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13th June, 2021

Keeping Your Herd Healthy in a Low Milk Price Environment

Spring calving season is now in full flight on the majority of dairy farms. It is difficult to fathom that in excess of 1 million calves will be born on Irish dairy farms between February and April.
Great strides have been made over the past decade in breeding a robust cow suited to grass based milk production. Professor Donagh Berry in Moorepark has pioneered a significant development of the genetic component of this “robust” cow encountered on our dairy farms today.
The challenges currently faced by dairy farmers centre primarily around calving management, calf rearing and early lactation transition management of the dairy cow created a scenario of reducing costs further at the expense of a sustainable food production system. Milk price below the cost of production has resulted in the farmers deciding to reduce costs.
Your focus in this critical period has to centre on optimisation of cow and calf health and not to overlook the health of your farm staff. As herd size has increased, there is now a shortage of qualified staff to care for stock around calving and early lactation.
Intentions can be great at the beginning of a calving season, but this unfolds as the demand of long working hours over a protracted period result in poor management practices.
A low milk price and poor milk price forecast for the next 6 months cannot be reasons to countenance animal welfare cases. We have to focus on the requirements of our cows without sacrificing on excessive loss of body condition score. Silage quality on many farms is poor whereby farmers have delayed their cutting dates to create greater crops and reduce contractor costs.
The DMD of many silages harvested in May/June 2015 are below the required 70 DMD for cows in early lactation. Add to this the increased risk of high potassium silages associated with slurry management, then correctly balanced diets are essential to avoid welfare problems.
If you cannot meet the welfare needs of your dairy herd during this critical period of the production cycle, consider selling some dairy stock. There is little point increasing cow numbers and trying to reduce costs of feeding your cows when milk price drops. This scenario will have longterm implications for your 6 week calving rate next year.
Focusing on management practice the primary concern has to be calving and collostrum management. The calving area is the primary risk area for the spread of Johne’s and Neospora.
Neospora is one of the primary causes of abortion in dairy cattle. Transmission of the disease depends on dogs on farms as intermediate hosts. The afterbirth of a cow infected with Neospora consumed by a dog or fox results in spread of the disease. Therefore, if your neighbour is not vigilant with the correct disposal of afterbirths, then your feed could be contaminated with neospora infected faeces. It is essential that all farmers remove afterbirths from calving areas ASAP.
Johne’s disease debilitates performance in dairy stock. Detection of the condition is difficult as reliable data can only be harvested in cows over two years of age and in late lactation. Transmission risk for Johne’s increases around calving as the calf gets access to faeces and colostrum.
Identify cows at risk of transmission. Ensure calves are “snatched” after birth and that they get colostrum from another non risk source. Ensure that calving pens are cleaned and sterilised after each calving event.
The freshly calved cow is at her lowest point in immune status. It is essential that a diet is formulated on the basis of silage analysis which meets the requirements of your cows for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. You have to supplement your cows based on their genetic potential for milk production. You will compromise the welfare of your herd where some cows are producing 28 litres of milk and a media driven approach that you feed a flat rate of 3kg of ration daily regardless of the other feed inputs.
Dietary balance for freshly calved cows becomes more complex as grazed grass is introduced to the diet. Your herd is unique in its own right. Compromising the health status of your herd now will have long term implications in terms of milk production and reproduction performance.
Calf health has implications for future reproductive performance and milk production. The risks of cryptosporidium and coccidiosis increase as calving season progresses. Vigilance is required in the calf house with regard to hygiene, calf comfort, draughts, ventilation and colostrum management.
In conclusion, do not compromise the welfare of your herd on the basis of a non sustainable milk price. Consider selling stock to increase cash flow. Concentrate supplementation is essential in freshly calved to maintain a balanced diet for herd health and future 6 week calving rate close to 90 per cent.
Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent 9th February 2016.