Managing transition cows so they are strong and healthy when they join the milking herd is a key objective for all producers. And to ensure that his cows are ready to perform at their best after calving, Dorset-based producer Ian Baggs places plenty of emphasis on providing them with the best nutritional support and care during the transition period.
He runs a 240-cow herd, which is split into autumn and spring-calving blocks, with help from his family. “Our aim is to have cows calve down and then be ready to integrate into the milking herd and establish their place in the hierarchy,” he says. “If we support this process, cows quickly get on with the job we want them to do – eating plenty of feed and turning this into good-quality milk.
“The calving period is a particularly stressful and we aim to provide the right nutritional support in the run up to and immediately post calving,” he adds. “By honing our transition-cow management during the past few years, we have been able to significantly reduce the incidence of metabolic disorders including ketosis and milk fever.”
Ian made the change from an all-year-round calving system three years ago, and the herd, which is based near Wareham, is gradually transitioning to an autumn block. Herd average yield is 9,000 litres, at 4.2% butterfat and 3.4% protein, with all milk sold to Arla. As a current Nuffield Scholar investigating sustainable forage cropping, it’s no surprise that sustainability and efficiency are high on Ian’s agenda.
“During the past three years we have focused on producing milk more sustainably, rather than increasing yields,” Ian says. “For example, all grass reseeds we carry out are now put down to herbal leys. These are drought tolerant and require fewer artificial inputs.
“We graze cows on slightly stronger covers, but close pasture for longer, compared to conventional ryegrass dominant grazing systems, to allow the herbs in the ley to recover. We allow the swards to set seed once every couple of years, and mob-graze extremely high covers with dry stock instead of taking a silage cut. This allows the roots to gain depth, which helps to build organic matter and sequester carbon, and enables the sward to regenerate naturally by self-seeding.
“We have also grazed milking cows successfully on swards with red clover. And, if we provide the cows with enough rock salt, there are no health repercussions from grazing this high-protein nitrogenfixing crop.”
Cows are fed a winter ration comprising maize and grass silage, in a 60:40 ratio, as well as up to 5kg of brewers’ grain at housing. Cows with daily yields above 25 litres are fed up to a maximum of 8kg of concentrate through out-of parlour feeders, with all cows then fed a flat rate of 4kg of concentrate through the milking parlour.
“We aim to turn out in February and rehouse them in November. Because we have a limited grazing platform of improved grassland, we buffer feed with maize to complement the grazed grass and we also continue to feed a flat rate of 4kg per cow through the parlour.”
All cows and heifers are genomically tested, and Ian selects the top 50% of the autumn-block calving animals to serve to sexed semen.
Cows and heifers will be served twice with sexed semen before switching to beef semen for the cows, and sweeper bulls for the heifers. “We want all the replacement heifer calves to be born in the first six weeks of this autumn-calving block, and we want to breed cows that will be robust, healthy and lower in stature. The aim is to breed a more efficient and lower-maintenance animal.”
Ian says September is a good time of year to be calving because the weather is kinder: “And there’s more grass available at that time on our dry farm. Anything that is currently calving down in spring will automatically be served to a beef sire, which works well when the cows are at grass.”
Managing the transition-cow period has been another area of focus during the past three years, with the aim of reducing metabolic issues.
“If we look after the cows during this stressful time,then they will look after us through good milk production and milk quality – it’s a win-win situation,” continues Ian. “Nutrition is obviously a key component."
“Dry cows will be out grazing ‘unimproved’ grassland, but are brought indoors three or four weeks prior to calving and housed in a straw-bedded yard. We want them to be eating plenty of dry matter, so they are fed maize silage, straw and hay with 3kg of ForFarmers TRANSLAC dry cow rolls to create a semi-DCAB diet.”
Ian is conscious of the metabolic challenges posed during the close-up period and calving itself, so three years ago he started providing animals with high volumes of a high-energy electrolyte drink immediately post-calving.
TRANSLAC HydroBoost is a palatable, high-energy drink that helps to quickly rehydrate cows, replenish minerals and help maintain blood calcium levels. “The product comes in a powdered form in resealable 20kg buckets, and is added to lukewarm water,” explains ForFarmers’ Emily Hayes, who works with Ian and his herd. “It gives cows the boost they need to get back on their feet, maintain optimum mineral balance, and increase feed intakes.”
Ian has used the product for three years and is pleased with how it has supported his wider efforts to improve cow health and performance post-calving.
“Shortly after calving we always visit the cow and calf to feed colostrum, and it takes little effort to provide HydroBoost at the same time,” says Ian. “Cows drink it enthusiastically and that’s often a sign that a product is doing the cow good.
“We want to keep metabolic issues to an absolute minimum, and HydroBoost plays its part in helping us to achieve this. This year we’ve hardly had any cases of milk fever or ketosis. It’s a good insurance policy and is a useful tool to add to our transition-cow management protocols.”