Switching to DIY AI was a daunting prospect for dairy farmer Chris Cunliffe but, since he and his herdsman have trained and begun successfully inseminating cows, the benefits have extended well beyond the substantial cost savings and improved conception rates.
Mr Cunliffe’s 150-strong herd based at Cricket St Thomas, Somerset, was suffering poor conception rates at about 48%, which – alongside a particularly poor milk contract – was leading to a severe disenchantment with farming. Like many farmers of his generation, he was contemplating an early retirement from milk production.
While a new direct supply milk contract that has boosted the farm’s milk price has also helped lift his spirits, it is the added responsibility of DIY AI that has really turned the situation on its head and revitalised interest in the farm.
“If I am going to farm for the next 15 or 20 years I want to have greater interest and motivation,” remarks Mr Cunliffe. “With a more rewarding milk contract and greater control over herd fertility, I can now see a way forward.”
The first step to improved fertility was taken when Mr Cunliffe and his herdsman, Ralph Seymour, attended a one-day course on DIY AI organised and run by the farm’s Bridgwater and Ilminster-based vet practice FarmVets Southwest. This culminated in practising insemination on abattoir-sourced uteri at the practice.
Next came two 3-4 hour sessions with vet Jefrey Chakwenya on the farm, the first with barren cows and the second with synchronised heifers.
And finally the pair undertook the inseminations unsupervised, although Mr Chakwenya was always available for consultation and has maintained a monitoring role as part of his monthly fertility visits.
“I was surprised how little time it took to learn,” says Mr Cunliffe, who is encouraged by the 70% conception rate achieved on their first 12 unsupervised services.
“It isn’t as difficult as we first thought, although attention to detail is important.”
Comparisons in the timeliness of insemination were immediately obvious. “When we see a cow bulling at 11am, ideally she should be served within 14 hours of her standing heat,” he points out. “Through no fault of their own, the AI technician would often arrive eight hours too late.
“Now our heat detection has improved and we discuss in more detail the timing of insemination, which before was completely out of our hands.”
It’s not just the insemination, but the handling of semen and the management of the flask that’s so critical to the success of the process, according to Mr Cunliffe.
“It takes 45 seconds to defrost semen and the handling time from flask to cow is less than a minute,” he says.
“And it’s not just the straw you are using, but the ones you are leaving behind in the flask that need to be handled with care, as they can easily be damaged in the process.
“The sequence of events is critical and then cows have to be ready, calm and restrained from both sideways and backwards movement. When they’re not calm, you might as well walk away.”
Just yards from Mr Cunlifffe’s work station – which comprises no more than a plywood surface of about 0.3sq m – is a set of 11 self-locking yokes, which are more than enough for a farm of this size.
|What they needed|
“Most farms have perfectly adequate facilities for this,” he believes. “It takes no more than 15 minutes from start to finish for one or two cows a day.”
The financial incentives to get the process right have been great. For Mr Cunliffe’s herd, an annual bill approaching £3500 for the technician service has been completely wiped out. Then there’s the realistic prospect of improved fertility leading to fewer culls, a better control over the supply of milk sold to a level profile, while even the more regular supply of bull calves to the local butcher has its rewards. The semen bill is also expected to come down with fewer services needed for each conception.
For his herdsman, he has introduced a further incentive. “I’m bringing in a bonus scheme,” he explains. “It’s based on the ideal of 1.5 services a cow, with £200 paid for each 0.1 service reduction on two for the herd. So, at 1.75 services a conception he could earn an extra £500 or at 1.5 services he’d earn £1000 more a year.
“It has completely raised our level of interest,” concludes Mr Cunliffe. “I’m aiming to increase cow numbers to 175 in the next 18 months whereas before I couldn’t afford to restock because of the sheer cost of buying cows combined with the lousy milk price.”
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