Blood testing for metabolic profiling has been well worth the time and investment for one Ayrshire-based herd. We find out more about the testing's impact on improving productivity and fertility.
TEXT ALIX MORLEY
Wallace and James Hendrie are always looking for ways to improve herd efficiency and maximise output. And, as part of AHDB’s strategic dairy farm programme, they identified fertility as a significant challenge and have been exploring a range of options to improve performance in this area. Based in Ayrshire, the brothers run a 620-cow herd across two farms – Millands and Netherlands, using a low-input, low-output system. The spring-blockcalving herds are milked twice a day through each unit’s swing-over parlour and, together, the two are averaging 5,750 litres of milk, at 4.2% fat and 3.5% protein.
Typical Scottish weather means that cows are usually housed between mid-October and mid-March with Wallace keen to turn the cows out as soon as possible in the spring. Millands comprises 235 hectares of longterm grass leys, and a further 110 hectares of grazing is available at Netherlands. Netherlands is used to graze the cows. Once they calve they are split into two milking herds.
The herd’s conception rate stood at 59% in 2022, close to the target 60%, and an 86% final in-calf rate with a target of 90%. But, as they are running a block-calving herd, Wallace and James are particularly keen to improve the six-week in-calf rate, which was at 78% compared to the target of 85%.
The brothers and their team of staff have been working with their herd vet Alan Walker, from Armour Vet Group, and Alastair Macrae, from University of Edinburgh. By blood testing selected cows in the herd for metabolic profiling, and analysing the results, they are able to make small changes to cow rations and management to better support fertility and beginning to see some positive results.
“Metabolic profiling can be an efficient and helpful tool to assess the nutritional and health status of a herd,” says AHDB's Doreen Anderson, who has been working with Wallace for the past two years.
“Cows within representative groups in the herd are blood tested to measure key indicator levels. This provides information about the protein, energy, and mineral status of the herd.”
By understanding how different groups of cows within a herd are using feed and energy, the brothers are able to tailor nutrition to meet the herd’s needs. This will maximise efficiency, improve health and welfare, increase productivity and, ultimately, help to improve fertility.
Grazing herd: cows are moved to Netherlands after calving
“By using metabolic profiling we were hoping to understand how small changes in diet and management could have a significant impact on the herd,” says Wallace. “It immediately identified some issues with the ‘close up’ dry and freshly-calved cows.”
Blood tests were carried out in March 2022. Milking cows were out grazing and being fed 4kg of cake through the parlour, while the dry cows were still housed and fed a mix of silage, dry-cow minerals, and additional magnesium oxide. Cows in the calving pen were fed 1.5kg pre-calving cake, plus grass silage.
Of the five cows tested in the ‘close up’ dry cow group, four showed higher levels of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs). “This means that they were mobilising body reserves at an excessive rate around calving, which is obviously not ideal,” says Wallace.
Any issues occurring in the ‘close up’ dry cows can impact early lactation, which can have serious consequences not only for productivity but also for cows’ ability to get back in calf. This was evident in the Millands-based herd, with five of the seven cows in the early lactation group showing higher-than-desirable NEFA levels.
The mid-lactation cows that were tested, however, told a different story. “All the NEFA results and all but one butyrate results in this group were within the ideal range, so we know these cows were achieving sufficient intakes and making good use of their diet,” says Wallace. With no concerns about the milking ration, the results did raise questions for the team about the dry cows. “After talking to our vets Alastair and Alan, we don’t think there is anything wrong with our dry-cow ration, but we need to focus on intakes and keeping feed fresh in front of them at all times. This means pushing up feed more regularly.”
Ration check: James and Wallace have fine-tuned dry-cow nutrition
These results are particularly important to help improve herd fertility. Running a tight block means timing is vital. “The egg will be developing in the ovary during the final month prior to calving and during the first two months after calving,” says Wallace. “So, it is important to ensure that energy levels are optimised during this time.”
Metabolic profiling has allowed the team to make several changes to help address some of the issues identified. “This year we’ve renewed our focus on rumen fill and intakes,” says Wallace. “We used a straw grinder to add straw to dry-cow rations and to ensure good rumen fill until they moved into the calving yard.
“We’ve also started feeding magnesium chloride to the ‘close up’ group, and then switched to feeding 2.5kg of Mole Valley’s Trans-link blend in the calving yard. This has made a significant improvement to colostrum quality, and we’re also seeing fewer retained cleansings and cases of milk fever, as well as better cow performance.”
The benefits of blood testing cows for metabolic profiling and making these small changes to the diet are already evident. The Millands-based herd was tested again at the beginning of February 2023 and showed good improvement with no serious concerns identified by Alastair’s team. The six-week in-calf rate has also improved by 2% to 80%.
“Metabolic profile information shows up any deficiencies in the ration, as well as small changes in forage quality, that can impact cow performance,” says Wallace.
By building a clear and detailed picture of the status of their herd, Wallace and James have been able make the small changes needed to optimise the efficiency of the ration, benefiting herd health, fertility, yield and ultimately their margins.
AHDB Dairy is currently recruiting for its next cohort of strategic dairy farms. If you are interested in finding out more, visit ahdb.org.uk/SDF-2023.
Owners: Hendrie family
Herd size: 620 cows
Combined-units size: 345 hectares
Average yield: 5,750 litres, at 4.2% fat and 3.5% protein
System: Grass-based, spring-block calving
Six-week in-calf rate: 80%