Dairy: Don't use the milk price as an excuse to compromise on herd welfare

Breeding expert Donagh Berry talks to a group of farmers at a Teagasc beef open day.
Breeding expert Donagh Berry talks to a group of farmers at a Teagasc beef open day.
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

Spring calving season is now in full flight on the majority of dairy farms. In excess of one million calves will be born on Irish dairy farms between February and April.

Great strides have been made over the past decade in breeding a robust cow suited to grass based milk production.

Professor Donagh Berry in Moorepark has pioneered a significant development of the genetic component of this robust cow seen on our dairy farms today.

The challenges currently faced by dairy farmers centre primarily around calving management, calf rearing and early lactation transition management of the dairy cow.

This creates a scenario of reducing costs further at the expense of a sustainable food production system. Milk price below the cost of production has resulted in farmers deciding to reduce costs.

But the focus in this critical period has to centre on optimising cow and calf health and also looking after the welfare of your farm staff. As herd size has increased, there is now a shortage of qualified staff to care for stock around calving and early lactation.

Intentions can be great at the beginning of a calving season, but as this unfolds, the pressures of long working hours over a protracted period result in poor management practices.

The low milk price and poor milk price forecast for the next six months cannot be used as excuses for poor animal welfare.

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We have to focus on the requirements of our cows without sacrificing on excessive loss of body condition score.

Silage quality on many farms is poor whereby farmers have delayed their cutting dates to create greater crops and reduce contractor costs.

The DMD of many silages harvested in May/June 2015 are below the required 70 DMD for cows in early lactation. Factor in the increased risk of high potassium silages associated with slurry management, and it's clear why correctly balanced diets are essential to avoid welfare problems.

If you cannot meet the welfare needs of your dairy herd during this critical period of the production cycle, consider selling some dairy stock.

There is little point increasing cow numbers and trying to reduce costs of feeding your cows when milk price drops. This scenario will have longterm implications for your six-week calving rate next year.

Focusing on management practice the primary concern has to be calving and colostrum management. The calving area is the primary risk area for the spread of Johne's and neospora.

Neospora is one of the primary causes of abortion in dairy cattle. Transmission of the disease is via dogs who are the intermediate hosts. The afterbirth of a cow infected with neospora consumed by a dog or fox results in spread of the disease.

Therefore, if your neighbour is not vigilant with the correct disposal of afterbirths, then your feed could be contaminated with neospora infected faeces. It is essential that all farmers remove afterbirths from calving areas ASAP.

Johne's disease debilitates performance in dairy stock. Detection of the condition is difficult as reliable data can only be harvested in cows over two years of age and in late lactation. Transmission risk for Johne's increases around calving as the calf gets access to faeces and colostrum.

Identify cows at risk of transmission. Ensure calves are 'snatched' after birth and that they get colostrum from another non-risk source. Ensure that calving pens are cleaned and sterilised after each calving event.

The freshly calved cow is at her lowest point in immune status. It is essential that a diet is formulated on the basis of silage analysis which meets the requirements of your cows for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins.

You have to supplement your cows based on their genetic potential for milk production. You will compromise the welfare of your herd where some cows are producing 28 litres of milk but are fed a flat rate of 3kg of ration daily regardless of the other feed inputs.

Dietary balance for freshly calved cows becomes more complex as grazed grass is introduced to the diet. Your herd is unique in its own right.

Compromising the health status of your herd now will have long term implications in terms of milk production and reproduction performance.

Calf health has implications for future reproductive performance and milk production. The risks of cryptosporidium and coccidiosis increase as calving season progresses. Vigilance is required in the calf house with regard to hygiene, calf comfort, draughts, ventilation and colostrum management.

In conclusion, do not compromise the welfare of your herd on the basis of a non-sustainable milk price. Consider selling stock to increase cash flow. Concentrate supplementation is essential in freshly calved cows to maintain a balanced diet for herd health and a future six-week calving rate close to 90pc.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.cowsdna.com

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