By Brian Reidy
Spring calvers around the country are fast approaching their dry period.
Many of the same questions are asked each year around now. How long do I need to have cows dry? How long do heifers need to be dry?
What dry cow minerals do I need? How much straw do I have to feed?
What parasite control measures do I need to take?
So many decisions to make, such as what dry cow tube and sealer. What is the withdrawal on the product of choice?
Let’s start with the length of the dry period. So what condition are cows currently in?
Do they need to build some condition or are they in an acceptable condition?
If cows are a little under-conditioned, then why not up the feeding between now and dry off, so that cows are all being dried off in optimum condition?
Increasing body condition during the dry period lays down fat rather than muscle and results in early lactation cows mobilising that fat rapidly after calving, increasing the risk of ketosis, along with poorer milk quality.
If cows are in good condition, then why do they need any more than eight weeks dry? Many will have them dry for an even shorter period.
Another hot topic is milking through!
Does it make economic sense to dry off all cows for the winter when the typical farm calves over a 10-12-week period next spring.
A March calver dried off in mid-December ends up dry for close to 12 weeks, and maybe more. Consider this, a typical dry cow diet this winter will cost between €1.50 and €2 per day, depending on what is being fed and what is available. A typical late lactation milker’s diet will cost around €3.50 to €4 per day, again depending on ingredient availability and costings.
As a result, the additional feed cost to keep a cow milking is about €2 per day.
At the current milk price, between five and six litres will cover the additional feed cost, and another litre will cover any associated fixed costs of keeping a cow in milk. So, every litre above seven that the cow produces is yours!
If we look at each cow that ends up dry for 30 days longer than necessary, and if she is doing 15 litres of milk with good solids, making 40c per litre, that is €96 of additional profit margin.
The obvious reaction from most is, “Oh I need a break from milking etc”, and I accept this argument 100%.
However, if a large number of cows are dry for 30 days longer than necessary, then the additional margin will cover the cost multiple times to pay someone to milk your herd once per day, while you continue to do the other milking. Food for thought, at least! After a difficult year, cash flow is tight on many farms, so any additional revenue will be welcome.
Hands up, whose cows are still milking very well as we head into mid-November?
The vast majority of milk producers I speak to say that cows are milking significantly better at the moment than they were this time last year.
It has long been my opinion that cows on Irish dairy farms are much better than they have been given credit for.
A bold statement to make, but there are plenty out there that will agree with me if they are brave enough to admit it.
The difficult spring followed by the severe drought have resulted in cows being fed differently this year.
Before anybody gets too upset, grazed grass must still remain the cornerstone of Irish milk production.
However, many farmers have stated that their cows have responded very well to the necessary additional supplementation in 2018.
Most have concluded that they will feed more concentrates than their normal level in 2019, but obviously less than they have this year.
As an industry, we must have a better appreciation of the amount of milk that is possible from grazed grass and forage It is generally accepted that this figure is 4,000-4,500 litres.
In milk solids, that is anything from 350-400Kg.
Any additional yield will require supplementation.
That supplementation will be in many forms depending on the system, but it needs to be fed, to fulfil the genetic potential of the animal.
Too often, the cow gets the blame when she doesn’t conform to the norm!
Reports from around the country indicate that fertility has been quite good, considering the poor year we had.
I wonder is there a link between feeding and fertility?
Of course, there is. If a cow is short of energy during the breeding season, she will divert energy into her other functions long before she will go in calf.
The number one job should be to test your silage for nutrients and minerals before any dry cow diet is formulated.
A dry cow diet must achieve four important goals.
Firstly, assuming that you have dried the cow off in the condition you would like to calve her down in, the diet should be formulated to maintain that condition.
After that, the diet should continue to grow the calf at a steady pace, and help to renew the mammary cells and bag the cow up pre-calving.
Finally, any dry cow diet should be formulated to prevent metabolic disorders around the calving event.
Issues such as cows holding cleanings, milk fever, difficult calvings, and ketosis are very preventable if all variables have been accounted for.
I have seen a lot of silage mineral results in the past few weeks, and it is very obvious that the spring will be troublesome on farms if action is not taken regarding forage mineral status imbalances.
In particular, antagonists such as lead, aluminium, iron and molybdenum are what can only be described as sky high in a lot of silages.
These elements in excess in silage will tie up essential elements such as iodine, selenium, manganese, copper and zinc, making them less available to animals.
If these antagonists are present, and coupled with lower levels of those essential elements, then cows will have an extremely compromised mineral status, and the stress of the calving event could and will lead to trouble for both cow and calf.
The other prevalent issue this year in silage is that potassium levels are also very high, due to large volumes of late slurry being applied to silage ground.
To address the above issues/concerns around silage quality, a two-pronged approach must be taken.
Firstly, you must try to dilute down the high potassium in the silage physically by addition of straw to dry cow diets, and by establishing if you have silages lower in potassium in your yard that could be fed instead, or as part replacement for the offending silage.
Secondly, you must look carefully at the mineral spec that you use.
Good quality organic zinc, manganese, copper and selenium must be included to optimise availability to the cow, and the magnesium level must be high in order to chemically dilute the potassium in silages.
Another challenge that has emerged this year is a significant parasite burden in dairy herds.
Many have realised that the myth that mature cows don’t get worms has been blown apart in recent years.
Many herds have reported the need to dose cows for worms up to three times while grazing this year.
It will be well worth while testing your herd before any dosing strategy is devised.
Many herds now participate in a herd health screening programme through their milk recording service.
These tests will indicate the level of antibodies present in your herd fighting against worms and liver fluke.
Discuss these results with your vet, and it may also be worth getting them to test dung samples for the presence of rumen fluke, before you devise a dosing strategy.
Discussion regarding any dosing will revolve around issues such as timing, target parasites, product withdrawal, and method of dosing.
Please select the method and products that will optimise parasite control and animal performance, rather than choosing the easy option.
Play the long game rather than the short one.