December Gold Cup Comment: Fertility key to herd profit

This month John Taylor, herd manager at 2014 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winners Worthy Farm in Somerset, reports on heifer performance and explains fertility management in the herd.

The cows have settled really well onto their winter ration now and although production is slightly down on last year, milk quality is a lot better at 4.0% fat and 3.25% protein.  We get a small butterfat bonus over 3.5% so that will add 1p per litre—a little way towards the price cuts.

I think production is down a lot as we have about 33% heifers which is high for us, and as we are calving our heifers younger I think their first lactation will drop slightly although lifetime dairy yield should increase.  This is confirmed by our end of year NMR records which show a bigger gap between cows and heifers yields.  It has been running at about 1,000kg difference but has jumped to 1,600kg this year.  The cows averaged just over 13,000kg with heifers doing 11,400kg.

Obviously three times a day milking is the next step but I still feel our cows would be stood up for too long and moved about too much causing more lameness and I think we would only achieve a 7% to 8% rise which doesn’t justify the extra costs.  No doubt the heifers would probably gain most, but at what cost to fertility?

I keep getting told I should have a separate heifer group, and I think perhaps with calving them younger, it is an option—but our heifers seem to stand up for themselves pretty well and are far more aggressive feeders than our cows.  I think the secret is plenty of feed space and only 85% stocking rate in the cubicles.

Our transition cows seem to be spot on at the moment and long may it continue, as it has such a long-term bearing on fertility.  The downside of this is that the cows are bulling really strongly and this is causing a few problems.  We have had three trodden teats in the past couple of weeks and have had to turn a few old girls in to the loose yard to recover after a rampant night.

We don’t usually serve any cows until 70 days but I have started serving some of the lower yielders a bit earlier, it seems a waste not to when some are on their third heat at about 60 days.  We seem to have a lot of cows bulling at 21 days after calving which is unusual for us and the vet is not seeing too many not bulling at 70 days. 

Fertility has always been pretty good at Worthy but we always seem to struggle when cows are at grass from August to October.  Probably always getting short of maize doesn’t help but this year has been much better as we had plenty of maize and next year looks even better.  In 2013 we actually ran out of maize at the end of July, the graph shows the effect on fertility.

We replaced maize with crimped wheat and although the cows milked just as well and milk quality was okay, conception rates dropped to about 30% for three months.  This year has been much better with conception rates staying at well over 45% throughout the year.

Since switching to all Alta all the time our fertility has definitely improved and using only easy calving bulls helps a lot as we rarely have to calve a cow.  I’m a great believer in leaving the cow alone and only interrupting when you have to.  Something you learn with experience but still get wrong occasionally. 

As soon as a cow calves we always give them 4ml Oxytocin to help them cleanse and all third calvers get a calcium bolus and a bottle under the skin if suspicion of milk fever.  We do not get very many cows with whites and don’t carry out any post calving checks unless we suspect a cow is dirty.

We have De-Laval heat detection collars on all the cows and these work really well, so well that I don’t do a late night check any more, unless there are cows calving that is.  I thought I was pretty good at spotting bulling cows but it’s surprising how many it picks up that I didn’t see and it’s also useful for picking up low activity cows as well.

I carry out all the AI myself as I feel it gives you a good insight into general cow health.  Usually the better the bulling string the easier to AI and the better the chance of getting pregnant.  I see good fertility as a top priority to bottom line profit and see each cow as a challenge.  I operate a simple AI system of cow bulling morning—AI pm, cow bulling pm—AI next morning.

I take each cow that repeat breeds as a personal failure, even more so when we get negative PD’s because that means not only have I not got her in calf, but I’ve also missed a heat as well.

I did my DIYAI training course about 27 years ago whilst working at Trewithen Dairy in Cornwall.  It’s the only training course I have ever done but five days well spent with Mr Tudor-Owen, a fun lecturer.

We are now only using genomic bulls positive in DPR and PL daughter preg rates and productive life and hope in the future this will make our cows even more fertile, easier to manage and last longer.  Sounds too good to be true, but here’s hoping!

Well 2014 turned out to be a fantastic year for all at Worthy.  There will certainly never be another like it.  Personally I’ve ticked a few boxes on my bucket list, the biggest obviously being the Gold Cup.  Unfortunately the wife was not impressed with a few of the others, perhaps a few Christmas drinks will change her mind.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from all at Worthy.

Reprinted from the December 2014 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website