Opinion: 'We need trained stockmen to handle dairy expansion'

Pictured at the tractor run at Lisavaird, West Cork were Teresa McCarthy and Amy Burke. Photo: Denis Boyle
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

Dairy herd size in grass-based milk production systems has increased significantly in the past five years.

This expansion has brought with it many unforeseen challenges.

Tax incentive to encourage long term leases have had a significant impact on the opportunity to increase dairy herd size. Frequently, this has meant the installation of underpasses through public roads. These cost approximately €45,000.

Walking distance for cows has increased and the risk of lameness has increased with distance walked. This also becomes an animal welfare issue.

One client with a 400 cow dairy herd noted that milk production stopped by 2.5 litres per day when cows had to walk two kilometres to the furthest paddock on the grazing platform. The cumulative stress reduces reproductive performance. The intensity and duration of heats decrease, later embryonic mortality increases.

An alternative to increasing walking distance has been the uptake of zero grazing.

This requires additional costs in machinery and time on a daily basis to harvest grass. A number of contractors now provide this service. However, zero grazing will increase the risk of stomach fluke infestation and neospora relative to cows grazing the same grass.

The availability of skilled labour is now the primary constraint on optimal management of dairy herds. The stockmanship skills required cannot be taught over a short time period. It is difficult to attract people into the industry.

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Unskilled staff can cover menial tasks but there could be significant financial losses if they are assigned tasks associated with animal welfare

I know of an example of a dairy farmer with 320 cows who needed additional help. He employed a man from Poland who had previously worked in the building industry. The owner showed him the basics of calving cows and devoted his time to office management.

Two weeks later the employee came to the office and told the boss that a serious problem had arisen with a cow: "Big problem, the calf has gone back into the cow".

The farmer went out to address the situation to find that the calf was coming backwards!

A structured training programme and a defined career path for stockmen is required.

Farm managers on large dairy units need stockmen with defined skillsets to optimise animal welfare and thereby the financial performance of the business.

Dairy health issues

Dairy health issues have increased as herd size increases. The risk of mastitis infection and measures to prevent same have placed an additional burden on milking routines and maintenance of milking parlour equipment.

As environmental stresses increase, the risk of IBR infections increase. The questions being debated on many farms regarding IBR are the choice between live and dead vaccines and the need for a second booster vaccine on a yearly basis to maintain antibody titres.

Stomach and liverfluke infections are causing significant problems on many dairy farms. Treatment requires milk withdrawal from the food chain for a defined period.

Farmers are reluctant to treat animals when milk sales are decimated. The industry needs to establish better guidelines in preventative health management for these diseases.

Finally, lung worm infections have caused a significant increase in later embryonic mortality this year. Lungworm infections are frequently confused with IBR.

Treatment can cause serious health setbacks where a heavy lung worm infection pertains. I have encountered cases of foetal death between 40 and 50 days following treatment for lungworm.

There is a greater use of stock bulls on large dairy units after a three to four week period of AI.

The bulls used are frequently too young and break down after a short period of use.

Fertility testing of bulls is only useful on the day of testing and is no guarantee that cows or heifers will go in calf. I have encountered several cases of infertile bulls this year which were previously classified as fertile using semen evaluation.

Finally, there are significant social issues associated with dairy expansion.

Rural depopulation and social isolation will increase as fewer people work on larger dairy units. Increased mental health problems cannot be an acceptable outcome to dairy herd expansion.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.reprodoc.ie

Indo Farming