Dairy farming: it’s all about efficiency - Veterinary Practice
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Dairy farming: it’s all about efficiency

Richard Gard reports from a one-day conference at which discussions involved limitations to profitability, dry cow therapy, a calf tracker guide, and lameness.

DAIRY EFFICIENCY WAS THE FOCUS of a recent one-day conference at Harper Adams University, which had an unusual format and may be the first of an annual event.

Member practices of the XLVet group each invited two farmer clients and a total of some 40 veterinary surgeons and 60 farmers shared discussions throughout the day and evening. Charlie Lambert (Lambert, Leonard and May) described the growth of the group from informal discussions in 2002 to a start-up of 20 practices in 2005 and some 54 member practices currently.

Business ownership and decision- making are in the hands of the clinicians who work within a practice. Considerable collaboration between practices enables knowledge sharing, experience and skills with the declared aim of achieving excellence in veterinary practice.

In support of the veterinary practice members is a board of directors and a management team that recognises the ever-changing marketplace that exists for veterinary work today.

The FarmSkills initiative has now provided training for 10,000 people with an increasing interest in the VetTech detailed courses. The aim is to involve all farm staff.

There was a relaxed atmosphere throughout the day. Clearly the veterinary speakers were totally at home with their topics, although it was admitted that presenting the same information to five different groups, during the afternoon, was a new experience.

Limitations to profitability

Richard Vecqueray (Evidence Based Veterinary Consultancy) gave a hard-hitting overview of the limitations to milk profitability. He emphasised the brutal aspects of the milk market with milk buying being a primary reason why shoppers visit a supermarket.

Other sales follow, but it is recognised that consumers will shift supermarket if the price of milk is lower. Acute sensitivity of price is the reason why the milk buyers are reluctant to charge more and pay more to farmers. The farmer therefore cannot control the milk price, cannot influence consumption and cannot predict the milk price.

The way forward is to know the costs of production for an individual herd and account for risks realistically. Unit costs need to be identified and recognise that there is constant evolution and the need for adaptation. The target is to improve the costs of production by 0.1 pence per litre per year. Adaptive dairy businesses are seeking to improve management, re-assess their business model and increase their technical performance.

A series of farm videos, involving vets and clients from around the UK, highlighted particular co-operations to overcome specific difficulties. Farmers spoke knowledgeably about clinical and management situations including aspects of fertility, calving index, copper, Johne’s Disease, heifer rearing and calf benchmarking. These were ongoing situations with emphasis on identifying the issues and developing a strategy to provide improvements within realistic time scales.

The Johne’s video identified the difficulties of culling with a closed herd while maintaining herd size and milk production. Management of calving areas for clean heifers and separate areas for Johne’s-positive cows had to be constructed and the farmer described disease control as a “long-term fight”. Farmers on nearby tables were gently nodding in agreement.


Delegates were allocated to one of five groups for the afternoon workshops. Vets and farmers made up each group. The first workshop was held overlooking the rotary milking parlour and Dan Griffiths (Paragon Veterinary Group) utilised response pads to investigate aspects of dry cow management with teat sealants. The results from all the groups will be available at a later date, but the questions were in-depth and will contribute to a factual database.

Fundamentally the farmers in group four demonstrated a sound awareness of selective dry cow therapy, but the reasons for adoption were variable. Clearly the need to reduce antibiotics was common ground, but the current mastitis status and history changes the cow selection.

Farmers are worried about the risks of mastitis at calving and carrying infection into the next lactation. Administration of the sealant is a major concern and the teat wipes supplied are considered inadequate. Confidence needs to be raised in the practical application as well as the perceived correctness of selection.

Preventing lameness

The rain began to fall in earnest as the group moved outside to the cow dispersal area and met up with Jon Reader (Synergy Farm Health) to consider aspects of lameness and prevention.

Pictures of hooves and other clinical conditions were reviewed. There was an in-depth discussion of footbaths with the example on show somewhat criticised for length, location and depth. This was intentional and although many of the farmers agreed on the structure of a footbath, there was flexibility in what should go in it.

The future of formalin, the limitations on copper sulphate, the inclusion of detergents and various options were discussed. Digital dermatitis, its spread, recognition of lesions, the difficulties of treatment and the recognition of treponemes with udder and teat lesions generated in-depth comments.

Reducing infection pressure is a strategy that may appear to be straightforward but needs careful assessment to be successful.

Enthusiastic evaluations

Paddy Gordon (Shepton Veterinary Group) had suffered badly with the rain and his supporting aids were somewhat dishevelled. The dry cow yard faced the prevailing wind, but the weather had no effect on the enthusiasm of everyone to assess the cows and record their views on body condition, water availability, feed structure, feed quality and general facilities.

This was a practical session with consideration of the many issues relative to calving and the transition period from dry to lactation. The point comes across that improvements to health and profitability can be achieved by improved management and nutrition without major investment. Reducing disease at calving is shown to improve margins by £20 per cow and increase early lactation yields by 9%.

Calving outcomes

Bill May (Lambert, Leonard and May) had taken over the dairy office and as the practice is involved with the veterinary work on the unit the herd manager wasn’t put out by having to share his accommodation. Knowledge of outcomes in and around calving were accurately discussed. Conditions of relevance included ketosis, milk fever, metritis, dystocia, mastitis, retained foetal membranes and displaced abomasum.

Protocols will differ for the circumstances on each farm with the thrust to monitor, recognise and prevent. An inexpensive reader to measure ketones was highlighted and the use of “exciting new” testing tools for use by the vet and the farmer enable the vital 90 days at calving to be managed effectively.

Within the title of Your Future Herd, Kirsty Ranson (Westmorland Veterinary Group) declared that “heifers are my thing”. The management of youngstock is an area that does not command enough attention on many farms, but the economic benefits are considerable.

Attending to the calf at birth through to achieving good growth rates and reducing the age at calving is a significant contribution to herd profitability. Targets of 165g per day growth and a 3.5-month reduction in calving age are realistic achievements.

The details of calving facilities, cow suckling, navel dipping, colostrum management, calf mixing, calf feeding, milk preparation, forage, concentrates, weaning, growth and many other calf rearing aspects have been combined into a calf tracker guide.

From the healthy calf grows the healthy heifer and the successful introduction into the herd. Although it was mentioned that three days was probably not enough time to cover the subject in depth, the introductory session was much appreciated and clearly is an area for greater veterinary input.

The delegates came together for tea and a general discussion. Some of the farmers had issues that they had discussed in the car on the way and looked for guidance, which was openly given. There were conversations going on all the time and a formal assessment form was required from everyone.

Anthony Wilkinson (Friars Moor Vets) thanked the many people who had developed and operated the day. The discussions continued into the reception and conference dinner, where a complicated quiz awaited each table. There will be no shortage of ideas for next year.

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