From the initial benchmark for the Farm Profit Programme in 2016, one of the key objectives for us was to tighten the calving spread of both the spring and autumn herds on farm. In 2015, the spring herd calved over an 18-week period (Figure 1.). This spring, 87 cows calved in just 11 weeks.
This is the result of a conscious effort over the past three years. It began with identifying the ideal time period for the farm to calve cows in spring. This led to the delay to the onset of breeding by two weeks in 2017. Straight away, this took two weeks off the calving spread, which was a quick win. However, this was not the reason for changing the start date for breeding. Together with the programme advisers, we decided that cows were calving slightly early for the typical onset of grass growth here at Cranna – delaying two weeks meant peak calving date was closely aligned with spring grass growth.
Autumn-born calf with its mother.
We were somewhat worried about pushing back the calving date as we did not want to reduce the sale weight of the calves in spring. However, the exact opposite was the result. Year-on-year 200-day weaning weights were up over 10kg/calf in 2018 compared to 2017. We are putting this down to the fact that calved cows are getting to grass earlier in lactation, boosting peak milk yield in the cow – and this is then reflected in the weaning weights of the calves.
To tighten the tail end of the calving, we simply started marking a date in the calendar for the bulls to be removed and stuck to that date. While this did mean a slightly higher empty rate for a year or two, in the long run it will pay dividends.
Having a tight calving pattern means we can concentrate solely on calving for a shorter time. Often the losses at calving time occur when the majority have calved and you take your eye off the ball with the few stragglers.
It also left us with the most uniform batch of cattle for sale this spring than we have had in a lot of years. Not only did this make them more attractive looking in the sale ring, but it also made winter management much easier, simplifying feeding regimes and reduced bullying of smaller cattle at the feed barrier.
The bulls are out with the cows and heifers as of this week. Although we have made good progress with the calving interval, we feel there is still more to come. This year, we will give the bulls just 10 weeks with the cows.
We also have 34 heifers to bull for the spring herd. They are a mixture of our own heifers along with extra heifers bought in to boost cow numbers in the spring herd. Most are between 18 and 22 months old going to the bull. The plan is to give the heifers just nine weeks with the bull. Maiden heifers are under less pressure than a cow with calf at foot. They are not feeding any calves or repairing from calving and so should go in-calf much sooner. Again, in the long term we want to breed only the most fertile females on farm. If a heifer cannot get in-calf in nine weeks, more than likely she will be a cow that will end up slipping out of the system due to poorer fertility in the coming years. Finding these animals earlier, as heifers, allows us to have them sold again at under 30 months, reducing any financial loss that would be incurred at a later stage.
Rotate the bulls
Where possible, we will rotate the bulls halfway through the breeding season this year, as we have been doing for the past two years. This spreads the risk of an infertile or sub-fertile bull leaving a large batch of cows empty. We were happy with last year’s in-calf figures and hope for a similar result this year.
Looking at the reproductive results for the spring herd (Table 1), it becomes apparent how difficult it is to achieve over a 90% weaning percentage. Currently, we are on target for 89%. However, there is a long way to go until weaning. Of the 92 females (72 cows and 20 heifers) that went to the bull last year, just three mature cows were scanned not-in-calf. All 20 heifers were in-calf. This gave us an in-calf rate of 96.7%
By the end of calving, two cows that were scanned in-calf had not calved or aborted. Calving went very well, with just six calves being lost from 87 calvings – giving us a 6.5% mortality rate. We did purchase in a calf for one cow that lost her calf, leaving us with 82 cows with calves at foot.
If we can keep every calf currently on the ground going through to weaning, we will be happy with an 89% weaning percentage. However, we did have to inject a couple of calves for pneumonia last week during the cold, wet period. They were noticed early and seem to be fully recovered at this stage.
With the above-average early growth this year, as well as the early application of fertiliser, silage was ready to cut almost two weeks earlier than usual. Unfortunately, this coincided with the start of the poor spell of weather. We could have cut the first week of June but we just didn’t get a long enough dry spell. It was quite frustrating watching what could have been a bumper crop of top-quality silage sitting in the fields for a fortnight longer than required.
However, we eventually saw a window of opportunity and got over 80 acres cut in the days before the Highland show. The crops were excellent and the quality is still quite good considering the weather.
For second cut, we have 31 acres of reseeded ground to come in as well as another 17 acres earmarked for cutting. This may increase in the coming weeks if grass growth surges now that the temperatures are rising. This will have to be baled as the pits are full after first cut – a good complaint to have.
At the same time as trying to get the silage cut, we realised our turnip crop had failed. Due to low temperatures and high rainfall, the pre-emergence spray killed the turnips just as they were beginning to germinate. There have been a few reports in the area of this happening this year. It meant a couple of very early mornings re-sowing the turnips prior to starting a long day on the silage harvester. Although it is late for sowing turnips, we are hopeful the crop will still achieve a decent yield. There was very little growth at this stage last year due to the drought and it turned out to be a bumper crop, so we are hoping for similar this year.