For Ashburton sharemilkers Stuart and Sara Russell, Body Condition Score is critical, Dianna Malcolm writes.

Focusing on Body Condition Score (BCS) has lifted Stuart and Sara Russell’s six week in-calf rate from 75% to 83%, and given them the confidence to use sexed semen.

The couple are 50/50 sharemilkers with Sara’s parents, Richard and Diana Bourke, in Ashburton, Canterbury. They are milking 760 cows (including their registered Jerseys, Ngatimaru Jerseys) on 280 hectares (which also carries all the young stock) through a 54-bail rotary.

They do most of the work themselves, and have installed technology and use their farm consultant to help stay on top of everything from cow health and compliance right through to putting together their sharemilking agreement.

They are part of their processor Synlait’s Lead With Pride™ programme, which recognises and financially rewards suppliers who achieve best practice. It also adds another layer of administration for Sara, on top of the tough environmental compliance rules.

Another challenge for Ngatimaru Farming Co. is that it is shaped a bit like the map of England, which has made the centre pivot irrigation conversations a little more challenging. They have five of them to get around every corner and sharp edge on the property.

Without labour, technology is vital

None of their production and cow-health goals could happen on a busy farm without labour or technology. Stuart, 39, and Sara, 37, have chosen technology, and put their own shoulders to the grindstone.

Rumen boluses have been used on the whole herd for heat detection, health and individualised in-shed feeding.

The herd is almost 90% Jersey with an average production of 485kg milksolids (MS) per cow, based on 700kg of supplements per cow a year.

Body condition score anchor to performance

BCS anchors everything at this farm. Sara is a credited BCS evaluator and she and MilkMap consultant Andrew Trounce score the herd four times a year. Sara says the BCS results are linked with the herd test results, and a detailed report is then generated to help formulate their different feed groups in the milking herd. Making the connection between production and BCS is important for the bigger picture when it comes to reproduction, Sara says.

“Because a cow producing 1.8kg MS at a 4.5 BCS versus a cow producing 1.8kg MS at 3.5 BCS needs different feed input and management,” she says.

“For us, that BCS and production assessments with regard to different feed groups has paid off in terms of our mating results,” Sara says. “To have that 83% six week in-calf rate with a 8.5% empty rate for 67 days of mating was important.

“It’s about being aware of the condition of the cows and prioritising that.”

Sara says BCS is a science which gives them an end-game.

“Because when you’re nailing that September BCS and feeding the lighter cows up selectively, they have a higher chance of supporting that extra will to milk, while giving them every chance to get in-calf earlier,” she says.

“You’re not spending more total money on feed – you’re just prioritising the cows that are giving it back to you.”

It gave them the confidence to push forward with sexed semen for the first time last mating. They also started twice-a-day (TAD) mating, which they believe also had a significant impact on their in-calf rates.

As calving heats up this season, Sara and Stuart are grateful that their farm consultant Andrew has calculated the estimated grass growth, and herd feed supplementary requirements on any given day.

“He also calculates how many cows we should have in milk every day. So, no matter how busy we are we have that information to fall back on and refer to,” Sara says.

“As the cows calve the average cows come into the dairy getting 1.2kg a day of grain and 800 grams of a hard-feed blend.

“But any cow that produced more than 565kg of MS last season immediately starts on 2kg of grain. Because we know she worked hard last year and we know that she is either going to milk it off her back, or she needs the extra feed to start firing.

“In another two or three weeks I’ll have a look through and anyone I’m worried about I’ll create a group for, and they will get preferential feeding in the lead-up to mating.”

Preferential feeding to build BCS

Sara says she prefers feeding more to build cow condition rather than dropping any lighter cows to once-a-day (OAD) milking, bearing in mind that lighter cows are often milking harder.

“We believe that OAD milking is often doing those cows a disservice.

“Because there’s no way she’s going to eat the same amount in the shed OAD as she could eat milking TAD. We believe it’s better to be milking her TAD – to get the milk off her – but giving her more hard feed so she’ll gain more total energy than she would being out in the paddock. Grain is the high-energy feed.”

BCS has also given them the confidence to trust in AI, which has saved them the cost of buying up to 20 follow-up bulls every season.

They do still use bulls over their R2 heifers, but those pregnancies are all aged.

“We always had a pretty strong AI-game,” Sara says. “Stu does it all and we realised we were wasting a heap of money buying bulls to get another 40 to 50 cows in-calf to ‘nothing’ bulls. It didn’t pay when you consider a short gestation straw of semen costs $15.

Stu was also mating the cows twice each day which helped with reproduction rates.

“That gave us a 56-day calving on the short gestation bulls for the last 8.5% after 67 days mating.”

“Our cows are in better condition, they’re getting in-calf, and we’ve been able to extend our herd’s days in milk,” Sara says.