diet. It is a straightforward system as we do not have the buildings to separate them here, there and everywhere.
“After calving, cows are rehydrated and we make sure mineral levels are maintained using the drench, which gives the cow a massive boost.”
Mr Caldwell says this is not a system which is easily repeatable everywhere and it depends on the person applying it.
He says: “Transition cow management is not an area for keeping simple, as this often means not doing anything. Keeping it straightforward and repeatable is key – using TMS will evaluate and measure the effectiveness of your transition cow management.
“Andrew has got the award but is not focused on it. He got the results and award because of his attention to detail.
“The scheme has allowed us to look in detail at the results and learn from them. It has worked well for him.”
Overall, Mr Holgate feels his system is working well, although he also says it is a hands-on system, with long hours, seven days a week through the year.
For him, milk production is the means by which he can produce high quality pedigree dairy cattle for sale, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.