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Eamon O'Connell: Choose the calving system that's the right fit for your own circumstances

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Eamon O'Connell

Eamon O'Connell

Picture Credit:Brian Gavin Press

Eamon O'Connell

I received a call during the week from a dairy farmer to attend a cow having difficulty calving. I delivered a smashing Hereford bull calf from a specimen of a Friesian cow - perfect BCS and a shine on her that you could see your reflection in.

As the farmer and I watched the cow licking the calf, he turned to me and said: "Now don't go telling anyone about this. I know it's not what the books say to do, but it suits my system."

As I drove to my next call - a full herd scan for a dairy farmer with a 12-week calving spread, it got me thinking: is the best system really the best for everyone?

Ireland's dairy industry is predominantly seasonal based. Spring calving herds are trying to match peak milk production to peak grass growth. This involves calving most of the cows in February and March and possibly the last few in the first week of April. AI begins at the end of April and is wrapped up by early July.

This is a tight window with little room for error and having enough labour on farm for the first half of the year is vital.

Vaccine protocols for IBR, lepto, salmonella and calf scour all play an important role. Lameness and production diseases such as ketosis and milk fever must be prevented. Diet, forage analysis and body condition scoring are key pillars for success. This is all worthwhile though, as it has been proven that this type of grass-powered milk production is the most efficient and therefore the most profitable.

But, for some farmers, and lately, more farmers than I originally thought, this level of intensity of farming can be unattainable and/or undesirable. Reasons such as age, ill-health, off-farm circumstances that hamper investment in facilities, lack of a successor, or simply because, as a farmer put it to me lately: "All the kids are reared, sure what am I killing myself for?" In any of these circumstances, it is easy to see why a farmer may not want to stick to the rigid calving pattern.

The most important thing is not to be forced into a prolonged calving spread. If you make the conscious decision to do it, then it's on your own terms. However, too often, mismanagement and poor farming practice leads to cows calving into May, June and even July. If she calved in April last year, she should do the same again this year.

Regardless, we should be aiming for a 365 day calving interval. Any cow that doesn't fit this should be culled because, in any system, she is costing you money. A regular complaint I hear when scanning cows is "she's calving very late, but she's a great cow". If she was a great cow, she would be calving inside the 365 day window.

Another reason for a long calving spread is the stock bull. Whenever I carry out a herd scan, I always ask: "When did you pull the bull?" The date he was removed acts as a reference point for the minimum length of time a cow can be in calf. However, what I sometimes hear is: "He's still with them; sure it's the handiest place for him."

Make a decision when you want to stop calving and remove the bull accordingly.

If a cow is served today, she will calve in the first week of May next year. It is worth while securely fencing a paddock near the farmyard specifically for the bull. If he is left there with another animal, preferably an in-calf heifer or a dry cow, he should be quite content.

Preventable disease is often the cause of a prolonged calving spread. I saw a perfect example this week when scanning a herd of cows. There was a little bit of coughing and a few cows with a nasal discharge. Scanning revealed three cows that were in the process of aborting circa two-month-old foetuses.

Live IBR virus booster was overdue by a month, meaning that IBR was the prime suspect. Other diseases that need a preventative vaccination plan in place include lepto and salmonella. A full herd health plan should be carried out annually.

Accepting that you will be milking 365 days a year is part and parcel of a prolonged calving spread. There isn't much point in drying off a cow that calves this week with the February calvers next November.

That's only four months' milk and eight months' dry. Winter milking is a whole other discussion, but if you want to calve cows in June and July, then milking them through the winter is the only way to make them even remotely profitable.

Late calvers can also be even more difficult to keep 'fit not fat' for calving. Dry cow diet management is paramount, regardless of calving date. There are many different systems of dairy farming. It is important to choose the one that suits you best, rather than it choosing you.

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic in Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

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