By Patsy Hunter

Cow comfort and nutrition has always been key to productive and profitable dairy farming and while many have got their herd management down to a fine art, there is always room for improvement.

While feeding is undoubtedly one of the biggest cost on a dairy farm, impacting the health, performance, fertility, production and profitability; overall management is further complicated by short and long-term milk prices.

However, small changes in all aspects of dairy husbandry can have huge impacts on the bottom line, according to Shropshire-based independent nutritionist, Hefin Richards of Rumendation.

“There is always room for improvement and more so now when we have an evolving market which is under increasing scrutiny,” he said.

“There is an increased requirement to get more from less due to supply chain consolidation and the industry needs more accurate records to do that. Good data drives good decision making but bad data is worse than no data. Breeding, feeding, health, production, fertility, and locomotion data should all be integrated and analysed on a daily basis, he said.

Mr Richards who has been working with dairy and beef farmers for 20 years, focusing on cow health, welfare and sustainability to build production said he is constantly looking for ‘bottle necks’ that are holding back profit margins in a farm business.

One of the first aspects farmers should consider, he said, is date at first calving when the average dairy heifer calves at 28.5months of age.

“It costs £2.87 per day to feed a heifer after 24months, so there is huge scope for improvement, which means an extra £344 calving a heifer at 28months and £700-£800 per head calving at 32months against months.”

He also added that a return on investment would also be seen with increased cow comfort. Simple changes such as rubber matting, 200 lux lighting and sand cubicles for dry cows instead of straw, would all add to cow comfort and production figures.

Other alterations such as additional fans in the cow shed to improve ventilation; movable and tilted neck rails; resin coated feed floors for increased feed consumption; clean fresh water at all times and wide passages would also help.

Stocking rates are another area he said can be improved as lying and feed targets are rarely achieved when space is the limiting factor and especially when calved heifers and cows are housed together and can often be affected during herd expansion.

In this instance, Mr Richards encouraged producers to concentrate on high risk animals and especially dry and fresh cows to smooth transition between the two and avoid clinical issues such as ketosis and mastitis.

Forage also affects intakes, milk production and overall herd margins.

“If you can increase the amount and the quality of the forage you produce you will be able to reduce your costs of production but you need to produce highly digestible forage. You also have to manage the silage making process,” he said.

It’s the hidden losses in making silage that can add up too. These can by not getting the best of weather; poor consolidation of the grass in the clamp; old grasses harvest; overmature grasses and poor seal round the clamp. As a result of one or several of these aspects, he said losses of up to 5-10% can be caused by respiration and fermentation in the clamp with silage effluent amounting to 1-8% and aerobic deterioration 1-10%. Then there are losses in the field at harvest which can be 2-12%.

More emphasis also has to be placed on monitoring silage analysis, consistency of the feed ration and feed allocation to reduce sorting and ensure each animal is fed to its potential

“A 500+ cow herd with replacement heifers on board will have total feed costs of £650,000 per year and if you have 2.5% wastage either from over or under feeding that amounts £16,500,” concluded Mr Richards.