Gold Cup Comment: Starling problem resolved

One good thing about this cold weather is that it will hopefully kill off a few of the bugs.  We seem to have been having a bit too much mastitis—six cases last week and our cell count was over 200.

I think all that wet and windy weather last month certainly didn’t help.  We have culled five persistent offenders and hopefully this has helped.

We currently only have two cows’ milk out of the tank and the cell count has fallen to 170-180.  I’m not a great believer in really low cell counts as I think they are the cows that seem to get really ill when they do get mastitis.  At least with a cell count around 150-200 you have some natural immunity.

I’ve had cell counts as low as 40-60 going back 25 years when I worked for Hanford Farms in Dorset.  We had an outbreak of E.coli mastitis that was probably one of the worst three weeks of my working life.

We milked three times a day back then.  That certainly lowers cell counts—but we had cows going down like flies within a couple of hours of being milked.  We did all the usual:  changed liners, serviced parlour, checked milking routine.  Even the great Richard Snow was stumped and after about three weeks, it just stopped.  We never got to the bottom of it and I vowed never to worry about getting my cell counts too low again.

Going back three or four years, we used to hate cold weather because we would get millions of starlings descending on our dairy buildings.  When we had the last really cold winter our dairy was like an unclean bird shed.  We had several staff ill and ended up with salmonella in the cows.

After much dung sampling and losing three cows in one week, vets from Langford told us that Marbocyl was the only drug that would treat this strain of disease.  Within hours, all the other cows improved beyond recognition.

We vowed that the starlings would never get in our buildings again, and started putting up a few bits of wire around the sheds to see what size wire would work.  With our cows all being in one shed and the feeders in the middle, it was not that difficult.

The most awkward bit was the outside feeders for the fresh group, but Steve came up with a novel pivoting design to swing in for feeding and swing out for the cows to feed and it has worked really well.

Fencing on the sheds had to be replaced because the starlings got thinner

Fencing on the sheds had to be replaced because the starlings got thinner

Fencing on the sheds had to be replaced because the starlings got thinner.

Unfortunately for us when the starlings returned the following winter they flew straight through the wire.  We then realised they must have got really fat at our expense during the previous winter, but when they returned from their feeding season they were obviously a lot thinner.  We then had to change all the wire to a smaller size, which we did over the next two weekends and since that day, not one starling has been in our cowshed.

The difference in cow performance was unbelievable and it was just pleasant to be in the cowshed.  We reckoned that it increased yield overnight by at least three litres per cow, per day with the same feed.

With approximately 325 cows milking that was an extra £250 a day just on milk income—not accounting for the reduced drug usage and improved cow health.

With the starlings usually being here for about four months, that works out to a staggering £30,000 in milk income alone and with the reduced drug usage and improved cow health, probably comes close to £50,000 in extra income or reduced costs.  The cost of making the shed bird proof was about £2,600 so that’s a near 2,000% return on investment in one year alone!

Without any doubt it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.  One farmer recently commented to me that he thought it made the place look a lot like a zoo.  My reply was that I was now proud to show people around during the winter months, whereas I didn’t used to like anybody around in the winter months before.  Another good side to this is it has also made our cowshed badger proof.  With our annual TB test looming next week though it still gives me no confidence—but at least if we have a breakdown we’re a closed herd now and have all our stock under one sole occupancy licence.  So at least we won’t have to keep getting licences to move all our cattle around.

That was the biggest downfall of having the heifers contract reared.  We have usually tested all our cattle on one day, but have decided to split it up and do all the young stock on a different day.

We have just made a small adjustment to our milking cow ration as our cows are not quite hitting the heights of last winter.  On our January 2014 NMR records we averaged 40.3 litres but January 2015 was only 37.4 litres. 

The fresh calves seem fine but our stale cows seem to be getting a bit heavy.  We have been cutting back the cake in the parlour a bit harder on stale cows and their dung seems a bit too stiff to me.  We have increased the urea very slightly.  

It would probably be better if we fed two different rations but our sheds make it very awkward for this.

At last we’re starting to catch up with all our odd jobs, calf de-horning and heifer vaccinations etc.  It’s good to be back to normal health, we all take it for granted, but there are still a lot of people in the world worse off than most of us involved with the dairy industry.

If you got a Gold Cup entry form recently my advice to you is to go for it.  Put a bit of thought into it—and you never know.  If somebody had told us a year ago we were going to win the “Gold Cup” we would have laughed!

You never know, it could be your turn.

Reprinted from the February 2015 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website