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Marginal gains drive profitability (July 2021)

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Teamwork – and using data to pay closer attention to detail – are key to success of one Lancashire-based dairy unit. We find out more about the feed management system technology and the people using it to improve herd performance.

Reducing feed waste, optimising input utilisation, and improving cow performance are three areas where the team managing Norbreck Farm, based at Cockerham in Lancashire, are focusing their attention.

Owner Philip Halhead attributes the pedigree herd’s impressive and continued progress to good teamwork and collaborative decision making.

“We’re not a new flashy farm – our farm buildings were erected in the 1960s. And having now resolved the bigger issues on our unit, including dry-cow management, cow comfort, and putting working protocols in place, we are now looking at the detail and, more specifically, the opportunities for marginal gains,” he says.

Profit centre

The herd, which is managed on a TMR-based all-year-round calving system, is currently averaging 10,700 litres, at 4.1% butterfat and 3.19% protein.

When milk prices dropped to 18ppl in 2016, Philip looked for a consultant specialising in lean management: “And we are still now looking at every kilogramme and every penny of opportunity. Our view is that every cubicle space is a profit centre.”

Data drives everything at the unit and the dairy business recently fitted the InTouch feed management technology to its Keenan diet feeder. “We now have a mechanism to ensure greater accuracy when loading and mixing the ration and at feed-out, as well as the all-important machine service back-up,” explains Philip.

Feeding system

“Our next step was to look at the opportunities within the wider feeding system, and it was our feeding specialist, Stephen Ball, who suggested we look into Alltech Navigate.”

This is a free advice service designed to help producers achieve higher profit margins by reducing feed waste and optimising farm input utilisation. The service is founded on the principle of assessing, analysing and ‘actioning’ data – an invaluable resource to producers and the wider food chain.

“We arranged a visit, and we left the consultant to it. They looked around the farm, particularly focussing on the silage clamps and the cow housing, and produced a report that gave us fresh insight into what we were doing right or wrong.”

Action points

Philip says they looked at the key performance indicators (see Table 1) within the report as a team before deciding which action points were a priority. “We were particularly looking for easy wins.”

Assistant herd manager Sally Nicholson and ET/IVF lead Charlotte Walling brought practical action to many of the strategies.

The unit’s silage clamps were well compacted – among the best the consultant had seen. “When filling clamps, we use a compacting tyre and sprinkle salt to help preserve the top layer before sheeting down to help reduce waste,” says Sally.

Silage recommendations

The report also suggested how to further reduce nutrient losses, or mould development, in the clamps. These included adding more tyres and ensiling in a dome-shape to help with consolidation and preserving the clamp sides.

Other recommendations included mowing grass at 9:30am, to maximise the optimal wilting conditions, and to ted grass within 30 minutes of mowing because wilting is five times faster in the first two hours.

The report also identified a possible penicillium mycotoxin risk. This particular strain of mycotoxin tends to increase rapidly in stored feedstuffs or forages and is known to decrease beneficial microbial populations in the rumen, reducing the synthesis of volatile fatty acids and changing microbial protein production.

Such effects may result in digestive disorders, decreased milk production or milk quality, and compromised reproductive performance.

“We rarely see cystic ovaries, but saw several cases during a period of a few weeks in February this year, when cows were between 60 and 70 days calved,” says Sally.

Transition management

“Our cows transition smoothly. They deliver healthy calves, cleanse well and we see very few cases of milk fever. With every additional ‘open’ day costing £5 per cow, we knew we had to address the problem quickly. We couldn’t see mould in the silage but thought there may be an invisible mycotoxin that causes cysts in cows. Alltech highlighted the clinical signs of mycotoxins to us, and we thought ‘bingo’. We added Mycosorb A+ to the diet in March and, within a few weeks, there are no more fertility issues due to cysts,” she says.

Second to feed are the unit’s calf-rearing costs, so these also required close attention.

“We are targeting heifer daily liveweight gains of 0.95kg, to achieve calving at 23 months. It’s all about good health during those early weeks, which is why we invested in a new rearing unit.

Our unit is based on a US calf building design, in terms of space and ventilation. Calves are also grouped and ‘weighed in’ and ‘weighed out’ to monitor growth. We’ve reduced antibiotic use and are driving down cases of pneumonia and scours – all factors impacting the cow later in life,” adds Sally.

Water troughs

The report also highlighted each cow in the milking herd only had access to 5.4cm of water-trough space each – that’s 4.6cm below the 10cm target. And some troughs were cleaner than others, despite a weekly cleaning schedule.

“We had noticed queuing and ‘bullying’ after milking when cows are most thirsty. We quickly installed three new water troughs and now clean them all, religiously, twice a week. Milk yields increased instantly, and it only takes two of us an addition 20 or 30 minutes work a week.”

Hoof-health issues, including white lines and abscesses, and the cost of lameness were also flagged up in the report. “So we also filled in the small potholes around the water and feed troughs, installed rubber mats in the parlour, and custom-designed some matting to cover any grids,” adds Sally.

High standards

“We’re super careful not to become complacent,” adds Philip. “We have to maintain our high standards of attention to detail, on a practical level, every day. That said, we have to accept a level of waste.

“We want feed in front of our cow’s day and night, but we want to avoid wasting lots of feed. So we’re now looking to cover the silos to prevent the wet weather from affecting the dry matter of the silage. We expect this will improve the consistency of the diet consumed by the herd,” he explains.

“Contrary to what I was planning three years ago, and in line with the direction the team also wanted to take, coupled with additional environmental rules and regulations, we are now looking to stick with the same herd size and will continue to improve how we manage the unit to the best of our ability.

“We’ll also make the most of the advice, tools, systems and data we’re currently using to maintain and advance our benchmarked performance status.”

Table 1: Key performance indicators

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