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Fine-tuning optimises herd health and productivity (Feb 24)

Maximising milk production from home-grown feed and optimising dry-cow rations are just two key objectives for one dairy partnership, which has herd health and welfare, as well as sustainability, high on its list of priorities.


TEXT CLEMMIE GLEESON




Dairying was a new venture for David and Caroline Harriott when they took on the tenancy at Tolmare Farm, near Findon in West Sussex, in 2016. “The cows were already here and the milk price had gone up, partly because of Brexit, so we were keen to continue,” explains Caroline.


The couple, who previously ran a mixed farming enterprise, now manage a 200-cow Holstein herd, plus 100 followers, on the 385-hectare unit. As well as 174 hectares of grass, they also grow wheat, barley, maize, turnips and fodder beet, which form the bulk of herd’s ration, and also feed 500 head of sheep and 150 dairy-beef cross calves.


“We operate a traditional mixed rotation with the aim of being as ‘green’ as possible but farming ‘in the black’. We believe it’s possible to do both,” says Caroline, adding that biodiversity is also important to their business ethos and the farm has a large bird population, including grey partridge.


Herd manager Ian Hamblin joined the business around four years ago and since then he has focused on all areas of management in a bid to increase milk yields without additional feed inputs while, at the same time, improving herd health.


Grass management


The predominantly autumn-calving herd comprises a smaller spring-calving group to help with the milkproduction profile and to manage demand for grass during the summer. “We like to graze all the cattle, but this can be a challenge when the land dries up, so high yielders stay in at night during the summer. We’re on chalk downland and the unit has lower-thanaverage rainfall.”


First-cut silage, which comprises 90% first-year ryegrass leys, is fed to the milking herd, and second cut is fed to the unit’s beef cattle. “Silage yields are not a problem – we always have plenty. So our focus is on balancing forage and optimising rations,” explains Ian. ForFarmers’ Richard Greasley samples the silages and formulates herd rations. “In 2023 we added locallygrown field beans, sugar beet and molasses to the diet for the first time. Rations are evolving as we try to push the herd forward,” adds Ian.


Herd average milk yield has increased from 8,500 litres to 10,000 litres, at 4.51% butterfat and 3.51% protein, and Ian says this is the result of closer attention to detail. “We keep a close eye on both feeding and clamp management, including taking steps to minimise waste,” he says.


Genetics also play a role and have improved considerably during the past few years, and Ian aims to breed productive cows that are suited to grazing and have good feet and legs.


Forage analysis: rations are based on good-quality silage


Sexed semen


“We are breeding stockier and more Friesian-type of cows to suit our smaller cubicles,” he adds.


The target is to produce 35 Holstein heifers each year, using sexed semen on the top cows and heifers, based on genetic merit. The rest of the herd is served using Aberdeen Angus semen, for one or two services, before being run with an Aberdeen Angus sweeper bull. All the resulting dairy-beef cross calves are reared on the unit through to finishing.


Close attention to dry-cow and transition-cow management is key to ensuring that cows get off to the best possible start to their lactation, according to Ian.


“We foot trim before drying off to keep mobility issues in check and we also ensure that cows are the correct body score before calving. “We aim for a minimum of 2.5 and no more than 3, so 2.75 is the ideal and we set out to maintain that throughout the dry period. Increasing condition during the period prior to calving can result in oversized calves and calving issues.”


Judicious use of fly spray is also essential. “This means the cows are not bothered by flies during this crucial time in their production cycle.”


Cows are moved into a separate barn for three days when they are dried off, which is typically two months before their calving date. “This allows us to keep a close eye on them and check for any signs of mastitis,” says Ian.


They are then moved to the dry-cow group, where they are fed a ration based on grazed grass (or silage), straw, dry-cow minerals and salt. Dry cows join the herd’s transition group three weeks prior to calving.


Milk fever


The close-up ration comprises 10kg of maize silage and 10kg of grass silage, 5kg of chopped straw, 2kg of ForFarmers’ TRANSLAC rolls and 0.5kg of rapemeal, as well as ad-lib straw.


Ian introduced TRANSLAC to the close-up dry-cow ration after seeing good results with it on the unit where he previously worked. “When I arrived here we were seeing a few cases of milk fever and I was keen to tackle that. Not only does this disease impact cow health and fertility, but it also incurs significant financial losses.


“We have only had one minor case of milk fever this season, so it has knocked the problem on the head. We are pleased with the results.”





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