Father and son pair Neil and John Burke milk 500 cows in Skyrne, Co. Meath, in a spring calving system using 100pc AI.
When Neil graduated from UCD in 2016, they entered the partnership that helped them expand the farm into what it is today. In the beginning, the herd was autumn and spring calving, but the figures weren’t stacking up for the autumn calving portion of the herd.
They had a full labour unit dedicated to tail painting, heat detection, and pulling out cows for breeding at milking time.
“We made the call to switch to 100pc spring calving over 2019 and 2020. It made management far easier for us, and made more economic sense to us at the time,” Neil explained.
Neil and John installed a 60-unit rotary as they expanded the herd from 320 in 2018 to 500 today. Neil had experienced milking in a similar system in New Zealand and liked the simplicity. When designing the shed they included an Alfco drafting gate.
“We had installed the Alfco drafting gate to make picking out cows easier. We have an app for the Alfco drafting gate, and an app for Censortec Nedap Cow Control. Each morning at the start of milking, we can just tap a button on the app, and any cow that’s due for AI will be standing in the holding pen at the end of milking,” Neil said.
“We can pick out 30 cows by pressing one button! The Alfco gate is a super gate has yet to make a mistake since we installed it, We also have been using Cormac Tags for the last few years, so the whole system is extremely reliable.
“If a wrong cow is selected it’s down to a user error on our end, if we manually select the wrong cow to be picked out from the parlour. Each staff member has the apps installed on their phones. Our morning milker’s first job is to check the system and use the app to get all the relevant cows picked out. The labour it saves is huge, and there’s less stress on the cows too,” continued Neil.
When it came to installing a system, Neil and John were swayed towards Censortec NEDAP cow Control for a few reasons.
“We had already installed the Alfco gate, and the fact that the two integrated was definitely a big plus. We had also done our own investigation and asked a few friends in the business and the feedback with regards accuracy of the system and more importantly, the reliability of the system was extremely positive in relation to Nedap and Censortec.
“Regardless of the integration, I think the system is one of the best out there. We rely on the info we get, and it hasn’t let us down,” contended Neil.
“The Censortec team were really easy to deal with and came and had the system installed in half a day. If I ever had any questions, they were always at the end of the phone. They’re passionate about product, and they wanted me to get the best from the system,” he said.
A global leader in heat detection and health monitoring, Censortec’s Nedap Cow Control has been monitoring dairy animals for over 40 years. Using the latest technology, cows are monitored 24/7. Data from the SmartTag neck collars can be access via a phone, laptop, or tablet, always giving farmers full visibility of their herd.
During the breeding season, the Censortec System comes into its own. Neil can check to see which cows have been cycling after calving, and it allows them to identify problem cows earlier and get them treated before the start of the breeding season.
“Before we put in Cow Control, if a cow calved on the first of February, and wasn’t cycling, that wouldn’t have been picked up until the start of breeding. It just makes the whole system more efficient because we’re sorting out problem cows earlier,” Neil explained
Prior to installing the Censortec system, the Burkes were using tail paint and AI for six weeks and cleaning up with stock bulls for six to eight weeks.
“With our herd size, we were using 12 stock bulls each year. They were never exactly trouble free, and we’d a big problem with lameness. On top of that, they were only working for eight weeks of the year, and they still had to be fed and managed for the rest of the year. They were always a safety concern too,” recalled Neil.
“I never wanted to install collars, I figured we didn’t need them. But when I sat down and looked at the costs associated with buying, maintaining and managing the stock bulls alone, it didn’t make sense.
“We have eliminated 12 stock bulls we had prior to installing the system. This actually goes a long way on paying for the system, and that’s before you even look at the labour saving we’ve made, or the improvement in fertility and management,” he added.
Like a lot of farms, the Burkes were relying on tail paint prior to installing Cow Control. Each morning, there was one person dedicated to tail painting and picking out cows for AI at milking time.
“The system has removed a person from the parlour,” said Neil. “It’s been a huge labour saving, and we’re not as tied to the parlour as we were. One person can milk on their own now, and we’ve improved the accuracy of our heat detection massively.
“We did tail paint the first year for the first three weeks to compare, and Cow Control was picking up cows that hadn’t had their tail paint touched. That was a real reassurance for us that the system was accurate and was alerting us to silent heats,” he said.
Along with moving to 100pc AI after installing the Censortec system, Neil and John have started using sexed semen for the first 10 days of the breeding season. This is followed by three weeks of dairy AI, and then beef semen is used to breed the remainder of the herd.
“We have so much more control and information with Cow Control. There’s no way we’d have been confident enough to use sexed semen without the info from the system, with the cow numbers that we have. We inseminate with sexed semen any time between 14 and 20 hours. We’ve been really happy with the results so far,” explained Neil.
One of the Burke’s main goals is to tighten their calving pattern from 85pc to 90pc in six weeks. “Now we’re using 100pc AI, we can use shorter gestation bulls. As well as the better pre breeding management, Cow Control is going to have a big effect on tightening up our calving pattern,” said Neil.
The health monitoring element of Cow Control has been an added benefit for the Burkes.
“We check for health alerts twice a day, and rely on it 100pc,” Neil explains. “Soon after we installed the system, we had a cow alert with a health issue. I picked her out and looked at her but could see nothing wrong, so I ignored the alert.
“Two days later, she was in a really bad way, so we called the vet. It turned out she had a twisted stomach and was in a lot of discomfort by the time we had her treated. After that, any time a cow flags up with a health alert, we pick her out and call the vet.
“Our vet finds the system useful too, they can check on each cow’s activity, and see if their activity or rumination has changed recently, which can help then diagnose any problems,” Neil said.
Neil has found that they now rely on the Censortec system for health alerts. “We find Cow Control is alerting cows at least a day before any physical symptoms show. We have no milk meters on the parlour so can’t see if a cow drops in milk, but we don’t miss it because we have Cow Control.
“Also, with the rotary you don’t get as much time to physically look at the cows. The reassurance that Cow Control gives us from a health point of view is great because we know the info is accurate,” he said.
When asked what the biggest benefit of Cow Control, Neil doesn’t take long to respond. “There’s a pair of eyes on the cows 24 hours a day now, and it’s reduced the stress and the guesswork for us.
”We’ve been able to streamline our breeding, we’re more efficient at dealing with sick cows, we’ve eliminated stock bulls and we’ve saved a huge amount of work in the process. It’ll easily have itself paid for in two years.
“The system is easy for staff to use too, and that gives us a huge peace of mind if we’re ever away. We know that the team milking has accurate, reliable info to work from. Our vet and scanner make use of the data too, and it’s brilliant to be able to give them accurate information when they arrive into the yard,” he said.
Encouraging others to follow suit, Neil added; “If anyone is thinking about installing Censortec Nedap Cow Control, I would say it's a fairly clear-cut and straight forward decision!”
“It is great to be able to support farmers like Neil & Johnny to simplify their system when it comes to drafting and animal monitoring,” Donagh Crowley of Censortec said. “If any farmer would like more information on the system you can give us a call on 066 9713900.”
Contact Donagh at 086 8592968 and William on 087 6734994 or visit the Censortec website.