Why ditching heat collars saved dairy farm £20k

One Carmarthenshire dairy farm has saved £20,200 a year by ditching heat monitoring equipment.

Geraint Thomas started using an AI technician to visually observe heats last year and credits the move with improving artificial insemination timings.

As a result he has seen average days to conception fall by 34 days resulting in overall conception rates improvements of 11% across his herd.

See also: Genomics helps lift fertility and milk yield of pedigree Holstein herd

Mr Thomas, who milks 160 Holstein and Ayrshire cows at Tyreglwys Farm, Llangennech, Llanelli, says poor heat detection and its impact on the number of cows he was serving had been a financial drain on the business.

Serving most of the herd in the first 75 days gives Geraint Thomas multiple opportunities to get cows in calf.

Cows had been fitted with collars to detect heat but these were several years old and needed updating. “We thought it was better to put the money into RMS and abandon the collars altogether,” admits Mr Thomas.  

He now pays £30/cow for an AI technician to check the cows daily and to inseminate at the optimum time, with semen costing an additional £15-20/straw.

The technician chalks the cows’ tails and cross-checks heats against detailed computer records.

“You can’t beat a pair of eyes, someone coming in 365 days of the year. Having an AI technician here every day takes the pressure off, that’s where we are gaining,” explains Mr Thomas at his Farming Connect Demonstration farm.

“We work together. If I see something bulling in the evening I will make a note of it and the technician will check her the following morning.”

Fertility improvements

Mr Thomas has witnessed pregnancies rise from 47 to 73 in the Holsteins and from 36 to 49 in his Ayrshires.

At the same time the average number of straws used per cow has reduced from 3.4 to 2.3.

He calculates that every 1% increase in pregnancy rate is worth £25 – the equivalent of £150/cow or £25,000 across his herd.

This is realised through higher yields because they are milking a high proportion of freshly calved cows.

The net value to the business after deducting the cost of the breeding service is £20,200.

“Increased pregnancy rates not only mean increased yields but also result in more replacements, more bull calf sales, better culling policies and better breeding decisions,” Mr Thomas explains.

His current calving index is 410 days but he is targeting 390 days.

Breeding policy

The Holsteins are served to Holstein sires and the Ayrshires are also bred pure for the first three services. Any cows that don’t conceive on their third service are served with British Blue semen.

Sexed semen is used on all heifers for two services and conventional semen is used thereafter.

Conception rates have improved from 20% to 31% in the Holsteins in a single year and in the Ayrshires 22% to 33%.

At Tyreglwys the open period is 50 days. “Our open period had been 40 days but we weren’t picking up enough cows on heat so we have increased it to 50 days,” Mr Thomas explains.

“Last year we housed the heifers in early September to get them settled on a diet of good quality silage and between 2-3kg of concentrates,” he adds.

The biggest challenge

At Tyreglwys the biggest challenge is getting cows pregnant when they are at grass.

To overcome this Mr Thomas is changing his calving pattern, from 365-day calving to an autumn block. To achieve this, he stopped serving cows in March and will resume AI in October.

Running a fresh cow group is the ideal scenario as it allows for closer monitoring.

Mr Thomas admits that in an ideal world he would use this approach but he doesn’t have sufficient facilities to run the fresh calvers separately.

Benefits of improving fertility

By improving fertility, Mr Thomas now has fewer cows leaving the system and plans to sell surplus heifers.

“By having more cows calving we have more heifers on the ground,” he said.

“We calved 50 more cows in the last 12 months so that’s an extra 25 heifers. I will see the benefits this autumn with 50 cows coming in and it will allow me to increase the herd to my target of 200 cows.”

Fertility targets and how to hit them

According to the latest NMR (National Milk Records) figures the average heat detection rate in UK dairy herds is 35% and the pregnancy rate 11%.

Genus’s Nick Thomas says the goal must be to get cows in calf in the first breeding window.

“Getting most of the herd served in the first 75 days gives multiple opportunities to get cows in calf,” says Mr Thomas.

“Less than 120 days open is the ideal. Use your vet to examine cows that don’t show signs of heat.”

Poor transition management will have negative repercussions on fertility, explains Genus’s Emyr James.

Seventy-five per cent of conditions that affect fertility, including retained placentas, mastitis and milk fever, occur in the first 30 days in milk. “It is important to work out what is causing these,” he says.  

Running a fresh cow group is the ideal scenario as it allows for closer monitoring of these animals.

By 21 days in milk, cows should be consuming 25kg of dry matter daily, there improving dry matter intake post-calving should be a priority,” he adds.