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Preventing a predicted fall in fertility

A range of concentrates has helped one Welsh dairy producer to mitigate the effects of drought in spring 2020. 

Drought severely limited grass growth during the early part of the 2020 grazing season and cows then achieved record peak milk yields, so Welsh producer Gethin Brown expected the fertility of his spring-calving herd to take a hit at service time. 

As it turned out, fertility and cow performance remained high throughout the conception period, and Gethin credits much of this success to targeted feeding of specialist, low-protein concentrates

Expecting a fall in fertility

“I have been farming long enough to know that you don’t get any milk from cows ‘for free’, so I was conscious that the feed challenges we faced due to drought in March 2020 had the potential to impact on cow fertility,” he says. “Peak milk yields in 2020 were also 27 litres compared to 25 litres in 2019, and I was sure this was going to exacerbate the problem.” 

He was bracing himself for an empty rate of around 10%. “But fertility rates held and we recorded 7.5% empty in 2020 – the same result we saw in 2019, after a perfect spring. So, despite the challenges in 2020, we ended up having a much better year than expected.”

Dairy system

Based on a 147-hectare platform in Hayscastle, near Haverfordwest, Gethin currently runs 330 Jersey crossbred cows using a spring-block-calving system. He’s in his second year of a joint-venture farming arrangement. The herd is averaging 5,200 litres, at 4.90% butterfat and 3.89% protein, with a somatic cell count of 100,000 cells/ml.

To achieve a tight 12-week calving block from early February, serving starts on May 10. Gethin AIs for the first five weeks, using a mix of conventional Friesian and Jersey semen. After that, any cows that are not in calf run with the unit’s stock bulls.

Cows are turned out to graze as soon as they calve, on a 40-day rotation, with Gethin aiming for the herd to graze the whole grazing platform between the start of calving and April 1. 

He aims to graze grass covers at around 3,000kg DM/hectare and will move cows when they’re down to around 1,600kg. “This may seem high to some producers, but we find that leaving behind a bit more grass in a paddock helps with grass regrowth and quality.” 

When cows were turned out in 2020, Gethin began supplementing intakes with 4kg of GrazeMate – a low, 12% protein concentrate from ForFarmers, which contains Levucell and minerals, and has been specifically designed to support spring calving and grazing herds. Early in the grazing season, there is, typically, plenty of protein in the grass. So feeding a low-protein concentrate helps balance the ration and ensures that milk ureas don’t get too high. “I used a similar product a few years ago and found it worked well in a spring grazing system, so I was keen to give the ForFarmers product a try,” adds Gethin. 

Gethin's herd

Adapting the feed strategy due to a severe drought

Hopes of a straightforward grazing season were soon dashed when a severe drought hit Pembrokeshire, requiring him to adapt his feeding strategy in the face of poor grass growth and dwindling forage stocks. 

“The grass just wasn’t growing, so we had to supplement rations with grass silage. This was never going to be as good for them in terms of performance, compared to the grass they usually had at that time of year. “So we talked to ForFarmers’ Rhodri Thomas and arranged for some 16% protein concentrate to be delivered, to see us through the drought period. 

“As soon as grass growth recovered, we jumped straight back to the GrazeMate, as urea levels had crept up to 0.04 that’s 400mg per litre,” explains Gethin.

“Towards the end of the season, when grass protein levels started to drop off, we moved on to GrazeLate. This is a 14% protein concentrate that helps balance the diet and keep protein intakes as consistent as possible.” Gethin has his herd’s milk urea levels recorded through NMR and uses this data to help guide changes in concentrate use. 

The effect of drought on dairy cow fertility

If milk urea levels rise above 0.03 (300mg/litre) – and stay high for too long – the likelihood is that cow fertility will suffer. So keeping milk urea levels low is important.

“We want the most efficient possible use of protein in the diet, and by monitoring data, rather than physical signs displayed by the cow, we can be responsive and ensure the diet is adapted quickly to maintain efficiency. The GrazeMate and GrazeLate concentrates complement our approach and support cow performance and fertility.”

The success of low-protein concentrates for spring-calvers

Rhodri Thomas is pleased with how the low-protein concentrates have supported Gethin’s herd and believes they have the potential to help many spring-calving units. “Meeting cows’ nutritional requirements is vital. If protein isn’t balanced, high blood ureas and embryo losses can be the result,” he says. “Maintaining a tight block is crucial in spring-calving herds, so managing the balance of protein and forage intake is also important.”

Despite the challenges posed during 2020, Gethin is pleased with the performance of his herd and plans to carry on feeding low-protein concentrates, during the grazing season.  

“In 2020, 80% of the herd calved within the first six weeks and we finished calving in 11 weeks, which was a great result,” he says. “The fact that we were able to maintain an empty rate of just 7.5%, as we had the previous year, highlights the importance of being able to be flexible with the amount of protein added to the diet. “This success, coupled with the two-litre increase in peak milk yields, bodes well for the future. I look forward to seeing what we can achieve in 2021 in, hopefully, more typical conditions.” |

For more information

For more information about GrazeMate, GrazeLate or about our range of compound feed please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or send us an online enquiry:

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