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Difficult spring has forced farmers to sacrifice vital chores

IF there was ever a time when those involved in the industry needed a holiday or weekend break from it all it's now.

With very low feed reserves and large amounts of concentrates being fed to cows across the country, this spring has been very expensive. In addition, farmers have been landed with an increased workload as they battle to feed stock.

This has had a knock-on effect on the ability of farmers to keep up with the other necessary jobs of spring such as spreading fertiliser or slurry. Stress and depressed moods have been common at recent co-op, mart and discussion group meetings. To make matters worse, there has been no opportunity to reduce the workload by off-loading surplus stock as the market is poor due to all of the above.

With a weekend off very unlikely in the short-term, farmers have to rally their strengths to face into the breeding season. This is one of the most important times of year for dairy management. A successful mating season relies on doing the right thing at the right time, and being clear about what can or cannot be compromised on.

The first key decision is the date you are going to start mating the cows and the heifers. Given the last 18 months, I wouldn't be surprised if a few farmers are considering delaying mating due to challenges associated with spring management over the past few years.

However, make sure you give due consideration to the challenges associated with producing milk at the end of the season. The efficiency and profitability of a dairy farm is substantially affected by the average days in milk the herd achieves.

Delaying the calving in spring increases the requirement to produce more autumn and winter milk. Winter milk is generally produced off silage and meal and this has a substantial impact on production costs and cow condition. So while it may seem an obvious solution, remember that if the milk isn't made up in the autumn and winter period you will have a reduced income. A change in overall stocking rate, dry stock numbers, rented silage acres or feed purchases may be a wiser move than a change to the date you plan to start calving.

The next job is to make sure you mate your maiden heifers either on the same day as the cows or a few days before. There are a number of small underweight heifers around the country due to last year's weather, parasites and poor winter feeding. Many farmers delay the mating of small maiden heifers until later into the breeding season.

Late calving heifers result in a poorer calving spread of the herd and a substantially reduced longevity of the heifers. Late calving heifers inevitably produce less milk from a reduced lactation length and become culls or late calving cows as they fail to fall pregnant due to insufficient time from calving until the end of mating.

While small heifers are less likely to get in-calf at the start of breeding, if you chance them and they do get in-calf, remember that a large amount of weight gain can be achieved by a heifer post mating until a month prior to calving if preferentially treated. Remember that the number one priority is to get them in-calf. Second is to AI. So if it's too much workload and stress to AI the maiden heifers, put the bulls in on time.

The third focus is to maximise the number of cows and heifers that calve in the first six weeks of calving. While those that had a delayed calving spread may have been thankful this spring due to reduced demand for grass and silage by the milking cows, the other reality of a slow calving spread is that it results in a reduced milk income in spring.

After calving, a cow's reproductive tract needs to eliminate fluids and contamination and contract to a normal size before she can commence normal heat cycles. While the odd cow recovers quickly, generally the reproductive performance is low soon after calving, and increases to a peak around 12-15 weeks after calving.

As a result, a cow that calves eight weeks after the start of calving (e.g. April calvers) has less than half the chance of conceiving during the first six weeks of mating, and double the chance of staying empty at the end of mating than cows that calved in the first three weeks.

The timely use of tail paint and other heat detection aids, the identification and treatment of non-cyclers and once-a-day milking of poorly conditioned cows and heifers should be tools that are used this spring to promote a compact calving in 2014.

Mary Kinston is a farm consultant and discussion group facilitator. Email:

Irish Independent