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24th March, 2018


Spring calving programmes will begin now for grass based milk production systems. The target is to have 90% of cows calved in a six week period. However, the reality is that this figure will be closer to 70% on the majority of dairy farms.

Thankfully, calving patterns are not as tight as target of 90%. In reality, labour, facilities and a safe working environment are not in place in at least 90pc of farms.

The dairy industry needs a major wake up call to avoid any association with the scare created by “dirty dairy” in New Zealand. Dairy expansion does come with the challenge of sustainability. The current mantra of compact calving does not meet the current welfare requirements of cows, their offspring, farm labour and simultaneous care of environment in our food production systems.

Optimisation of grass based milk production should in my opinion be based on 90% calving rate with 15pc replacement rate over a twelve week calving period. This system will reduce the risks associated with labour fatigue, inadequate housing environment and the attention to detail required for management of dry cow/fresh cow transition and new-born calves.

Current management practices are resulting in inordinately high mortality rates of young stock, cows and depression among dairy farmers. These issues have to be addressed if we are to maintain our “Brand” with access to add value markets in a sustainable food production system.

We are now at a critical junction in the production cycle. The majority of cows are now in either advanced dry cow transition or early fresh cow transition periods. The experience of cows during this period dictates approximately 70% of the risk of future herd health problems and survivability of cows into the next lactation.

We still do not give enough attention to cows in the transition period. There is significant misinformation on how to manage dry cows. Two scenarios come to mind.

1. “Restrict and feed poor quality silage to over conditioned dry cows”.

Cows in excess BCS in the dry cow transition have increased metabolic risk of ketosis and subsequently milk fever. Restricted poor quality silage is not an option for these cows as it will result in an increased risk of womb infections, higher milk SCC and poorer survival rates of cows into the next lactation. Over conditioned cows and those cows carrying twins should get a bolus containing monensin four weeks before their due calving date.

2. ” Feed silage at night to increase calvings during daylight”

Night time feeding of silage to dry cows will increase bullying at a frequently restricted feed face, which will increase the risk of womb infections post calving. Cows in the dry cow transition period need on welfare and health grounds, access to fresh high quality silage and clean water at all times. The dry cow diet must be supplemented with a dry cow mineral bearing in mind silage and soil analysis, which will indicate the risks associated primarily with copper, selenium, molybdenum and iodine.

Many farmers create a lot of stress for both themselves, their cows and calves by having insufficient close-up calving pens. These pens are essential. They must be kept clean and disinfected as a routine after each calving. Ensure there is fresh silage balanced with minerals and concentrates and clean water available at all times.

The primary risks of disease transmission around calving are Neospora and Johne’s disease. Afterbirths need to be disposed of properly, avoiding dogs and foxes gaining access to same. Johne’s disease will increase the risk of poorer survival rates and performance of your livestock. Control measurements are difficult to maintain on an ongoing basis as the calving season progresses.

Colostrum quantity and quality are essential for the new-born calf. Calves require between 3 and 4L of colostrum within two hours of birth. Optimal future performance of replacement heifers requires 6L of milk daily in the first 8 weeks of life, best achieved with two feeding times daily.

A housing environment free of draughts is essential for the young calf. Draughts of 5 mph will leave calves feeling up to 10% colder. If temperatures drop close to freezing point, daily energy requirements of the calf increase by 30%. Therefore, more milk needs to be fed to maintain growth targets. Automatic calf feeders, which can mimic natural suckling, become essential in this scenario but also where labour is a scarce resource. Thermal jackets for calves are an excellent aid to maintain body temperature in young calves.

In conclusion, sustainable food production from dairy requires a balanced approach from a welfare, health and environment perspective. You can make a significant difference on your farm in the next six weeks with the optimisation of dry cow/fresh cow transition management and management of the new-born calf.

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

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent 6th February 2018