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14th December, 2017

HEALTHY COWS FOR A HEALTHY FOOD CHAIN

Spring Breeding Season

bad weatherThis spring breeding season is proving to provide us with many challenges.  One farmer in Dingle, Co. Kerry summed it up by saying “It is the uncertainty associated with the current weather which makes it difficult to manage the dairy herd.  Will I have to zero-graze the silage ground two miles away?  The maiden heifers are still indoors since last July!  When will the ground recover from the poaching because we had to graze heavy ground this spring?”

These issues are faced on many farms throughout Ireland.  A reality check is now required by the relevant bodies supporting an expansion programme towards 2020.  These proposals have not addressed their impact on the family farm.  Constraints impaired by farm size and fragmentation and the skill set required to manage large dairy herds in grass based milk production systems where weather has such a variable nature and determining effect on grass growth rates and dry matter intakes.

High Stress Levels

we're not happy

The level of stress at farm level is palpable on my daily farm visits throughout Ireland.  The silence associated with the increase in calf and cow mortality has only of late brought it to media attention.  The knackeries have seen a dramatic increase in fallen animals since early February.  These numbers have been compounded by cattle mortality associated with the Schmallenberg virus.

The primary causes of cattle deaths has been poor quality silages harvested last year with an associated view that the duration of our winter feeding did not warrant the inventory cost associated with making “excess” silage.  Many farmers have also increased cow numbers with an associated greater stocking rate and no additional housing for the winter period.

We cannot continue to develop food production systems which increase the stress on both the animals and their carers at various stages of the production cycle.  We pride ourselves on marketing milk products produced from a healthy environment.  “The green green grass of home “will come to most peoples’ minds; a cow grazing on a mild summer day with a child holding buttercups is the ultimate picture of a stress -free food production system.

 

Healthy Cow Central to the Healthy Food Chain

We need a radical rethink whereby the healthy cow becomes central to a healthy food chain.  There is scientific data supporting the processability of milk being greater from healthy cows.  The healthy cow has to be pivotal to our marketing of milk products in the future:   Ireland will add value to milk by managing our dairy herds to achieve a scientifically recognized herd health status at all stages of the milk production cycle.

Healthy Cows

It is noteworthy that 80% of your future dairy herd potential is determined by transition management.

Unfortunately our low cost approach to dry cow management and early post calving nutrition has been highlighted this year.  Bearing in mind the impact of dry cow management, we need a management approach which centres primarily on transition management.  The budgets for forage conservation will have to increase to accommodate the needs of the grass-based milk production cycle because of the diminishing influence of weather on grass growth rates.

 

The weather is currently having an adverse effect on submission rates for the first three weeks of the breeding season for those farmers starting their breeding programmes in early April.  Reprodoc use USART (*Ultrasonography Assessment of the Reproductive Tract)

  1. To assess the percentage of cows which are > forty days calved and are fit for AI.
  2. To determine what percentage of these cows are bred over the next three weeks.

Current fitness percentage range from 40 to 80 with a target of 90.  Submission rates range from 55 to 85 with a target of 95.

Surprisingly the fitness of maiden heifers has been poor this year.  Many heifers are not reaching target weight for breeding.  However, we now realise that body weight targets are not a strong predictor of cyclicity.  Heifers that were previously cycling have stopped cycling.  Many farmers who have resorted to the “blind” injection with prostaglandins at 12 day intervals have realized that they have wasted money after having a USART scan done.  Increased stocking rates, housing on slats, early turnout to grass with reduced DMI and harsh weather have all been contributors to poor heat detection rates.

Identify non-cycling heifers and cows with impaired reproductive health by scanning using the unique Reprodoc USART *technology.  You can then maximize submission rates among fit cows and address the requirements of unhealthy cows by veterinary or nutritional intervention.

In conclusion, stress in both animals and their carers have to be addressed.  A refocus is required whereby healthy cows for a healthy food chain is pivotal to our food marketing strategy.  Stress-free cows benefits man, beast and the food chain.

Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine Reproductive Physiologist and can be contacted at www.reprodoc.ie