February 2017 Gold Cup Comment: Heifer management challenge

This month 2016 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner Simon Bugler from Dorset updates us on herd health and feeding management while he reflects on various milk production systems.

There’s definitely something about January’s cold dry weather that gives you enthusiasm to be working outside whereas the wet and muggy start to February has not.  With the change in weather we have already had two cases of mastitis four days into February, while the healthy cold weather in January rewarded us with our best month ever—just two cases in total.  One of those cows was a repeat offender, that probably should not have been in the herd due to high cell counts and repeat cases, but having produced 19,000kg of milk last year I side stepped my culling criteria.

Still, it has been a really pleasing start to the year, with a low rate of mastitis which we will try hard to maintain.  Historically we have suffered from higher levels of mastitis, but I’ve always been determined we could achieve periods of nil mastitis with attention to detail.  Two cases in a week used to be an exceptional week when we milked a herd of 130 cows with half the yield.  Credit has to go to the milking team for the efforts in the parlour as they carry out a diligent routine three times a day.

As well as mastitis I thought it would be good to include a table with some fresh cow health results now that we are half way through our Gold Cup year—both to monitor our progress and to set targets. 

One challenge going into this year has been the large number of heifers due in the early months of this year.  This has put pressure on space so I have moved the far off dry cows to a larger cubicle house so some of the heifers can be accommodated with them on the transition diet.  These have been moved to the near calvers 12 to 15 days from calving day, instead of the usual three to four weeks.  This is where our cattle sales business has to be carefully managed so as not to damage herd performance, but essentially, whether heifers are for sale, for replacements or expansion, we want them to transition smoothly and hit the ground running. 

The January sale ended up totalling 20 and again delivered very satisfying trade.  I have 21 intended for the sale in February.  Sexed semen has been key to the growth of our own herd and our cattle sales which is why it was interesting to sit down and account for the calves that will be left behind.  The 21 prospective sales in February will leave 15 heifer calves, five beef calves and just one Holstein bull.

However, if you view the cash flow impact of rearing youngstock, to me that’s a productive outcome of calving extra heifers. 

Going back to transition, we feed on the floor not in a trough and find that with this ration it’s difficult to keep it pushed up.

The dry cow ration has lots of chopped straw so the cows attempt to sort and nose around in it.  Having gone to all the trouble of chopping straw and mixing for long enough to prevent sorting it’s then all a waste of time five minutes after the wagon has emptied, when they have pushed it all out of reach.  To help with this we have a Lely Juno, which is relentless in its push-ups and doesn’t drive off to unload a delivery, haul some square bales or load a dung spreader like the JCB seems to!

This has really helped to make sure intakes are not inhibited with what is probably the most important management group.  That’s not to say the Juno always goes where it should, it has ended up in some strange places, as we have learnt how to control it.

While we are in a comfortable period of herd health at the start of the year, the plan going forward is to build on this.  I have always felt cow health has to come first and milk will follow.  While yields have started to climb in December and January, doubling feed push-ups with the arrival of Lely Juno must be helping.

The argument is sometimes made that higher yields can cause more stress and subsequent health issues such as mastitis and poorer fertility.  Personally I think it works the opposite way.  If the cow has a high health status, she will perform at much higher yield levels without detriment to fertility and still present a better immune response to challenges like mastitis.

When analysing our own health performance over the last six months, I am very pleased with the low levels of milk fever, RFMs and LDAs, coupled with what is hopefully a falling rate of mastitis towards the target of less than 10 cases per 100.  This I think gives us the ability to support with real data the positive health benefits to our cows in a housed dairy.

A recent television clip made by Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty presented a positive message of support for free range dairying.  While I have no reason to disagree with their support of this sector of production, I think their references to, and criticism of, housed cows were somewhat ill informed.  There is an on going debate about methods of milk production in UK dairying, whether it be housed, grazing, organic, seasonal calving or free range.  I think the welfare point is regularly missed, and seems like it’s attempting to create a split between the systems of production.

The important thing to me is not which system is best or right but is the cow being looked after or managed in the best way she can be.  As long as we have a good measure of herd health and KPIs relating to it across all these systems, that has to be the true measure of what is right and the cow will ultimately give us the answer.  Surely it is better to rely on actual data rather than a romantic notion held by a TV presenter?

The case against housed systems will no doubt meet more opposition in the years to come.  On the other hand, I wonder how some robotic milking systems will be viewed?  While some people will graze with a robot, the majority will also most likely choose to house their cows.  This gives the cow a free choice of what she wants to do throughout the day.

For many, the investment in robotic milking comes down to the simple need to secure longer-term sustainability for their family business.  This decision is often made because the thought of increased employment bureaucracy does not appeal to them, or they just can’t find enough good quality local labour but still love milking cows. 

One other challenge for us this year is the small matter of a Gold Cup Open Day here at Pilsdon Dairy.  Planning started at the end of last year and is proceeding well.  The date will be June 28th.  We hope to see lots of you there on the day and while there will be a lot of preparation required, we are really looking forward to it.

Cows in herd: 642
Cows in milk: 559
Milk sold litres/cow/day: 38.7
Fat: 3.76
Protein: 3.22
SCC: 89
Bactoscan: 8
Calvings cows/heifers: 24/32
Heifer calves: 33

Reprinted from the February 2017 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website.