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23rd February, 2019

Technology for the future management of your herd

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan in The Farming Independent December 18,2012.

The summer of 2012 was a major challenge for milk producers throughout Ireland. How can this impact be reduced in the future? In this article, I will present a number of technologies at various stages of development, which will optimize efficient milk production while maintain herd health at all stages of the production cycle.

The use of sexed semen in the dairy industry has been restricted in the past 10 years because of cost, poor pregnancy rates and a restricted availability of sires with sexed semen. Technological advances have resulted in a dramatic change in this scenario in the past two years.

Many farmers in Northern Ireland are now scanning their maiden heifers in conjunction with the use of sexed semen for AI. The maiden heifers should be the best genetics on your farm. It is important that you generate replacements from those animals. However, many farmers consider heat detection difficult with heifers indoors. Either an Angus or Friesian bull is introduced to the heifers for convenience, with less risk of calving difficulty with the use of an Angus bull.

The use of Friesian stock bulls with maiden heifers puts all your eggs in the one basket in terms of future genetics with very little proof of genetic potential. There is the added risk of calving difficulty with Friesian bull calves. Friesian bull calves are currently only making £1 sterling in Northern Ireland because an export trade doesn’t exist. Sexed semen is currently resulting in an average of 50pc pregnancy rate based on data collected by our company during the past year. The accuracy of sex selection is 98pc based on our database of pregnancies sexed using scanning. There is an added advantage of reduced calving difficulty and concurrent faster repair of the reproductive tract from heifer calved to AI.

Grazing management for the dairy herd is a major challenge each year. Ideally, there are cows within the herd that need access to a greater supply of top quality grass. First lactation cows will be at the bottom of the social pecking order. They may not get access to better areas for grazing.

Can you imagine your grazing platform without the need for paddocks. Research in the United States centred on grazing management for cattle has resulted in a system whereby you designate the areas to be grazed and the cows which can gain access to those areas. Each cow wears a collar, which electronically restricts her movement within a given area. This, in my opinion, will enable better grazing management of our dairy herds.

Grass-based milk production systems have in recent years focused on low-cost enhanced fertility and increased stocking rates. This system of production places a lot of stress on both man and beast. The summer of 2012 was a classical example where the weather had a detrimental effect on both milk production and reproductive performance. This will have an adverse carry-over effect to 2013.

Milk production systems in the future will use technology to ensure herd health is maintained at all stages of the production cycle. The primary bio-marker of herd health is cow body condition score (BCS). This can be readily learned by farmers. However, the fine art of measuring small changes in BCS is difficult.

Research in BCS measurement has resulted in machine measurement of both BCS and locomotion of the cow. This technology will in the future result in the automated supplementation of the diet with requirements to maintain BCS at desired targets for various stages of the production cycle. Impaired locomotion is frequently recognized and treated as a clinical ailment. Machine measurement will result in an early warning system, enabling management to rectify the ailment before it reaches the clinical phase.

An innovative approach to the maintenance of dairy herd health is currently under development in Ireland. This involves the ultrasonographic assessment of the reproductive tract (USART) as a bio-marker of herd health. It is noteworthy that 80pc of the future production potential of your dairy herd depends on management in the pre-lactation (8 week dry period) and the early (3 week) lactation phase of the production cycle. USART between 14 and 44 days post calving will provide an accurate assessment of transition management of your herd. USART between 45 and 75 days post calving will enable an early warning system for management of the dairy herd in the first 6 weeks of lactation. USART between 76 and 185 days of lactation will enable you to maintain better reproductive management. This will entail maximizing heat detection and pregnancy rates, while minimizing embryonic mortality.

As dairy herd size increases the optimal maintenance of herd health becomes more difficult. A 50pc increase in milk production by 2020, would in my opinion, cause untold damage to our food production system. Technology will increase the scope containing dairy herd health in efficient milk production. However, human interventation in the form of stockmanship will be essential and this is a limiting resource.

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