This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
A bold switch saw Dunsandel farmer Gary Michael ditch crop and sheep farming to take on the dairying challenge 10 years ago. It was rocky in the beginning but he has well and truly hit his stride and made incredible gains in the health and performance of his herd.
“I got into dairy for the challenge. I like the fact you get feedback every day from milk so you can measure where you’re at, whereas with cropping you don’t really know till you put the harvester over it,” Michael says.
“But the early years were a battle. I thought I knew how to grow grass coming from cropping but I wasn’t feeding the cows to their potential and struggled.”
He connected with a farm adviser who emphasised the importance of herd nutrition and it changed everything.
“Once I understood how to feed them properly everything changed. We got better in-calf rates and better production, and ultimately it comes down to animal health because happy, healthy cows produce milk.
“I’ve never seen a cow with animal health issues that still produces well and gets in calf.”
He is milking 680 cows on 174 effective hectares and the focus is paying off, seeing well over 600 kilograms of milksolids per cow.
“Making sure they’re full is important. We check them all the time and if we’ve got it wrong we just give them more.”
They feed 24kg per day consisting of 18 to 19kg of grass topped up with a barley and palm kernel mix. He mows in front of the cows and catches up monthly with his adviser, Peter Vermaak from Dairy Nutrition and Management Solutions.
“When Peter comes out he body-condition scores the cows and looks at a lot of different things, like the effluent, cud chews, milk production and what they’re eating to make sure they’re getting fed the right amount of feed for what they should be producing so they’re not stripping condition.”
Dairy Nutrition and Management Solutions focuses on improving efficiency and profitability in pasture-based systems. Michael appreciates that they discuss the actual performance of the animals, not just the budget, and that supplementary feed is only utilised when it is actually required.
And a game changer has been implementing a DCAD diet.
“Peter got us onto a DCAD diet a few years ago, which is when we had the massive change in improving animal health and production, but following the plan is really important because we’re feeding calcium before they calve and we’ve got to be careful to get the diet right or they’ll tip over.”
Two weeks before calving they feed some ionic salts to get their systems primed and they feed calcium the whole way through. He has found the production curve is flatter and holds for a lot longer with better feeding.
“We use pellets from CP Lime and the cows get all their calcium, magnesium and trace elements in there.
“We used to put it all through the water but the cows didn’t like it but now they’re getting them in the pellets in the shed and drinking more water, which I think is helping too.”
He has seen a big reduction in down cows, with only a few cows having problems in the past few seasons.
The pellets also mean there is no need to dust the paddocks.
“With the pellets, we know what they’re getting every day in the shed, it’s reliable and we know it works well.”
In addition to reducing the incidence of down cows, he has also worked hard to reduce lameness in the herd. About five years ago there was a serious problem but by monitoring proactively and utilising locomotion scoring to pick up cows early, he has been able to reduce the issue.
He supplies Synlait and has achieved Gold Elite in the Lead with Pride programme, which he says has been a good driver.
“We were doing a lot of the things anyway, but the programme did help us be a bit more proactive and focus on some of the key things to help improve our herd health and it’s a bonus to be financially rewarded as well.
And it is all paying off with a high six-week in-calf rate of 72%.
With the wellbeing of his herd in mind and analysing the economics, as well as being conscious of reducing their environmental impact, he has built wintering barns this year. The aim is to have the most efficient cows possible.
But ultimately no matter what the system is, he has the evidence that the key is feeding the cows right.
“Well-fed cows are the key, they need to be fed to get to their potential and to be healthy and we’re doing that by utilising our pasture as much as possible and topping up when needed.”