Improving herd profitability

Features Posted 05/02/19
Over 30 dairy farm owners and managers gathered for the Farm & Country Supplies’ dairy conference.

Over 30 dairy farm owners and managers gathered at the Angel Hotel in Privett, Hampshire on 16 January 2019 for Farm & Country Supplies’ dairy conference.

Three keynote speakers delivered talks on some of the industry’s pressing issues, including grass varieties, silage quality and calcium deficiency after calving, before looking at some strategic product solutions to help combat problems and improve overall herd profitability.

Throughout the sessions there was an active discussion from the floor, with local farmers happy to share their own experiences and discuss the practical applications of the solutions suggested.

A future for festuloliums

First to take to the podium was Mark Simes from DLF Seeds, one of world’s largest producers and distributors of grass seed.

Looking back over the turbulent weather of the previous 12 months, Mark reminded farmers of the need to find a suitable grass species which could stand up to both flood conditions and severe drought.

After a survey of the audience showed that only one person had heard of the hybrid forage grass family ‘festuloliums’, Mark set about talking through the creation, characteristics and overall performance benefits of two key varieties, Lofa and Perseus.

“Festuloliums are a cross between fescues, either meadow fescue, which is winter hardy and provides good yield in less than ideal growing conditions, or tall fescue, which is drought resistant, and ryegrasses, including Italian hybrids which bring palatability, digestibility and high yields,” said Mark Simes, business manager at DLF Seeds.

While different types of festuloliums have slightly different properties, Mark outlined that all give a very high dry matter, have excellent early Spring growth, are stress tolerant and have high disease resistance.

The Lofa variety, a cross between tall fescue and an Italian hybrid, is recommended as a direct replacement for hybrid ryegrass and will last in mixtures for up to five years. This festulolium, which usually heads around 21 May, has improved stress tolerance and is very persistent.

“Looking at yield potential, Lofa outperforms the quality benchmark indicators for both hybrid ryegrass and intermediate tetraploid perennial ryegrass,” said Mark. “The driver of milk production is based on Metabolisable energy (ME) values, of which the figures are almost identical to hybrid ryegrass. If you switch from perennial ryegrass to Lofa it would produce an additional 11,429 Mj of ME per acre which would equate to about 3,600 litres of milk.”

Proving that pictures can speak a thousand words, Mark showed the audience the transformation on a 30-acre coastal site after a Lofa and white clover mixture was established in September 2017.

“March 2018 was incredibly wet and it looked irreparable,” said Mark. “But luckily the clover came through and by 10 April we could see that the Lofa had worked. It was patchy to begin with but the field filled out. Moving into the hot July, we saw one of the control fields burn out whereas the Lofa was still performing. The farmer said that the field with Lofa had been transformed from the lowest yielding platform on the farm to the highest.”

Moving on, Mark turned to look at Perseus, a cross between meadow fescue and Italian ryegrass. This festulolium, which heads at around 26 May, will yield for about three years.

“In a cutting situation with red clover, Perseus provides a wonderful marriage,” said Mark. “The figures again show significant improvement in yields and similar ME results. It is expected to generate an extra 24,291 Mj of energy per acre, which equates to almost 4,500 litres of milk per acre.” A trial in Tiverton, Devon, which was direct drilled into maize stubble in late October and fed with dirty water and chicken manure, showed that on 17 April, 58cm grasses were supporting 7% sugars.

“The farmer was using a lot of disease prone nutrient but Perseus thrived,” said Mark. “It is very aggressive in its establishment and because it is so deep rooted it will mop nutrients up. Going back to a photograph I took in 2014, we planted a mixture of Lofa and Perseus in the middle of a field of Italian ryegrass and it looks like the picture has been edited.”

With all the factors adding up to provide farmers with a robust grass, which is adaptable to the UK’s changing weather conditions, Mark believes that festuloliums will eventually replace perennial ryegrasses.

Unlocking forage potential

Having considered the potential impact that high performing grasses such as festuloliums can have on increasing milk production, John Williams from Micron Bio-systems, warned that farmers could be losing out on the benefits of their investment if grass stocks are not preserved correctly.

“Profitable farmers need to effectively manage the change of energy,” said John. “The first step is taking energy from the sun and maximising plant sugars with the right grass varieties. Then farmers need to feed that as efficiently as possible and if it is being conserved for the winter, sugars need to be converted into lactic acids which can be given back to the cow and used to produce more milk.”

To set the scene, John quickly talked delegates through the foundations of a good silage, explaining that naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria (LAB) will convert natural plant sugars into lactic acid and reduce the pH level, which needs to sit between 3.8 and 4.5. “The more lactic acid we have the better,” said John. “If we can drop the pH level down quickly we will be conserving energy as there are other unwanted pathogens in the system which will also be eating the plant sugar and releasing their own acids which cows can’t process and can be unpalatable.” By adding a strain of aggressive, fast acting LAB, John explained that farmers could be confident that they would be able to make great silage.

“If you rely on nature to drop the pH, you are taking a big gamble,” said John. “Without an additive you might be looking at seven days to get to the desired pH level and that is a long time window for the bad pathogens to act. With Advance silage inoculant you can reduce that pH in about 24 hours.” Following extensive research and development, Micron Bio-systems has identified two strains of bacteria pediococcus pentosaceus (NCIMB 30237) and lactobacillus plantarum (NCIMB 30238). Each strain was chosen for its commercial viability, aggressive properties and ability to convert one unit of plant sugar to one unit of lactic acid.

“As we only use these strains, we know that the product we made 20 years ago works in the same way as one made today,” said John. “Farmers know that performance is going to be the same year in year out. They will also never get an acidic silage because lactobacillus plantarum will not work below 3.8.” Specialist enzymes, which will work between 3.8 and 4.5 pH, are also used in the system and Micron bio-systems has developed crop specific products for grass, legumes or clovers, maize or whole crop.

“Your energy and investment is in that plant and you need to be able to release that locked up energy,” said John. “Depending on the fibre content of the crop, the enzymes will break the bonds down and that will release extra energy potential.”

A trial in the USA was performed on forage taken from the same field on the same day. The batch which was enzyme treated was fed to cows first and over 30 days milk production rose from 60lbs to 66lbs. The batch that was untreated was then fed and milk production dropped off to 64lbs proving that the enzymes had successfully unlocked additional energy potential.

“Milk production increases when switching a herd to grass silage treated with Advance grass inoculants,” said John. “When you look at some realistic figures, you can generate an additional 330 litres of milk from forage per cow. If you look at dry matter losses, untreated silage loses 20 to 30% dry matter through extended fermentation time, but treating with Advance can reduce losses by up to 5% and that gives you more to feed and again more milk production. The return on investment is six fold.”

When considering rates, John finished by explaining that using half will not save money because the product will not work and equally using double will not double the benefits.

Cutting costs of calcium deficiency

For the final session of the day John Fish from Vilofoss described to those attending Farm & Country Supplies’ dairy conference the impact of milk fever on profitability and the lesser realised effects of subclinical hypocalcaemia.

“Approximately 50% of cows suffer from subclinical hypocalcaemia which occurs when blood calcium levels reach between 2.15 and 1.5mm,” said John. “Unlike clinical hypocalcaemia farmers cannot visibly see which cows have it, but subclinical has been proven to cause a whole host of disease issues.”

In UK herds around 8% of cows, on average, will experience milk fever and dairy farm managers at the conference spoke about the various treatment methods they have implemented.

Moving on, John talked about the causes, explaining that calcium absorption is controlled by hormones which can take between 24 to 48 hours to kick in after calving, and it is this period which leads to problems.

“It is really important to aid the cow in the transitional period,” said John Fish. “Calcium deficiency can lead to multiple problems related to both muscle and immune functions. Cows with subclinical hypocalcaemia are nine times more likely to suffer with ketosis, four times more likely to have displaced abomasum, six times more likely to get dystocia, and twice as likely to contact metritis. All of which leads to loss of income and the potential for culling or death.”

There is also a noticeable effect on fertility with studies demonstrating that cows with subclinical hypocalcaemia experience 15 more empty days and at 120 days 40% of cows were still not pregnant.

“Subclinical hypocalcaemia may have some short term impact on milk yield, but it is the long term impact which has a bigger cost to farmers,” said John. “In a study of 100 cows, if 4% suffer from milk fever at a cost of £215 per animal, that will cost the farmer £860 overall. Subclinical hypocalcaemia might only cost £92 per animal, but if 50% suffer then it will cost £4,500 overall.”

While giving bottles after calving can prevent milk fever by giving a fast supply of calcium, John highlighted that this was only effective as a short term solution, pointing out that it was not correcting the cows’ hormone systems and farms were still experiencing 50% subclinical hypocalcaemia on average.

“A good way to rectify the calcium balance around calving is to adopt a low calcium approach,” said John. “Supplying less than 20 grams of calcium per cow per day, pre-calving is very effective as it is that threshold level which will stimulate the cow to start the hormone process and move into active absorption. However, in the UK because we feed such a grass based diet it is almost impossible to have correct nutrition and still have less than 20 grams of calcium. That is where Vilofoss’ calcium binding product X-Zelit comes into play.”

Added to the feed between 14 and 21 days before calving, X-Zelit binds the calcium from the feed plan and means there is nothing left for the cow to absorb. This consequently triggers the hormone system, taking calcium from the body reserves and moving into active absorption. The supplement must not be fed after calving.

“Studies have proven that cows fed with X-Zelit were able to keep a constant blood calcium level all the way through calving,” said John. “Trials show an 86% decrease in milk fever cases in problematic herds and farmers observed more energetic animals with better milk production. We also carried out trials on herds in the UK. Milk fever was stopped, there was a reduction in metritis across all systems and a reduction in retained placentas. Farmers in these trials also observed that cows were quicker to calf and returned to oestrus quickly.”

Trials in the USA carried out with Cornell University on a 10,000-commercial herd, showed similar results, with increased dry matter intake, improved milk yields and also significant improvements in time to pregnancy with figures showing that the X-Zelit group experienced 19 less empty days to get 50% of the herd in calf.

“Reproduction is the biggest issue of subclinical hypocalcaemia which we are not recognising,” said John. “Looking at the overall figures, a two week treatment of X-Zelit costs £21 per cow. Using the SimHerd models, monitoring the milk yield benefits shows a £70 increase per cow, and reproduction shows nearly £60 per cow, so we are gaining about £120 per animal by supplementing X-Zelit.”

Effective solutions

After the talks, Micron Bio-Systems offered a free silage scanning service. Attendees had an opportunity to catch up with fellow farmers and to take discussions with the speakers and the Farm & Country Supplies team one step further.

“We try to pick speakers who talk the same language as our customers,” said Ryan James managing director of Farm & Country Supplies, the Hampshire-based agricultural merchant specialising in the dairy sector. “As well as running Farm & Country Supplies we have a commercial beef herd, so we understand how frustrating it is to have sales reps throw jargon around to try and sell a product, which then doesn’t work.”

The topics covered at the dairy conference were specifically chosen to educate and inform, so that when farmers are in a position to start thinking about which grass varieties to establish, which additives to use on their silage, or how to reduce the threat of milk fever during spring calving, they are armed with the facts and know the Farm & Country Supplies team is on hand to help.

“We are here to provide our customers with solutions which work, whether that is helping them to grow high performing grasses, ensuring that silage is correctly stored or avoiding any problems with calcium intake after calving,” said Ryan. “Across our entire catalogue of products, we have always chosen suppliers who are going to support our customers correctly and listening to the talks today has really highlighted that. We have also been careful to choose those who are producing top quality products and the figures discussed in the presentations today are also proven how effective these can be at helping farmers in the dairy sector to produce more milk and be more profitable.”


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