Simple benchmarking

Using the best-available science, but keeping it simple means Alderbrook farm stacks up well in benchmarking against the Lincoln University Dairy Farm. Anne Lee compares their systems.

Liam and Lauren Kelly with their why - five-year-old Isla and three-year-old Fergus. High performing, simple systems are creating the results. Pictures: Johnny Houston

Liam and Lauren Kelly are hitting the top levels of performance across a range of metrics but you won’t find complicated systems.

Their ethos is to keep it simple, so it’s repeatable.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking simple means they’re not basing their strategies on the best available science and technology or that they’re not exacting with how they measure, monitor and execute their plans.

The reproductive performance of their 659-cow sharemilking herd at 7-10% empty after 10 weeks mating coupled with strong production and financial performance has seen them used by the Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF) in a benchmarking exercise.

That exercise has drilled into a number of cow and pasture level measures to try and find where key differences lie and what could have been contributing to LUDF’s poor mating performance in what is otherwise an exemplary scorecard for the university farm.

You can read more about the study details and its findings here.

While the benchmarking project has been fairly time-consuming, Liam says the detailed analysis has been insightful and gratifying in that it’s given him a better understanding of how management strategies affect cow performance.

“It’s shown us a couple of areas where we can improve, but it’s confirmed we’re on the right track with what we’re doing.

“You can never say you’ve absolutely nailed everything so we’re always looking to improve but it’s telling me that we don’t need to make any big changes – it’s more about keeping the focus and carrying on doing what we are doing but making sure we’re doing it really well,” he says.

Liam and Lauren invested in Allflex collars in May 2021 and information from them has been used and analysed extensively in the project by Waimate veterinarian Ryan Luckman.

Liam says one of the reasons the collars have been a worthwhile investment as a sharemilker is their reduction in workload and contribution to longevity – of people and cows.

“We talk about the November blues amongst my mates – you get into November and you’ve still got weeks of being up in the stand spotting cows ahead of you when you’ve just got through calving.

“Collars help cut that fatigue.”

In October last year Covid-19 hit the farm during the first week of mating and because he didn’t have to be picking cows for mating, Liam was able to slot into the milking roster to help out.

“We would have been in a bit of strife and I guess we would have figured it out, but we didn’t miss a beat.”

One of the first benchmark differences between LUDF and Alderbrook was in cow body condition score (BCS) drop after calving along with differences in springer (cows about to calve) cow rumination rates. Liam says having cows at BCS targets at calving starts in autumn.

Alderbrook moves to three milkings in two days (3 in 2) later in February with milking times at 5am and 3pm on day one and 10am on day two. The hours work better for staff than a set 16-hour milking interval and make allocating feed simpler.

“When we break it into a percentage basis the first feed window is 20% and then the next two are 40%.

“If you were feeding 20kg drymatter (DM)/cow/day just as an example, you’d look across the two days and say that’s 40kg DM. “Break that down to 20% of 40kg DM for the first feed window so 8kg DM/cow and then 16kg for the next two intervals – so 40% of 40kg DM for each.”

From left James Quinone, Liam Kelly and Marven Dungaran, getting right.

Getting feed allocations bang on, is a recurring theme when talking through the seasonal management with Liam. It’s simple but closely monitored. They don’t rely on an allocation plan made six or seven days earlier when the feed wedge is produced from the weekly farm ride.

Every day, every break, the paddock cover is reassessed and allocations set accurately.

“We have big paddocks and put up fences every day and every time we’re trying to be as accurate as possible.”

Collar data is providing better information to make better decisions – James Quinone, left with Liam Kelley and Marven Dungaran.

Residuals are checked, covers are checked.

“We’re cautious with round length and cautious with our average cover – every day we’re reassessing and checking where we’re at.”

Everyone has been trained in assessing covers by eye and the couple’s great staff retention means people are well-versed in the exacting standards of pasture management.

Cull cows leave the farm in April and body condition scoring is carried out by an independent assessor to help create the dry-off plan for the herd based on BCS and calving date.

“We never chase milk at the end of the season at the expense of cow condition – if you do that, you’ll just lose anything you’ve gained when you start the next season.”

About 40 cows are typically dried off in early May with everything else dried off by the end of the month.

Cows are wintered in BCS groups on kale. In the past cows have been wintered on the farm but this year, with the sale of the block they were contract milking, they are wintering off and going up in cow numbers to 850 cows on Alderbrook.

Their transition management will remain the same with springers fed adlib ryegrass straw – to the point they don’t waste it, Liam says.

They’re also fed up to 4kg DM/cow of pasture and 4kg-6kg DM/cow of baleage per day for the seven days leading up to calving.

Rumination data from the collars shows springers are maintaining target rumination levels of 500 minutes per day through that week.

The ryegrass straw is likely to be helping keep rumination up while pasture is being restricted so as to minimise any metabolic issues post calving. LUDF doesn’t feed straw to springers, just pasture at 4kg DM/cow/day and baleage ad lib.

Alderbrook’s BCS drop between calving and September across the herd is 0.4 BCS while LUDF’s was 0.6 BCS.

Colostrum cows are milked once-a-day (OAD) on both farms but on Alderbrook they are moved twice-a-day to check every cow is getting up.

The twice-a-day move also helps stimulate appetite with a fresh break of new grass. Residuals are 1700kg DM/ha. While cows are offered adlib grass on both farms they are also offered adlib silage on Alderbrook, so they’re getting three opportunities a day to have something new on the menu.

The rumination data shows colostrum cows at Alderbrook quickly bouncing back to almost 500 minutes rumination/day from the drop on the day they calve.

Liam uses the spring rotation planner to set allocations on a metres squared basis.

Once cows move from the colostrum herd to the milking herd, crushed barley is slowly added to the diet and fed in the farm dairy.

It’s gradually lifted each day until cows are getting 2kg barley/day with 3-4 kg/cow palm kernel fed in trailers.

The aim is to get intakes up to the 18-20kg DM/cow/day with high quality grass always the mainstay of the menu. Residuals in the first round are at 1600kg DM/ha.

A month out from mating, about September 20, Liam will take a close look at the pre-mating heat reports generated by the collar data.

By week three 92% of heifers have calved and by week six, 95%.

By week six, 92% of the whole herd has calved and by week nine it’s all over. Liam says he goes through the pre-mating heat list each day and will cancel a recorded heat if it’s not recorded as being a strong heat.

“I’m looking for strong heats.”

Before the collars Liam was up on the stand every three days for the month before mating starts.

In early September they have another independent BCS and any cows that aren’t where he wants them to be, taking into account days since calving, will be put into a OAD milking herd.

Two days out from planned start of mating on October 25 any cows that haven’t cycled, and are 30 days post calving, are given a progesterone (PG) injection with 58% of them responding to that and cycling and 50% of them getting in-calf.

A CIDR programme is carried out seven days later.

This last mating 6% of cows were CIDR’d and 47% of those got in-calf.

Conception rate at Alderbrook remained close to 60% right through nine weeks of mating, dropping below that only in week eight.

“The collars have probably helped us there.

“It may be they’re overcoming the effect fatigue might have been having and I think we were probably going a bit early before the collars, so now we’re getting the timing of insemination really right.

“We’ve got so much more data to make the decision on and that old saying – if in doubt put her up – that’s not right.”

Liam drops grain back to 0.2kg/day through November but PKE continues at 1.5kg DM/day and Proliq is fed at 0.4kg DM/day so that cows are getting a total of 2.1kg DM of supplement over that month and the second round of AI.

“November is a crucial period for mating. You’ll often hear people talking about mating all through October – mating and grass quality.

“But when you get into November they’re not talking about mating, it’s all about grass quality and dropping paddocks out for regrassing and then you’ll get them shorting the cows.

“We’re still thinking mating and grass quality together all through November and making sure cows are well fed through that time. It’s a big focus.

“The cows are doing the job for us then – they’re doing 2.2kg MS/day and hitting residuals – we need to feed them if we’re expecting them to get in-calf too,” he says.

“We’re very conscious not to put ourselves in a deficit in November but we’re watching growth rates too and forecasting our average cover.

“If we see the soil temperatures start to race away, we’ll act.

“We don’t generally like to go under a 21-day round but we’ll average it over three days.

“We’re trying to maximise growth and intakes and hit that three-leaf stage so we’re usually at the 3000-3200kg DM pre-graze cover.”

After week three, cows that have been inseminated are sent to a paddock by themselves and join the herd after the afternoon milking.

They have an all-they-can-eat pasture buffet available rather than going back into the paddock with the rest of the herd and being late to the party.

“Why would we put them back in with the herd at a time they’re going to get less than the others when they’ve already been running around for the last 12 hours not eating much?”

Liam does phantom scanning, scanning the cows the collars are telling him haven’t cycled once they’ve been inseminated just to check they are actually in calf and not having silent heats or gone anoestrus.

“We pick up a few that way but it’s not the silver bullet. The collars on their own aren’t either. There isn’t really one silver bullet but a combination of a lot of factors.

“The main one for us is having cows in good condition over mating, not putting them into a feed pinch, so feeding them well.

“Then you use the other tools to make sure you’re getting it right without the fatigue.”