Switching to 100pc AI in the milking herd has been a clear success in a number of ways — the figures really back up our decision.
We sat down in early 2018 to assess our breeding plan and set some targets for the farm on the basis that a good six-week calving rate maximising days in milk would drive output and profitability.
We put the Teagasc target of 90pc calved in six weeks top of the list, but also identified a number of other targets.
As the herd is no longer expanding we only wanted enough replacements (20-25pc) from our best cows based on EBI/milk recording. We agreed on four weeks of dairy AI, then breed all beef so as to have more saleable calves, shorten the breeding season to 10 weeks and move to 100pc AI in the milking herd.
Traditionally we used home-bred crossbred bulls to tidy up, but this resulted in late-born dairy calves which no longer suit our system, and for biosecurity/fertility/safety reasons we wanted to avoid buying in a team of beef bulls, so 100pc AI was the consensus.
To support our efforts to increase the six-week calving rate to 90pc as well as our move towards 100pc AI, we decided to purchase heat-detection collars.
The collars cost about €25 per cow per year(the actual cost of the collars was €135 with an expected lifespan of 5-7 years so I am estimating €25 per annum.), but I estimated they would pay for themselves in the second half of the breeding season alone as heat detection becomes more difficult. The collars we bought are linked to the gate and draft the cow automatically if she is in heat.
In 2019 we went 100pc AI for the first time and it was a clear success across a number of areas.
Spring 2020 results show us that over 70pc calved in three weeks, with 92pc in six weeks, and calving finished in 10 weeks.
This clear month between calving and breeding has definite benefits for both man and beast.
One of the concerns I had with going all AI was that both gestation length and calving difficulty would increase with the beef bulls, so I was selective on the HE and AA bulls for both traits — another big advantage with AI versus an unproven stock bull.
We had enough dairy heifers born in the first four weeks for a 35pc replacement rate (more than required), but this also resulted in a similar amount of dairy bull calves, which we want to reduce further next year.
Based on the strong six-week calving rate this spring and the underlying fertility of the herd — combined with the focus on BCS and submission rates — we have upped the ante again for the 2020 breeding season.
We are going for 100pc AI again with a 10-week breeding season, dairy AI reduced to three weeks on our best cows, and the minimum EBI raised to 120.
We also purchased 80 sexed dairy straws in an effort to further reduce male dairy calves born in 2021.
The breeding programme for 2020 started back in the dry period by ensuring all cows were in good order, but not over-fat and the proper amount of dry cow minerals fed from December 20 on. This resulted in a good calving season with no difficult calvings and no cases of milk fever.
The next action we took was to put any cow struggling onto OAD to improve BCS.
We kept a check on cows not cycling — most of them were after having twins — and got our vet Colm to check them out.
Three weeks before the start of AI date, my son Enda tail-painted every cow red, and at the end of each week he tail-painted the cows that had come into heat green to easily identify the non-cyclers.
The day before AI started he cross referenced all the data from the collars and the tail paint so he knew exactly where each cow was and got the vet back again to treat the few non-cyclers — seven with Cidrs and the same number with prostaglandin.
In summary, this breeding season we submitted 97pc of the herd for AI in the first three weeks, today we are six weeks breeding and 26pc of the herd have repeated, giving us a non-return rate of over 70pc.
Meanwhile, the exceptionally dry months of April and May have given us very good grazing conditions and lovely warm weather for the cows.
The negative is that grass growth is behind normal and as the dry spell becomes a green drought, costly supplements will have to be fed. We have increased the meal to 4kg as AFC has dropped to 480 or 120 per cow.
Henry and Patricia Walsh farm in Oranmore, Co Galway along with their son Enda, and neighbour and outfarm owner John Moran
The heat is on: heat detection collars cost approximately €25/cow, but Henry Walsh says they more than pay for themselves during the breeding season