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Some good and less good news in report on dairying

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01 March 2015, at 12:00am

RICHARD GARD has been through the report from Reading University on herd performance – highlighting the need for greater veterinary input on many farms

THERE is some good news for veterinary practices involved with dairy herds. A report from the University of Reading indicates that more cows are conceiving earlier, cell counts are lower, milk production has increased and the cows are achieving higher lifetime productivity.

A global study, however, relates current low milk prices with “extreme high milk production worldwide”. High milk production is expected to continue through 2015 as farmers produce more litres to compensate for the lower price.

The study concludes that, in the long term, “a very positive outlook is foreseen for excellent farmers with good education, who deliver high quality milk and are able to produce with restricted cost prices”.

Veterinary surgeons may be wondering whether this rosy outlook applies to their clients. Auctioneers have stated that “over 1,000” dairy farmers have made enquiries about selling their cows.

That number would represent a considerable reduction if those herds were to go. The historic outcome has been that neighbours expand and the national herd size remains about the same.

A local politician has been reported as saying that the industry will be better off without “inefficient small farmers”. In the past, when there have been severe trading difficulties it hasn’t necessarily been the small and inefficient that have sold up but the large and debt laden.

The studies address finance and summarise that “currently most dairy farms face higher costs than revenues in their milk production”. A family farm factor is recognised with a “high majority” of these farms having a lot of own unpaid labour and own capital on which no interest is paid.

The University of Reading report of herd performance to August 2014 is available as a free download from www.nmr.uk/kpi_study_2014. Data from the study are used directly by NMR’s Interherd+ dairy management program.

Veterinary surgeons are able to benchmark individual herd performance for 32 parameters against that of the 500 herds analysed. Because the performance of herds has changed, the bar has been raised and so targets and achievements will need to be reassessed. The targets are set against the results for the best 25% of the herds. There is an overview that lower levels of disease lead directly into better cow and herd production, less wastage and increased productivity. Where performance expectation changes, a decision has to be made as to how much the herd management has to change to accommodate the improved performance.

With mastitis, for example, fewer herds are keeping chronic cows with the percentage being retained in the herd having fallen from 40% of herds with 15% of chronics in 2010 to 21% in 2014. As overall culling rates have not increased (24% of cows per year), it is likely that there have been activities on farm to better recognise and manage high cell count cows.

Herd fertility has been the entry point for many veterinary surgeons to develop herd health programmes and become involved in the day-to-day management of important aspects. The calving to first service interval has been one of the recognised measures for many years and in 2010 the median level was 105 days with the top 25% of herds achieving 87 days. In 2014 the median is now better than the old top at 86 days and the new top 25% is 73 days.

Veterinary surgeons advising farmer clients would not want to target the middle range unless there are recognised management issues on a particular farm. There are always changes taking place and lack of changes taking place.

Fewer investors

It seems very likely that fewer dairy farmers will be looking to invest in capital improvements to buildings or milking facilities, if the accounting is warning that the low milk price may continue for months or even years. And so a discussion between aiming for the top group, linked to the expected benefit, can be anticipated.

Within the report is an analysis of a subsection of over 30 herds that are enjoying veterinary direction. It would be beneficial to have a breakdown of the 500 herds that indicates their veterinary on-farm involvement but at least one analysis of veterinary direction is helpful.

The example analysed is of somatic cell count where after two years there are fewer herds in the same grouping as the worst 50% of the national survey. Time is a lesson to be taken from this in that it requires one or more cycles of production to show any benefits.

Although the advice and management improvements may be immediate, the outcomes from that advice will take time to be recorded. Across the various measured parameters it needs to be recognised that few herds achieve a top 25% rating in many outcomes.

The veterinary surgeon and the farmer are expected to have a discussion about the herd performance and aimed-for targets. Emphasis is on achieving an appropriate balance of performance in production, fertility and health.

The report explains that a parameter in the bottom 25% is not necessarily a bad thing (high yielding herds tend to have lower protein levels). Conversely, single parameters in the top 25% performance are not always a good thing. A great conception rate combined with dreadful heat detection is likely to see many more cows culled than good heat detection and average conception. The aim is to stimulate informed discussion between farmers and their advisers about what is happening and why.

The age at which cows leave the herd has fallen over the past five years and the target for the best 25% is now 7.1 years, achieving 4.3 lactations. Although the culling rate remains unchanged, the percentage of cows dying from whatever cause within the first 100 days of lactation has improved with a target of 3%.

Accidents and problems arising after calving are often discussed on individual farms with the structures and facilities criticised, where herds have grown on sites never designed for large herd management.

The target for somatic cell counts achieved by the top 25% is 151,000 cells per ml. The median level is 189,000 cells per ml, a fall of 21,000 over five years. A study of clinical mastitis within one veterinary practice indicates that the worst 25% of client herds recorded more than 56 cases, and the best 25% less than 27 cases per 100 cows.

Of course, some cows have more than one clinical case per lactation so summary data need careful interpretation.

Herds with a high mastitis incidence are unlikely to appear in the top quartile for yield. The top target is 8,673 kg and the median 7,821kg. This represents an increase of around 400kg per cow over five years.

There are 35 pages of detailed analysis within the report of 500 Holstein Friesian herds. Enquiries can be directed to Dr James Hanks (co-author): e-mail jameshanks@panlivestock.com.

Veterinary input to dairy production is increasingly needed now that trading conditions are poor. The success of veterinary practices in spending more time with farmers to achieve better returns will be one of the additional measures perhaps to set against herd performance.

Much more information is needed about the effectiveness of veterinary input but the need is now, not in one or two years’ time. There are just under 10,000 milk producers but how many of those enjoy production performance analysis with their vet?

There are always alternative proposals. A project involving Simmental cows in Austria is showing a yield of 900kg, a protein production of 4.41%, low calving intervals and low cell counts. Growth rates for males and cull cows are 1.3kg per day. No doubt other breeds will also be pushing against the Holstein standard. There are also enthusiasts for an increase in buffalo milk.