A year on the farm
We thought that some of you may want to know more about what happens on our dairy farm so we have given you some details of what goes on and when, Conservation and a Farm Glossary which are below.
Cows and young stock are fully housed now because the water meadows are flooded.
Still carrying out AI’s (AI – artificial insemination) and the next group of calvers (Mums) will be going on to a special transition diet to prepare them for calving in February. This is a low energy high fibre straw based diet, a bit like shredded wheat, to keep them full without getting fat. It also contains the correct balance of vitamins and minerals to prevent milk fevers, retained cleansings (retained placentas) and associated problems.
Start of the spring calving group of cows. We calve the cows in spring and autumn so that we produce a fairly level quantity of milk all year round, but having groups which we call blocks, simplifies young stock rearing and focuses attention on either calving or breeding at any one time. Calves are reared on our own pasteurised colostrum for the first few days of life. This ensures the healthiest possible start as new born calves have no immunity to infection from their surroundings. They are then reared on whole milk for 10 weeks and start to eat solid food from about 1 week old. The early growth period is vital for the animals’ whole productive life, so every effort is made to ensure they have the correct nutrition and warm comfortable bedding.
Still in the thick of calving. Hopefully some dry weather will allow manure/slurry to be spread on the grass silage leys (newly reseeded fields) to replace purchased fertiliser. It is important that slurry is not applied less than 8 weeks before cutting or it will contaminate the silage causing the wrong fermentation in the silage clamp.
If at all possible we will turn out the cows, it all depends upon the weather and how wet the fields are still. We cannot risk damaging the fields now which will reduce the amount of grazing we have later in the year, but it is important to graze down tightly to maintain the sward (grass) quality throughout the season.
Coming to the end of calving having hopefully had 300 calves. The bull calves will be sold to beef producers and the heifers retained to come into the herd at 2 years old.
In preparation for breeding the cows are scored on appearance by a breeding expert who assesses whether feet/legs (mobility) or udder characteristics (teat placement & udder support – uplift!) need improving and chooses the bull accordingly.
During April the grass leys will be cut for silage and then another liberal dosing of slurry is applied prior to cultivating the ground ready for the maize to be planted.
Start of the breeding season. Weekly vet clinics are held to check cows which have not been seen in heat.
The cows are served with semen from the best bulls from around the world, selected for their ability to pass on positive traits for health, fertility and milk production. Cows that have not got in calf after 2 AI’s are put with a sweeper bull, who does exactly that, sweeps up those that are not in calf.
When ground temperatures are consistently above 10ºC the maize seed will be planted.
Hopefully a quieter month, cows continue to be served and are grazing a rotation of 21 paddocks for 24 hours each.
Cows that were served in May can start to be scanned after 6 weeks at the weekly vet clinics.
We start to dry off (stop milking) cows that are due to calve in August, 8 weeks before the scanned due date.
This is a month when the maintenance of fences, tracks and water troughs can be done.
Some of the fields may be cut for hay at the end of the month although those in Countryside Stewardship are left until July so that the native grasses and flowers have reseeded.
Just the last few to serve at the beginning of the month, pregnancy scanning continues at the weekly vet clinics.
A second cut of grass silage is taken from fields which have not been sown to maize.
Hay can be cut on the Countryside Stewardship fields and the endless task of thistle topping begins. The old adage “Cut them in May they grow back the next day, Cut them in June and they grow back soon, Cut them in July and they will surely die!” doesn’t quite hold true as they seem to grow back no matter what you do!.
The start of the autumn calving block (group). For the first 5 weeks of the dry period the pregnant Mums can graze stemmy grass and are used to bite down the paddocks that the milking cows haven’t eaten down enough. For the remaining 3 weeks they are housed in the sand cubicles as they stay cleaner and this reduces mastitis rates in the subsequent lactation. It is also easier to ensure they eat enough of the special pre-calving diet when housed.
Still calving! We try to have the replacement heifers for the herd born by the middle of the month. To achieve this we use some sexed semen so that only heifer calves are born to start with. However the pregnancy rates are much lower with sexed semen so we use it on the most fertile younger heifers. After 6 weeks of AI with dairy semen we will switch to using beef semen.
The maize crop should be mature by now and will be cut by contractors using a self-propelled forage harvester which chops the 8 foot plants into 2 cm lengths and smashes each and every grain so that it can be digested. The crop is ensiled in large (2,000 ton) bunkers where it is rolled to exclude air and sealed with plastic sheeting. Once the clamp is sealed the bacteria which are present everywhere start an anaerobic fermentation which produces acid and “pickles” the maize so that it can keep for up to 3 years.
Depending on the rainfall the milking cows may have to come inside as our ground gets too wet for them to stay out. Young stock can usually stay out for another couple of months as they are smaller and do not damage the ground as much.
The cows will now start a full winter diet. This includes maize and grass silages, hay, soya and rape meals, molasses, sugar beet and straw. The ration is balanced by a nutritionist using a computer program which will ensure that the needs of the cow for energy, protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals are met, so that the optimum quantity of milk can be produced as well as maintaining fertility and pregnancy. This diet is also fed in smaller quantities during the summer to balance grass availability, a process called “buffer feeding”.
The start of another breeding season with weekly vet clinics. During the summer the vet is only called for emergencies and problems with calving once the spring calvers have all been scanned in calf.
As the cow housing is now full it is very important to maintain hygiene to prevent mastitis. The sand beds are raked off and the yards are scraped clean twice daily. The sand is topped up freshly twice a week and great care is taken to ensure that cows teats are completely clean before the milking cluster is applied. The milking cluster is disinfected automatically between milking each cow using a system called ADF (automatic disinfection and flushing) developed by a local inventor. This also applies a teat conditioner and antibacterial spray as the cluster is removed from the cow.
Breeding goes on with weekly vet clinics and the winter routine of feeding, scraping and bedding yards and milking continues.
We start to prepare for the Christmas shut down period which makes it very difficult on the farm as feeds have to be stockpiled because there will be no deliveries until January. We need to order 300 tonnes of sand, 120 tonnes of sugar beet pulp and make sure the molasses and diesel tanks are full, not to mention having enough cleaning chemicals, AI and veterinary supplies to last through.