Farm Ireland

Sunday 19 November 2017

Managing the 'mob' properly will pay dividends

That first row of clusters can be a painful experience until the milk begins to warm the units up
That first row of clusters can be a painful experience until the milk begins to warm the units up

Dr Mary Kinston

It's certainly not been an easy two weeks with frozen parlours, water troughs and the general hardship of working in these cold and challenging conditions.

For some spring calving herds this may have been a reason to quit milking sooner rather than later, and it certainly makes you feel real compassion for those who are milking in these conditions this winter. Having milked in what seemed a constant freeze at times during the winter in England, I still have a clear memory of that first row of clusters being a painful experience until the milk begins to warm the clusters up.

My own tip is to get a cheap pair of stretchy, woolly gloves that fit under the rubber gloves as this can ease some of the pain. Some people still rely on the old cure of sticking a freezing hand between the leg and udder of the cow when they get the chance.

The day-to-day challenge of providing food and water to the animals is still a major concern for many farmers. However, for those herds that are now fully dried-off, group management -- or what I refer to as mob management -- needs to be given consideration to save time and facilities, and maximise both weight gain and next year's production potential.

A useful and cost effective technique is to tape the tails of the cows and in-calf heifers with colours referencing the month of calving. For example, green tape for cows calving in February, and red for March etc. This is useful as it can help you group your stock up relative to calving date to adjust feeding rates, or aid you in pulling together a springer mob that is close to calving. When checking cows at night during the calving period, there is no need to get cows up if the tape shows they are 1-2 months from calving. You can then make sure to cast a second eye over the ones due.

However, another use of these tapes is for grouping cows up to manage condition score. The minimum target condition score at this stage for a February calving cow is 3, with an aim to increase it to 3.25 by the beginning of January.

So at this stage, February-calving cows should have smooth ribs and short ribs, flat backbone and rounded hips and pins. If there are a few cows behind this target then you've only one more month to gain the condition score required. Feeding animals to gain condition in the last month of pregnancy will only grow the calf.

Therefore, it's important to have reached calving condition at least one month before calving. For cows that are calving in March and April, their condition score should now be at least 2.75. If there are a few cows with obvious notches along the backbone, with very noticeable short ribs, angular hip bones and sharp pin bones, then corrective action needs to be taken to increase the body reserves of these cows over the dry period. They should be grouped and fed accordingly.

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Farmers should realise that poor condition score costs when it comes to calving. One study by McNamara et al in 2001 found that, over the first eight weeks of lactation, cows with just 0.28 of a condition score, less pre-calving, produced 4.1kg less per day. For one cow over eight weeks that's around 230 litres. At 30c/l, this equates to around €69 over the two-month period. On 10 cows this comes to €689, or for a whole herd of 100 cows €6,888, for a relatively small difference in overall condition score.

This is without considering losses due to the lower milk fat content, extended anoestrus period, reduced submission rate and conception rates. So while you've got chance to do something about it, take a look at condition score.

Dr Mary Kinston is a dairy consultant based in Co Kerry. Email:

Irish Independent