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17th February, 2019


Grass based dairy production systems are now busy selecting cows for drying off. Contrary to previous years, milk quota restrictions and an excellent grass growth period up to the second week of November, have resulted in extended lactations.

However, body condition scores (BCS) have suffered where either concentrate supplementation or fluke and worm management needs have not been addressed. Unfortunately, these herds will have poorer health and reproductive performance next year.

As herd size increases, there is an associated need for new technologies to optimise the opportunity for sustainable milk production in grass based systems.

Skilled labour is a limiting resource in the future plans to manage current and larger herd size. Many farmers now realise one year into a post quota regime that herd expansion has increased the risk of stress on both farm staff and livestock.

The advent of robotic milking systems may have reduced the need to be present for the dairy milking routine. However, there is an increased skill set required to manage these herds at grass. Farmers have to set up grazing platforms which encourage the cows to come in for milking at defined intervals. Eoin Lyons who farms outside Birr, Co. Offaly has perfected this technology with a Holstein dairy herd at grass. It is worth noting that there is less risk of locomotion problems as cows can move single file on a chosen path to and from the milking platform. Cows are definitely more placid when milked using the robotic systems.

Cows can be individually cared for in terms of nutrition at all stages of the production cycle. It is also noteworthy that this technology can be very effectively used to prepare cows for drying off and the transition period.

The cost and maintenance of robotic milking systems have been considered prohibitive. In addition, the scaling of the business model requires the investment required for an additional 50 cows plus a robot.

In my opinion, having worked with Eoin Lyons, there are opportunities to optimise herd health and reproductive performance using robotic milking systems with cows at grass. This will result in sustainable milk production systems which are directly linked to the opportunity to optimise profits.

Innovative technology linked to controlled grazing using collars which map out areas for grazing offer tremendous opportunities. The analogy here is the equivalent of a dog collar which restricts the dog from moving outside the home base. This technology will remove the need for paddocks and strip grazing. There is also the potential to allow selective grazing by younger cows in the herd, thereby avoiding bullying. In addition, cows with greater need for higher dry matter intakes can be allocated a greater grazing area. This research is currently under development in Moorepark and will transform the welfare management of cows at grass.

Getting cows in calf within a given time period is the mainstay of profitable milk production from grazed grass. Reproductive performance is dependent on exposure of the herd to previous stressors in the production cycle. However, it is frequently well after the impact of the stressor that poor heat detection and pregnancy rates are observed.

Developments in ultrasonography will provide farmers with an early warning system of stressors on the farm. Traditionally, scanning has been associated with pregnancy diagnosis. Innovation linked to pattern recognition technology of ultrasound scans of the reproductive tract will provide farmers with accurate management reports. The scanning of cows will in the future consistently begin when cows are calved 14 days. Scanning of the reproductive tract at this stage will be used as an early warning system for risk of stressors such as ketosis, milk fever, high potassiun silages in the transition period.

This automated scanning technology is currently being used in field trials to age pregnancies and identify the stage of the heat cycle in timed AI programmes.

With reference to transition management, there has been new innovation using monensin boluses for cows at risk from ketosis and those cows carrying twins. Farmers report excellent health and reproductive performance after using these boluses in cows at risk in the transition period.

The future of our dairy industry will need new technologies to assist in optimisation of herd health and reproductive performance. However, the place of the observant stock man cannot be replaced.

Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at