Changes to winter rations have seen one Welsh herd’s fertility performance improve, as well as an increase in milk yields. Coupled with a shift to block calving and using sexed semen, the herd is set for the future.
TEXT CLEMMIE GLEESON
Maintaining a tight calving block while expanding the milking herd has been a dual challenge for producer Owain Williams, who farms with his parents Hefin and Eirian in North Wales. Until 12 years ago Hefin and Eirian ran a 50-cow all-year-round calving herd at Gwyndy Farm, near Pwllheli, but the opportunity to purchase additional land and take on more rented keep also presented them with the chance to expand. Increasing the unit size to 80 hectares allowed them to begin increasing cow numbers by breeding their own replacements, which also meant a shift to a block-calving pattern.
Now at 150 cows, the herd is predominantly Holstein Friesian with a small number of Jersey crosses. Herd average yield is currently 7,320 litres, at 4.55% butterfat and 3.52% protein. This is ideal for their milk contract with cheese makers South Caernarfon Creameries.
The Williams’ dairy system focuses on maximising milk production from forage, with cows grazing from mid-March and throughout the summer. “Grass starts growing early in the season here,” explains Owain. “Top-quality grazing means the cows just need supplementary concentrate in the parlour and no other purchased feed during the warmer months.”
The 12-week calving block starts around August 25, and with the cows housed they are fed a TMR comprising grass silage, a 20% protein blend, chopped straw, dairy minerals, molasses and Lintec. This is all mixed and delivered via a Keenan feeder wagon.
Grass silage is cut from white- and red-clover leys and this year the family also introduced 10 hectares of spring barley to produce wholecrop. “We thought we’d grow an additional forage to help reduce the amount of bought-in feed we use,” says Owain. “As well as providing additional bulk to the diet, we think it may also be a useful addition to the unit’s crop rotation, to help reduce the weed burden. It’s been extremely dry this year and our grass silage crops haven’t performed well, so it has really made a difference.”
The Williams use AI across the herd and, until recently, semen was used on all cows and heifers for the first three weeks of the service period. From this year all heifers are being served with easy-calving Aberdeen Angus semen, with the best performing cows being served with sexed dairy semen. The remainder of the herd is served with Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and British Blue semen. This produces a group of Holstein heifer calves for rearing as replacements, and the beef crosses are sold to local producers for finishing.
Next generation: sexed semen is used to breed replacements
“We rear heifers in two groups, with about 60 in each, but we will reduce that figure to 30 now the herd is up to the size we were aiming for,” says Owain. “Achieving a heifer age at first calving of between 23 and 24 months is important. Focusing on nutrition during the first 18 months of the rearing period is essential, as well as paying attention to the basics of good husbandry. Clean and dry bedding, keeping calves warm, and ensuring they receive sufficient good-quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth – it all pays off.”
Keeping the calving block as tight as possible is also a priority, and adding Lintec to rations has helped to support fertility, according to ForFarmers’ Guto Jones. Lintec was first introduced to the diet in autumn 2020 on Mr Jones’ advice. He manages the herd’s nutrition using the Optifeed rationing program.
The Omega-3-rich feed quickly earned its place in the ration and is now fed throughout the autumn until the cows are confirmed in calf.
“Before feeding Lintec, the herd’s empty rate was around 23% but now it’s just 13%,” says Mr Jones. “During the same period the calving window has also reduced from between 14 and 15 weeks to 12 weeks. The aim is to bring that down to nine or 10 weeks.
“Cows come into heat more easily now, and we have fewer cows that need to be seen by the vet,” says Owain. “The supplement has really worked for us.”
As well as fertility benefits, the supplement has also pushed yields up by an additional litre of milk per cow per day. “That extra litre alone more than pays for the cost of adding Lintec to the ration, and that’s without factoring in the other benefits of feeding the supplement.”
Going forward, the Williams family will continue to focus on improving herd and dairy business efficiency. They have plans to invest in a cubicle shed next year. “This should help to make our workload more manageable by making feeding easier,” says Owain. “And it should also help to improve cow health and comfort.”