SETTING TOUGH, but realistic, targets has seen an underperforming dairy unit realise its potential and increase profitability by 2p a litre in one year.
Having been milking a low performing 200-cow herd for up to seven years, Harper Adams University College decided it needed to raise its level of management.
The pedigree Holstein herd had averaged close to 5500 litres and was clearly suffering with various cow health, longevity and management issues, says senior lecturer Simon Marsh.
The decision to tighten efficiency and increase output was also made easier with the arrival of herdsman Dave Ellis two and a half years ago. “The infrastructure was there, all be it a little dated, as well as the capacity to increase yield,” says Mr Ellis.
In October 2002, the herd average yield was at just 6611 litres. By October 2003, this had increased to 7794 litres and the Harper team set a target of 9000 litres to be achieved within the next couple of years.”
In just one year we have hit that target,” says Mr Marsh.
Farm manager Scott Kirby says cow health was a major concern. “Locomotion was poor and overgrown feet needed tackling hard.”
Coupled with that, June 2002 saw cell counts hit 400,000 cells/ml. But with extra attention paid to milking routines, such as wearing gloves, foremilking and pre-dipping, cell counts drastically dropped. “With a cell count of 195,000 cells/ml, we are now in the premium band of our Wiseman contract,” he adds.
A strict culling policy was introduced for high cell count cows, adds Mr Ellis. “Why keep a cow capable of 10,000 litres when she has a cell count of more than 1m?”
Fertility was another area of concern, adds Mr Kirby. “Replacement rate has been high, currently running at 29%.” Replacement heifers were initially bought in to establish an elite breeding nucleus, but his intention now is to maintain a closed herd to improve biosecurity.
Careful selection of cows has been vital for the college herd, reckons Mr Marsh. “Conception was below 40% with a calving index of 440 days, so knowing the best cow families and treating cows on a more individual basis have been key.” Calving index has now been brought down to 410 days, but there are further improvements to be made, he reckons.
The main breeding aims are now to go for a small, easy-care type cow weighing about 650kg with good capacity, legs, feet and udder attachment, added to that the capacity to milk, says Mr Kirby.
“This is the main reason for purchasing a batch of Brown Swiss heifers and a bull, allowing crossbreeding to improve longevity.”
As far as nutrition for the herd was concerned, Mr Marsh felt there were many changes required. The first being the dry cows which have been split into two groups – far off and close to, he explains.
“Cows in the far off group have forage and minerals to maintain a condition score of 3-3.5, while cows in the close to group receive one high yield ration for every two cows plus dry cow minerals.”
High yielding diets are based on maintenance plus 36 litres, consisting of 60% maize silage and 40% grass and/or whole-crop. “Our low summer rainfall usually restricts us to taking just one cut of grass silage with the college normally making whole-crop.
“But with this year”s wet summer, a second grass crop was taken and our wheat earmarked for whole-crop was conventionally combined,” says Mr Marsh.
The focus is on a dry matter value of 30% from grass silage, as he doesn”t see a place for low dry matters in high yielding cows” diets. “We also aim for some structural fibre in our grass silage as rations are based on maize silage.
“Why make low fibre grass silage forcing you to add straw to the ration?”
Forages are balanced with caustic soda treated wheat, a 50:50 Hi-pro soya and rapeseed meal blend, sugar beet pulp, molasses, fat, urea and minerals with a yeast culture, Mr Marsh says. #
“Cows also have access to a proprietary 18% protein compound via out-of-parlour feeders. These are set to provide for additional production at 0.4kg/litre to a maximum of 5kg/cow,” he adds.
“This well buffered diet has paid dividends to the overall production of the herd, including a reduction in laminitis and acidosis and increased milk yield, without putting pressure on the cows,” adds Mr Kirby.
Low yielding cows are fed for maintenance plus 24 litres with cows which are transferred to this group being allowed access to the out of parlour feeders.
Another change considered, which is still in early stages is calving pattern, adds Mr Marsh. “Calving generally has taken place from October to March, but we are now moving to all year to suit the Wiseman contract.”
Overall herd performance is monitored by Kingshay, so the college is able to benchmark against other local high yielding herds.
“The latest results show we rank first out of 17 herds on margin over purchased feed a litre and fourth for margin over purchased feed a cow. Such figures now allow us to focus on cutting fixed and variable costs,” believes Mr Kirby (see table).