Dan Ryan: 'Cutting corners in the calving season is piling stress on cows and stockmen'
Spring calving programmes have begun on the vast majority of dairy farms. This is an extremely challenging period for farm staff, freshly calved cows and new-born calves. In this column I will look at how these challenges can be addressed.
Dairy herd size has increased exponentially in the post quota regime.
We have also seen an increase in multi-site operations with a single management structure.
Generous tax incentives have facilitated long-term land leases.
This has facilitated larger grazing platforms, zero grazing and management of non-lactating cows on farms far removed from the dairy grazing platforms.
Innovations in agriculture have facilitated dramatic improvements in efficiency of harvesting milk from dairy cows. The use of contractors for managing slurry, fertiliser and harvesting silage has helped reduce some of the need for on-farm labour.
However, there clearly is a bottleneck in demand for labour during the spring calving period. Farm labour may cope with the first two weeks of the hectic calving season, but thereafter the efficiency of the business operation unravels.
It is essential to have farm staff with skill sets centred around dry cow management, close up pre-calving management, freshly calved cow care and management of new-born calves.
Many dairy farmers will commit themselves to long working hours on a daily basis for a three month period.
But the shortage of skilled labour is a critical concern in terms of cows and calf welfare during this dry cow to fresh cow transition period.
The mental and physical well-being of farm staff is at greatest risk during this three-month phase, but this concern goes unnoticed by society at large.
In effect, the industry has driven the development of a compact calving programme without addressing this labour issue.
This scenario has seen farmers pursue a series of 'shortcuts' in terms of cow and calf management such as a setting a target to achieve 90pc calving in a six-week window .
This approach, however, will exacerbate the risk of mental and physical health problems among farm staff.
Let's face it: skilled stockmen are a scarce resource and it's a shortage that cannot be addressed in the short term.
Looking at dry cow management, it is essential that dietary requirements enable a transition to the lactating phase without a metabolic setback.
There has been a significant decrease in the supply of minerals and vitamins in dry cow diets.
This will have a negative affect on both milk quality and quantity and a negative effect on cow survival rates after the next lactation.
Cows in the close-up period to calving need access to a clean straw bed, fresh feed and water at all times.
Any stressors in this period will have a negative affect on the repair of the reproductive tract which is directly linked to future cow survival. There is also an increased risk of harvesting high SCC milk in early lactation with a knock-on effect on price.
From a calf perspective the focus has to be primarily on providing at least four litres of high-quality colostrum within the first three hours of birth.
There has been a growing emphasis on a 'best practise' regimen of 'snatching' the calf at birth with the objective of stomach tubing the calf with the required colostrum.
This approach may reduce labour requirements.
However, there is a perception of 'cruelty' which the dairy industry does not need to be associated with in an era where consumers need to be assured of optimal welfare of dairy stock at all stages of the production cycle.
Dry cow to fresh cow transition management is directly linked to calf health in the first two months after birth.
Optimising housing environment for calves will reduce environment stressors and reduce the risk factors for cryptosporidium, coccidiosis and pneumonia.
Dairy farming can be a very fulfilling and financially rewarding career path.
However, we need to address the fact that the bottleneck in terms of farm labour will dictate the growth rate of individual farms and of the sector as a whole to expand.
We cannot tolerate a scenario where welfare of stockmen, cows or calves are compromised.
Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted on www.reprodoc.ie
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