Advice for managing a split-block calving herd

Historically, savings made from efficient block-calving outweighed seasonality penalties. Yet many contracts have tempted farms into going split block. 

Herds that move to split-block calving to satisfy milk buyer requirements for a level milk profile need to be strict on fertility and cost control.

Labour fatigue, higher expenses and a lack of efficiency will lose the benefits from calving all cows in 12 weeks or less, points out LIC consultant Sean Chubb.

He says many herds he works with are now split block, with cows calving in both spring and autumn. Herd sizes range from 120-150 cows up to larger 400-500 cow units.

Change has been prompted by milk buyers requesting more year-round milk production or a flatter yield without peaks and troughs.

See also Benefit from split block calving

Although farm owners think performance will be an average of the two systems, Sean says the reality is very different.

Yields are not a simple halfway point between the typical 6,500 litres for autumn production and 4,500 litres for spring.

“Cost of production isn’t between the two, but is higher than an autumn-block herd because of inefficiency. It is possible to do a good job and there are successful split-block herds out there.

“The basics are attention to detail, cost minimisation and you need good fertility,” he says.

Key issues include heifers calving at 30 months – or running multiple replacement mobs of different ages – greater feed costs, and sub-fertile cows being retained to create a block.

Separate benchmarking

While accounts can be run as one herd, to set up an efficient split block and control performance, Sean says benchmarking should be split within the herd owing to different management affecting income and expenses.

“This is where you lose profitability,” he says.

“For instance, you wouldn’t want to feed 1.5t a cow of concentrates to spring-calving cows as you would autumn calvers. Look at easy costs that can be allocated, such as the vet or concentrates.

“Fuel, oil and electricity are difficult to split accurately. But you can make better business decisions if you get the split right.”

By far the biggest problem in a split-block, he adds, is employee fatigue. The drive behind calving all cows in 12 weeks is to focus on one task and do it well.

Periods of intense hard work are offset by quieter times, an easier routine and, eventually, time off and holidays – even a parlour shutdown in herds with a very tight block.

“A larger herd with more staff can do a rota and cover leave without needing any relief staff. A smaller herd has only one or two main people and some relief, so there is more overwork.

“A split block results in a busy period, then a high mental period due to mating, followed by another busy period. Fatigue builds,” Sean explains.

Preventing employee fatigue

Herd fertility status has a big influence on the length of the calving blocks, and where it is good, he suggests a herd creates two, six-week blocks.

“This is very beneficial for reducing worker fatigue. It doesn’t drag on and you get more of a rest period before mating starts. But if you have poor fertility, then you will probably need two, 12-week blocks, or even longer.”

Larger herds can also invest in a dedicated, full-time calf rearer who moves between the blocks, or retain self-employed staff as there is more work to offer.

Labour-saving equipment (such as electronic weigh scales or heat detection collars) can also be justified across two calving groups.

“Large herds may also regain some efficiency. For instance, they can have two concentrate bins and change protein and energy content so they are not overfeeding cows at different stages of lactation.

“Smaller herds might be able to reduce feed rates, but wouldn’t have the numbers to buy two different lots of feed spec.”

The method of creating a second block can cause problems. If empty cows are retained from the original block, a second block starts out with sub-standard fertility. Sean points out that cows should only be rolled between blocks once – doing it continually reduces efficiency and leads to extended lactations.

“Success for a split block needs good fertility in the main block – this means exceeding fertility targets – and being picky about which cows are used to set up the second block.

“People shouldn’t keep cows because they need to, but because they want to. Retain good cows, don’t move bad cows from block to block.”

Efficient heifer rearing

Another complexity in split blocks is heifer rearing. Sean sees many herds breeding replacements only from their spring block to avoid managing four groups of heifers (R1s and R2s for each block).

This results in spring-born youngstock being reared for longer to calve in autumn aged 30 months.

“It’s not as profitable, although it’s a lot more work dealing with four mobs and much easier with just two,” he concedes.

Fortunately, the effect of two cow groups is not much of an issue for grazing management when two separate platforms are used.

Care is required at housing and turnout because demand and growth need to be balanced for both fresh calvers and late-lactation cows, he warns.

Dry cow management is best kept simple with just one routine, he adds. “Don’t try to outwinter on crops and graze standing hay – they are two different systems, and the more different things are, the more chance of things going wrong.”

Ideally, for a flat milk yield, the best ratio is to have 60% of cows calving in spring and 40% in autumn. Even then, Sean points out that farm infrastructure has a major influence.

A typical spring-block herd may have insufficient housing for winter milk production, whereas farm layout or paddocks prone to flooding will curtail cow numbers in milk over winter.

“There is no sweet number for the most profitable split block herd,” he stresses.

Sean suggests that herd owners keep an eye on milk cheque bonuses and penalties. With spring milk contracts unavailable, businesses could be forced into all-year-round production.

“It’s worthwhile looking at the alternatives, either autumn block or split block, and comparing the seasonality penalties to the cost structure to make an informed decision,” he says.

Split-block businesses can work

Multi-site dairy businesses operating several block-calving herds can make complementary calving patterns work, says Farm Consultancy Group consultant Ian Browne.

“Having two separate herds – spring and autumn calving – trading as one business ideally makes it easier than having two blocks within one herd. But each herd must be a separate entity,” he says.

Discipline is vital for both technical and financial performance, says Ian, and it is important to avoid having two calving groups using the same parlour, facilities and staff.

Success occurs when two (or more) steadings and parlours are maintained, although land may adjoin and staff may integrate.

However, he adds that staff should not be overloaded: they deserve their quiet period if they have already block-calved large numbers of cows.

There are some flying herds in operation where the spring block sends its fall-out cows to a second autumn-calving herd. Cows are served to beef sires, milked and eventually culled.

“But you’ve got to be very careful how you run this setup,” says Ian.

“Benchmarking is key: you have to start farming by numbers and be rigid with start and stop service dates.

“You can very quickly make a complex system – and if you don’t do it right, you will become an all-year-round calving herd.”

Farmers milking in a joint venture as part of a multi-site business, may take on a new farm with an existing milk buyer and defined seasonality contract.

“In these situations, farmers go in to make money and work with what they are given,” he says.