Breeding programmes for autumn-calving herds will end by March 10. This pertains primarily in the South of Ireland. However, dairy farms in the North will continue breeding through the month of March. It is difficult to understand why farmers would not reduce their workload over the Christmas period.
Unfortunately, we are currently encountering a rapid demise in autumn-calving programmes in the South. There are three primary reasons for this:
Autumn calving requires a greater management workload in terms of housing, nutrition, reproductive management and management skillsets;
Farmers are being advised to focus on grass-based spring calving systems;
The winter milk bonus structure does not give the same financial returns, when compared with grass-based spring calving systems.
Autumn-calving programmes are associated with a higher input of supplemental concentrates and a higher output of milk per cow relative to grass-based milk production. The cow required for an autumn-calving programme has to be genetically driven for higher outputs of milk and a capability to respond efficiently to supplemental concentrates.
Autumn calving requires greater attention to detail in terms of nutrition. Diets have to be formulated whereby the nutritional value of forage is balanced with supplemental concentrates, minerals and vitamins. The risk of forage contamination with mycotoxins is a continuous concern and requires constant and careful management of the forage storage area.
Reproductive management of cows housed indoors is a greater challenge when compared with cows managed outdoors. However, we cannot compare reproductive potential of a low milk-output grass-based system with a high-output indoor system.
Heat detection indoors is the primary challenge. Farmers need to realise that dry cow and fresh cow transition management are the primary drivers of resumption of heat cycles post calving. Health issues in this period will prevent cows from showing heats and reduce pregnancy rate to services.
Autumn-calving programmes will spread the workload. Skilled labour in the dairy farm is the new dairy quota. The emphasis on a concentrated spring calving programme has resulted in increased casualties of cows and calves -- and, indeed, the health of farmers.
A vet visiting a farm recently to rehydrate sick calves reported to a neighbouring farmer that the owner was in greater need of a drip than the calves.The sustainability of autumn-calving programmes depends on a compact calving period to avail of winter milk bonuses that are restricted to a confined period.
A concentrated effort, linked to a preventative health management programme, will optimise the opportunity to have a financially profitable autumn-calving programme.
A case study will demonstrate the sustainability of an autumn-calving programme. Mortimer Kelleher of Whites Cross, Co Cork, has an autumn calving section in his herd which is maintained at approximately 150 cows. The rolling herd average is 8,300 litres.
Based on reproductive data collected to date by Reprodoc using the Smartscan Experience, Mortimer has achieved a submission rate in excess of 90pc for cows calved greater than 40 days. The pregnancy rate to service is currently above 55pc, which excludes maiden heifers.
Mortimer follows a preventative health management programme based on routine farm visits by Dr Morgan Sheehy from Devenish Nutrition. Diet formulation is based on requirements of cows to achieve optimal body condition score at all stages of their production cycle. Supplementary concentrates with added vitamins and minerals are supplied by Southern Milling. This prepares the cow during transition and through to the lactation phase.
In addition, this proprietary period requires adequate high quality colostrum to optimise the immune system of the new-born calf. This is essential in reducing the risk of scours and pneumonia which reduces survivability.
The SmartScan Experience data supports the contention that preventative health management does work, resulting in sustainability of autumn-calving programmes.
Finally, a note of caution. We scanned cows in two herds of fattening cows this week to discover a number of cows were pregnant by between three and eight months.
This is totally unacceptable. New legalisation from Europe make it illegal to slaughter pregnant cows. Cows sold for fattening need to be certified as non-pregnant prior to sale.
Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.reprodoc.ie