Precision dairy farming idea doing well here

AN AUTOMATED, precision dairy farming idea adopted from south Africa is doing well in trials in Ireland.

South Africa has large dairy farms run by a relatively unskilled labour force – but high-tech solutions result in high productivity.

Typically, cows are automatically monitored by electronic equipment which alerts the herdsman whenever a cow needs individual attention.

Many Irish farms have similar systems, but the Alltech and Dairymaster companies have come together in an initiative to put individual cow management at the centre of Irish dairy farming. They have chosen the dry period as the starting point. “If the cow is not managed properly in the run-up to calving, from a nutritional point of view, she will badly underperform during her subsequent lactation,” says Alltech’s John Thornton.

Their CowCentric dry cow feeding system, developed in conjunction with Dairymaster, is built around a €9,500 Smartfeeder machine which should pay for itself in 12 months in a 130 cow herd, if one litre per day can be added to peak yield. Early results indicate it is easily achieving this target, says John Thornton.

The machine “looks after” about 100 cows which dry cows have access to a grass silage/straw mix. Each cows’s next calving date, body condition score and health status are programmed into the machine, which can release up to 3kg per day in one feed of specially formulated concentrate per cow. The machine reads an electronic button tag in each cow’s ear, and releases enough feed to, for example, add up to half a condition score improvement in 60 days.

John Thornton says the ease of management, labour saving, reduced health issues at calving, increased milk production and better fertility will result in a 12 month return on investment for any farmer milking around 120 cows.

More than quarter of the leading dairy farms in South Africa use this system.

Nigel Lok from South Africa was in Ireland recently to help Alltech and Dairymaster promote their new system.

A 1,300-cow farmer at Tsitsikamma in South Africa, he successfully uses computerised dairy management and automatic feeding systems.

He represents a move away in South Africa from New Zealand dairying principles towards individually feeding cows to achieve an ideal weight curve for milk yield, condition and fertility.

He also told farmers here about another idea used by top South African farmers which could catch on here – estimating grass covers with readers and GPS consoles mounted on quad bikes. It could save Irish farmers a lot of field walking and time.

During my recent visit to South Africa, alot of the talk amongst the leading farmers was on dry cow management. I focused on what areas of the dry period the farmers were focusing on. Most have the ability to weigh cows every day and so weight of dry cows is very important. Furthermore, preparing close up dry cows was a big focus.

During a discussion with a local consultant he made the comment that more profit is lost in the dry period than any other part of the cows life. It became clear that poor dry cow management led to losses in next lactation milk production, poor fertility as well as increased cases of difficult calvings, milk fever, displaced abomasums and metritis.

In one case we looked at what the impact of cows losing weight over the dry period would have on next lactation milk production. In this case we looked at cows losing more than 10% of their bodyweight over the dry period versus those losing 2% or less. What was amazing was the impact of this weight loss on the next lactation milk production, a difference of 625 litres over the lactation.

In another case we looked at the impact of days dry on the next lactation fertility. What we were looking for was the difference between cows that were dry for the ideal time 50-70 days versus cows dry for more than 70 days or cows dry for less than 50 days. The overall difference between the ideal group and those outside of the ideal dry period window on inter-calving period was 30 days. This equates to approximately £90/cow over the lactation.

Avoiding calving difficulties and diseases around calvings, such as retained placentas, is a big focus to ensure cows begin cycling. Many farmers bring their dry cows into the milk parlour for the last three weeks of the dry period, to feed them on dry cow feed. This is typically high in energy in the form of starches and sugars to ensure the cows have sufficient energy for a strong calving. Furthermore, nearly everyone uses special dry cow minerals that contain Sel-Plex, organic selenium and Bioplex organic minerals as a source of zinc, copper and manganese. The key objective with this mineral is to reduce milk fevers and boost the immune system.

Calf vitality was also high on the agenda and the experience seems to be that the better the cow is looked after in the dry period the better the strength of the calves at birth. Many farmers vaccinated their dry cows for local diseases.


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