Cow pain, different milking systems and how to manage multiple units – all of this was up for discussion at the recent National Herdsman Conference at Harper Adams University College. Gemma Mackenzie reports.
Dairy producers could be making better use of NSAIDs to aid cow pain, said Chris Hudson from the University of Nottingham.
He said there was significant evidence to suggest cattle experience pain in a similar way to humans, despite not exhibiting any obvious signs of distress.
"Cows are effectively athletes who are working really hard for us every day, and quite often those exhibiting extreme levels of pain don't show any signs of it," he said.
Citing a Farmer and Vet Survey carried out in 2007, Mr Hudson said at that time 53% of farmers surveyed felt the vet didn't discuss pain management and relief with them, and more than half thought they didn't have enough access to painkillers for cattle.
He said: "There are not many painkillers we are allowed to use on cattle, just NSAIDs and some local anaesthetics. But we have scope to use NSAIDs more for problems such as mastitis because there is quite a lot of evidence that clinical mastitis is painful.
"A metacam study in New Zealand in 2007-08 found that SCC went down significantly quicker with the combined use of painkillers and antibiotics, and the overall cull rate was improved."
Health areas to consider the use of painkillers include: calf pneumonia, castration, disbudding, calving problems, eye conditions such as New Forest Eye, and calf scours.
Management lessons from multiple units
As dairy units expand up and down the country, farm managers need to start thinking more like businessmen, said Grasslands operations director Geoff Booth.
Sharing his experience of managing seven dairy units for Grasslands – a dairy contracting company based in Cheshire – he said producers needed to add structure and definition to their businesses.
He recommended producers take the following measures to "add value" to their businesses:
• Hold regular KPI and financial reviews of the business
• Assess performance of the business against objectives set in KPIs
• Identify the weak and strong areas of the business, and where improvements can be made
• Regularly plan for the future and set new objectives.
And to achieve all of this, getting the right people to work on the farm, providing them with training, and holding regular staff meetings is essential, he added.
How many times a day should we be milking our cows?
The UK hosts a wide range of dairy farming systems ranging from low input, low output once-a-day milking operations, and all year round housed four-times-a-day high input, high output systems.
Lifting the lid on the benefits of each, two different farmers spoke about their systems:
Milking 500 organic Jerseys once a day
Wiltshire dairy farmer Jonny Ryder's system is all about "no meddling farming", following a move to once-a-day milking 14 years ago.
"We have a very simple system – we milk once a day, calf in a tight six-week period, and use no concentrates, fertiliser or silage. All the calves are reared on cows – three to one cow – and the cows graze for 12 months of the year," he said.
Dispelling the perception that once-a-day milking poses welfare issues for cattle, he said the system, which is more suitable for breeds such as Jerseys and Friesians, caused less stress on the cows, as well as offering more flexibility for him and his family.
Health and fertility benefits of the system include: lower incidence of lameness due to less walking, higher body condition, lower mastitis levels, long stronger heats, more grazing time, no use of teat sealants, and virtually no need to use antibiotics.
Milking 600 Holsteins four times a day
Somerset-based Brue Valley Farms herd manager Adam Atkinson believes milking freshly calved cows four times a day ensures a high yield throughout the cows' lactation.
"We started this system in February 2011. Fresh cows are milked four times a day from 0-21 days in milk, and after that they go on to twice-a-day milking," he said.
The cows are milked on a 60-point forward rotary parlour, with three people working on it each time. And since switching to the more intense milking routine, yield has increased 8.2% from 9,679 litres to 10,545 litres.
Mr Atkinson said producers looking to adopt a similar milking system should take note of the following considerations:
• The system must be logistically feasible – cows housed beside parlour to reduce waiting time
• Dry cow and transition cow management needs to be spot on
• Cows must have a body condition score of 2-2.5 for calving
• Good mobility is essential as cows are on their feet for longer
• Stocking density must be less than 80%
• Cows must have a minimum three-hour gap between milkings
• ACRs must be working correctly