13 December 1996

Dairy production suffers from troubles at calving

Robert Kilby has been counting the cost of calving difficulties at Whelan Farms. Suzie Horne reports

CALVING problems have marred dairy performance at Whelan Farms over the past few weeks, with some cow losses, others slower to come into milk and vet bills much higher than anticipated.

Most of the problems have been in the 40 smaller cows put to one Limousin bull which was recommended for maiden heifers. "Thank God we didnt use him on the other heifers," says manager, Robert Kilby.

Of the 40 cows put to this bull, four have been lost. "We have had to help 75% of those that have calved so far, and now we are inducing the rest on the advice of the vet about three days before they are due," says Robert. "Others are calving to a Belgian Blue with no problem."

Complications have included a caesarean and a prolapse, and vet costs for attendance at difficult calvings and subsequent treatment for cows that have gone down will probably be £500 more than budgeted.

Herdsman Neil Ammon and assistant Nic Lancaster have not been able to identify any physical differences in the condition of the cows leading up to calving, which might have been a factor. They were all on ad lib straw, plus 1.5kg of dry cow nuts each a day for the three weeks before calving.

Heavier than expected

Part of the problem appears to be that calves were being born about a week past their due date, making them up to 14kg heavier than expected. There have also been some very large calves with wide shoulders.

"The cows in question are not particularly well bagged up at calving," says Mr Kilby. Apart from the losses, it is taking affected animals up to a week to recover and come into milk properly, so production is being lost.

Mr Kilby reckons the cow deaths have cost him more than £2000 a time, if the animal is put at £600, the lost milk at £1600, plus vet costs of £100 or so. The final straw is the £25 a head charge for taking the fallen stock off the farm.

Meanwhile milk production is averaging 23 litres a cow a day, and this should increase as the rest of the cows calve. But production for the herd is down by about 200 litres a day on plan because of the losses and late starters.

Changes to dairy feeding have brought lower butterfats (down from 3.9% to 3.7%) and better proteins, which have risen to the farms highest ever, at 3.43%. To help achieve this, the 22% parlour cake has been replaced by a 25% feed to complement the maize. Average intake of the new parlour feed is 2.5kg a cow a day against an average of 6kg of the lower protein feed. So far this cut has not resulted in discipline problems in the parlour.

The higher protein parlour feed was only introduced at the start of December, so its impact on margins is unknown as yet. But the better compositional quality achieved so far will go some way to making up for the 0.9p/litre cut in milk price since Dec 1. The improvement in protein gives a 0.872p/litre price rise, although there will still be a small overall drop because of the lower butterfat and price cut. "I am not so worried about that because we should gain litres with a lower butterfat," Robert comments.

The main ration is made up of 25kg maize silage, 10kg grass silage, 4kg brewers grains, 2kg maize gluten and 1.5kg of a 40% protein maize complement made up of soya and fishmeal. This last ingredient has been introduced to compensate for the drop in parlour feed and both brewers grains and maize gluten are being fed at much lower rates than last season.

Margins to the end of November were up by about £10 on the previous month, with margin over concentrates at £1274 a cow and margin over all feed averaging £1211. Margin a litre over all feed was a respectable 20.9p/ litre and should improve further once the changes in diet show through.

Bull choices for the current inseminations round have majored on high yielders rather than type bulls, says Mr Kilby. The main three are Zebo, one of the highest recorded milk bulls available at +1336kg, Mountain (+1009kg) and Merv (+1124kg). For the heifers, the choice is Frutostar at +1030kg and with an easy calving recommendation. All the bulls have also been selected with a good protein to fat ratio in mind.

The introduction of the new beef calf processing scheme has meant much better prices, with two bulls last week making £110 and £114 at Ashford market. "It has also pulled up heifer prices, so that we are averaging around £55 a head," says Robert.

He has also cleared all the culls which were due to go, although payment for cows sent on Sept 19 was not received until Dec 6.

Tupping has been a swift exercise again, with all but 100 ewes served after 17 days with the rams. Scanning will take place in the first week of January at housing.

The plan is for older ewes and any in poor condition to go on to stubble turnips about the middle of this month to maintain condition. &#42

Farm manager, Robert Kilby (right), and herdsman, Neil Ammon, check the quality of the maize silage.


&#8226 A 649ha (1604 acre) arable, dairy and sheep holding owned by John Whelan and farmed by Sentry Farming.

&#8226 Chalky soil with some clay over chalk in Kent.

&#8226 356ha (880 acres) mixed combinable crops, including non-rotational set-aside.

&#8226 Dairy herd recently increased to 200 cows averaging just over 6000 litres.

&#8226 1300 ewes lambing mid-March, mainly Mules, some Scotch half-breds.

&#8226 Six full-time staff.