By Chris McCullough

MAKING a number of significant management changes within his herd has resulted in a German dairy farmer successfully increasing the average yield per cow by 1000 litres in just under one year.

Four years ago, Carsten Steinhagen took over the running of the family farm from his father and has steadily been implementing his own ideas into the management of the herd with some impressive results.

His quick thinking helped stocks of forage crops last a bit longer during the summer months of June and July in 2018 and again last year when drought conditions hit Germany.

Several regions across Europe experienced record high temperatures of over 40°C, resulting in prolonged drought conditions which were a nightmare for farmers. This caused massive yield reductions in forage and arable crops destined for essential winter supplies. The harsh heat also increased the dry matter of the feed that farmers used daily for herds that are kept indoors all the time quite dramatically.

With that increase in dry matter, the quality of the feed decreased and became somewhat difficult for the cattle to digest, resulting in some herd yields dropping.

However, Carsten hatched a plan to remedy this problem on his farm and was pleased with the results achieved by actually increasing the herd’s average yield rather than watch it fall.

He milks 230 Holstein cows on the family farm located at Zur Mohle, just west of Kassel. The farm dates back to the 1400s and generates its own electricity via a large hydro energy station converted from an old mill.

The station produces around 500kW per hour and a further 800kW is produced from a number of solar panels fitted to the roofs on some of the cow sheds.

All told, he farms 150 ha which is broken down into growing 55ha of maize, 15ha of sugar beet and the remainder in grass. This also includes 30 ha which is rented from another farmer to produce extra maize, a crop which this year, due to the drought, yielded an average of just 13 tonnes of dry matter per ha on Carsten's farm, but has been as high as 17 tonnes per hectare in the past.

The cows are kept indoors all year round and are currently yielding 10,500 to 11,000 litres per cow per year, an impressive figure and one that increased by an average 1000 litres in just under a year thanks to new management practices.

Carsten said: "Our milk is averaging 4% BF and 3.5 % P with a somatic cell count of 160,000. We produce the milk in a special GM-free programme and receive a higher price for this milk of 33 euro cents per litre from our buyer, Schwalbchan.

"Our current yield of up to 11,000 litres per cow is quite good but has increased over the past year following a few changes I made to the diet and housing arrangements," he said.

Last year, the long spell of drought affected farms all across Europe and Carsten's farm was no exception as the hot spell reduced crop yields dramatically resulting in a feed shortage.

"The drought really hit us bad," said Carsten. "We harvested very little grass and were forced to quickly re-evaluate the cow's diet. The new diet consisted of maize, straw, rapeseed, some grass and corn maize which we fed at a rate of 4kg of dry matter per cow per day.

"As the mix was very dry, we decided to actually start adding water to increase the moisture content taking it down from 45% dry matter to around 36%. We have carried on using that same diet and still add water to the mix,” he added.

By making this subtle change and cutting the forage shorter Carsten said he found that the cows ate more of the feed after it was dispensed down the feed passage. "The grass and other silages are all cut very short at 15mm in length. We find the cows clean up the new mix from the feed passage much better with shorter grass and with the higher moisture content,” he said.

This new diet has undoubtedly helped increase the average yield but there have also been a number of other significant changes that have contributed to the milk boost as well.

Carsten operates a herd replacement rate of 27% per year and decided to give fresh calving cows a bit of luxury in order to reduce stress.

“I decided to allocate all fresh calving cows to a straw bedded pen where they each have a single feeding space at the feeding passage,” said Carsten. “I keep the cows in that pen for 70 days and have found this has not only reduced their stress but has also helped the yield increase.

“The straw in the loose pens is changed once per week to ensure the fresh calvers have a nice clean bed to lie on. We also built a new barn on the side of the original cow barn to increase the cow comfort there, with more lying and feeding space for the animals in cubicles."

Carsten milks the cows twice a day at 4am and again at 4pm in his 10 x 10 milking parlour, with the help of two additional staff employed on the farm.

All bull calves are sold at 14 days old for around €30 each, while the heifers go to another farmer at six weeks old where they are contract reared until calving time.

“I’m an economist by trade and really enjoy digging deep into the figures involved in dairy farming to see which type of systems or decisions work, and which that do not. My cost of production is somewhere in the region of 30 euro cents per litre, including feed and labour.

"That means the extra 1000 litres added to the average yield has really boosted my herd’s performance indeed and helped the profit margins,” he added.