The chance of a new build brings with it the freedom and responsibility to design things as you would want and which are of benefit to the cow. Ann Hardy went to visit a new unit in Somerset to pick up some tips.
Dairy producers designing dry cow accommodation should allow more feed space per cow than for the milking herd.
This advice reflects the fact maintaining dry matter intakes and rumen fill is essential to successful transi- tion and will help set up the dry cow for her next lactation.
Owen Atkinson from the Dairy Veterinary Consul- tancy, speaking at the open- ing of Dillington Estate’s Knott Oak Dairy, Ilminster, Somerset, said: “I’d impress on all of you to learn the art of rumen fill.” And first and foremost he said this meant designing plenty of feed space into dry cow buildings. “If you are going to stock a shed to any space, then feed space is what you should stock it to,” he said.
First, he said you needed to calculate your calving numbers and for a year- round calving herd this was straightforward. “Just divide your cow numbers by your calving index and multiply by 365 to give the number of calvings per year,” he said. For this 380-head year- round calving herd he said there was roughly one calving every day.
Close-up Since each cow remained in the close-up group for 21 days (the far offs were at grass), he said there would therefore be an average of 21 cows in the group at any one time. “But there will be peaks and troughs and if you build your unit to the aver- age you will be overstocked half of the time which you can’t afford with transition cows,” he said. Recommending the unit should be built to 1.3 times the average capacity, he said this meant including 28 feed spaces for the close-up group for this particular herd.
As a rule of thumb, he said the feed space allow- ance should be 75cm per head for barrier feeding, although in this herd he said there should be 28 self-locking yokes for the expected 21 cows. Remarking many things conspired against intakes in the dry group, he said: “They are not as hungry or as active with their feeding as milking cows and their diet is often dry and straw- based, so not as appetising.”
He stressed the impor- tance of maintaining the correct body condition score and said a target for 2.5 to 3.5 was appropriate for the dry group.
Event sponsor Elanco claimed anything outside this range would be a candi- date for Kexxtone, its bolus which had the scope to shift the rumen’s microbial balance and increase the pro- duction of glucose.
Although feed space was the primary consideration, he said dry cow accommo- dation should also be built with minimum lying requirements. There’s another easy rule of thumb which is in a strawed yard each cow needs roughly 1sq m of lying space per 1000 litres of milk,” he said.
This meant a 9000-litre herd needed a minimum for lying of 9sq m per cow in the group, although loafing and feed barrier space was additional to this figure. “It is all about risk and because high yielding cows are more at risk they shouldn’t be stocked as densely,” he said.
The question also had to be asked of when the close-up cows were moved for calving, and he said the choice was to operate a ‘just-in- time’ policy or move the cow to an individual pen four or five days before calving.
“A ‘just-in-time’ policy does not mean moving the cow 24 hours before calving but means moving her when she has started pushing or is in second stage labour,” he said.
Advising farmers to avoid moving cows a few hours before they showed signs of labour, he said: “This causes stress and you can almost guarantee she will not eat on that day, calving is likely to be delayed and retained foetal membranes increase.”
However, he said a ‘just- in-time’ policy was difficult to achieve and a farm should have an alternative ‘up its sleeve’. “I would accept 10-15% calving in cubicles,” he said, although he admitted this was generally undesirable because of hygiene stan- dards for calves which may be born on to slurry.
JDillington Farms set about building its new dairy unit with one overarching goal – to produce twice the quan- tity of milk using the same number of staff. Formerly operating a 200-head herd on a traditional dairy unit just outside Ilminster, Somerset, the option of expanding the existing 1970s unit was quickly dismissed and attention was turned to a new build.
“Last year we decided the existing unit was not suitable for expansion,” said Chris Wilson, estate director for the 3000-acre farm, speaking at the open day for the new unit. “And all of the trustees agreed quickly to the new build.”
In fact, so quick was the whole process, little more than a year elapsed between the trustees agreeing to ex- pansion in March 2014 and the commissioning of the new unit in May 2015.
“We spent the money so fast, the bank couldn’t quite keep up with demand,” said Mr Wilson.
Today, four of the farm’s six Lely Astronaut A4 robots are in use, with the final two being commissioned in the week of the open day. Aside from the slurry store, silage clamps and con- version of the adjacent for- mer dairy unit into far-off dry cow and youngstock ac- commodation, the bulk of the £2.2 million investment has gone into the creation of a substantial new barn, measuring 145m by 45m.
Within this area, the herd will be housed in six milking groups, each allocated to one of the six robots. “We could have had one large group but feel the smaller groups are more manageable,” said Mr Wilson.
“Cows are allocated to their group randomly and are at all stages of lactation within each group, meaning about 2000 litres per day goes through each robot.” Alongside milkers in the main barn are close-up dry cows in a small area of cubicle housing, adjoining which are five rubber- floored calving pens.
“The idea is one person will look after the six robots,” he said.
“That person will watch the cows and do jobs like drying off, service and foot trimming, while another will do feeding.”
With 2.5 staff in total – the same as the old 200-head herd – the hope was this would suffice when num-bers reached the target 380 next spring.
The new barn features an insulated roof, designed to prevent moist air from condensing so air will more eas- ily flow to the vented ridge; green bedding, dried with a corkscrew press; bird mesh and badger proofing; Lely feed pushers and mobile barn cleaners; sensor lighting; and Pasture Mats and Cowcoon cubicles made from polyethylene and steel. Farm vet, Ed Powell-Jack- son from Synergy, also em- phasised the importance of maximising health and wel- fare through the design.
He said: “This means making sure we are 10% over-ca- pacity with comfortable cu- bicles; providing tipping water troughs which are emptied and cleaned multiple times a day; rubber mat- ting where cows are waiting for milking; and footbaths at robot exits for easy and – if necessary – daily use.” So, has the production met expectations and allowed the goals to be met?
“In the old dairy our production was 8500 litres and we’re now aiming for 10,000,” said Mr Wilson. “It’s too early to say whether we are there, but what I can say is in June 2013 we averaged 24 litres; in June 2014 we averaged the same, and in June 2015 we aver- aged 30.2 litres per cow.”
Whether the farm trustees are happy with their investment is a moot point.
“Of course they are not best pleased the milk price has gone down,” he says. “But this is a long-term invest- ment. The family has been here for 200 years and is plan- ning for the same again. So, this is a long-term strategic plan based on the assump- tion milk will always be wanted and people will pay us enough to produce it.”