Technology will lighten workload
The summer of 2012 was a major challenge for milk producers throughout Ireland. How can this impact be reduced in the future?
Maybe some of the following developing technologies have the potential to ease the burden by making milk production systems even more efficient.
The use of sexed semen in the dairy industry has been restricted in the past 10 years because of its cost, poor pregnancy rates and a restricted availability of sires with sexed semen.
Technological advances have resulted in a dramatic change in this scenario in the past two years. Many farmers in Northern Ireland are now scanning their maiden heifers and using sexed semen to get them in calf.
The maiden heifers should be the best genetics on your farm, so by focusing on generating replacements from this cohort, you can accelerate the genetic advancement of your herd.
However, many farmers consider heat detection difficult with heifers indoors. As a result, the Angus or Friesian bull is often resorted to in an attempt to minimise calving difficulty.
The use of Friesian stock bulls with maiden heifers puts all your eggs in the one basket in terms of future genetics with very little proof of genetic potential.
There is the added risk of calving difficulty with Friesian bull calves. Friesian bull calves are only making £1 in Northern Ireland at the moment because an export trade doesn't exist.
Our own data would indicate that sexed semen is resulting in an average of 50pc pregnancy rate over the past year.
The same data also indicates an accuracy rate of sex selection of 98pc. The reduced calving difficulty also results in a faster repair of the reproductive tract of heifer.
Grazing management for the dairy herd is a major challenge each year. Not just growing good quality grass, but getting enough of it into the cows that need it most.
First lactation cows will be at the bottom of the social pecking order and often don't get access to better areas for grazing.
But imagine your grazing platform without any paddocks. Research in the US is looking at a system where you designate the cows that get access to each area to be grazed.
Each cow wears a collar, which electronically restricts her movement within a given area. This, in my opinion, will enable better grazing management of our dairy herds.
Grass-based milk production systems have in recent years focused on improving fertility and increasing stocking rates. This system of production places a lot of stress on both man and beast.
The summer of 2012 was a classical example where the weather had a detrimental effect on both milk production and reproductive performance. This will have an adverse carry-over effect to 2013.
Milk production systems in the future will use technology to ensure herd health is maintained at all stages of the production cycle.
The primary bio-marker of herd health is cow body condition score (BCS). This can be readily learned by farmers.
However, the fine art of measuring small changes in BCS is difficult.
Research in BCS measurement has resulted in machine measurement of both BCS and locomotion of the cow. This technology will result in the automated supplementation of the diet with requirements to maintain BCS at desired targets for various stages of the production cycle.
Impaired locomotion is frequently recognised and treated as a clinical ailment. Machine measurement will result in an early warning system, enabling management to rectify the ailment before it reaches the clinical phase.
Another innovation under development closer to home is the ultrasonographic assessment of the reproductive tract (USART) as a bio-marker of herd health.
This scanning tool is based on the premise that 80pc of the production potential of your dairy herd depends on management in the eight week dry period and three week early lactation phases.
Using USART between 14 and 44 days post calving will provide an accurate assessment of the cow's diet. Other scanning assessments at up to 185 days after calving will provide further information on nutritional or fertility issues.
As dairy herd size increases the optimal maintenance of herd health becomes more difficult.
A 50pc increase in milk production by 2020 without embracing aids to maintain cow and farmer welfare could, in my opinion, cause untold damage to our food production system.
Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive specialist and can be contacted at www.cowsdna.com