The ImProving Herds project followed the experiences of seven focus farms over 12 months to determine the value of herd testing to their businesses. Here is a summary of the project’s key findings.
They found dairyfarmers use herd test information for a range of routine farm management decisions such as identifying which cows to dry off and cull; managing changes in feed; and improving their management of clinical and subclinical mastitis.
More than half the farmers in the project also used the results to make quick effective management decisions in response to high-pressure events such as drought and a sudden fall in milk prices.
Herd tests results gave them more confidence across a wide range of farm management areas that improved herd management, managed costs and maximised returns.
About half of Australia’s dairyfarmers are involved in herd testing. ImProving Herds set out to demonstrate the value of herd testing to Australian dairy businesses, with funding from the Gardiner Dairy Foundation in collaboration with Dairy Australia, and the National Herd Improvement Association of Australia (NHIA), DataGene, the Victorian Government and Holstein Australia.
The seven focus farms were from a range of dairying areas and with differing feed systems across Australia. They were: Josh, Fiona and Mick Balcombe (Warrion, Vic); Ruth and Geoffrey Chalk (Radford, Qld); Mark Fraser (Aberdeen, NSW); Guy and Leanne Gallatly (Maffra, Vic); Peter Harris (Dardanup, WA); Cheryl McCartie and Theo van Brecht (Ringarooma, Tas) and Brad and Megan O’Shannessy (Cooma, Vic).
Five of the focus farms had previously herd tested to some extent but had dropped out, with most citing financial constraints as the reason for stopping.
The ImProving Herds project provided free bi-monthly herd testing for a year, support in getting set up, assistance in the shed and help in interpreting the herd testing reports. The results and summary reports were supplied in both electronic and hard copy formats.
The trial period was the 2015-16 season, which coincided with a dramatic drop in the milk price and drought conditions on many of the Focus Farms. At the end of the trial, six of the seven case study farms continued herd testing while the seventh farm resumed herd testing after a short break.
All farmers reported an improvement in the performance of their farm business. They found herd testing information invaluable in making better routine farm management decisions.
All seven herds used the herd testing information to identify candidates for drying off and culling cows.
Four of the farms had split-calving herds and used herd testing to selectively dry off cows based on milk production rather than drying off cows in batches based on calving date. This meant high-producing cows could be identified and milked for longer.
“… we would have normally dried off according to calving date but we dried off two or three lots of cows based on who was producing less than 12 litres after each herd test,” one of the herd test focus farmers said.
Another herd used the individual cow production information generated from the herd test results to dry off cows early and cull low-producing animals to save on feed costs during a summer drought. Other farmers used the same approach when there was a sudden drop in the milk price.
“We had a drought and milk price drop so we had to make decisions about culling cows mid- season. Without herd testing data, we would have just been guessing which cows to cull . . . I went straight to the herd test results and identified about 23 cows to cull . . . I also dried off a few [low production] cows early,” one farmer said.
The consensus from farms was that herd testing allowed them to make more informed management decisions because they knew each cow’s individual milk production and quality, rather than just guessing by looking at the cow.
“It certainly showed up some of the higher-producing animals weren’t the ones I thought they’d be,” one of the herd test focus farmers said.
Having hard facts on litres, milk components and quality generated by herd testing was also used by one farm to verify their herd’s production when dealing with banks when applying for a loan.
All seven focus farms said herd test results were valuable in monitoring somatic cell count (SCC), even though five were below 220,000 cells/millilitre at the first herd test. Farmers used the results to identify high cell count cows with subclinical mastitis, which were investigated and treated if needed.
Ongoing herd tests were used to monitor individual cows’ milk quality over time and identify repeat offenders for culling and to ensure the farm’s milk did not incur price penalties for milk quality.
One focus farm had dramatic changes in the quality of the herd’s diet over the year, which affected milk and component production. Herd testing allowed the owners to monitor changes to milk and component production across the season and adjust the herd’s diet to maintain production through seasonal changes.
“Knowing individual results at particular times in the cow’s lactation is really useful for managing diets to increase the overall production per lactation of cows,” one farmer said.
Generating a return
Some focus farms relied on a high portion of bought-in feed. Herd testing allowed them to monitor individual cow performance to make sure they were paying their way and getting an acceptable milk response to the supplementary feed.
Another farmer whose farm was totally reliant on bought-in irrigation water used herd test results to ensure the business generated the best possible level of milk production from the investment in water.
One farmer with a centre pivot on part of the farm used the herd test information to create a separate herd of high-producing cows, which grazed irrigated pasture to get the highest return on high-value feed.
Facing a looming feed shortage, one farmer used herd test results to identify 67 low-producing cows that were in calf, which were dried off early.
“That brought the herd back down to about 350 (cows) which obviously availed more grass for less mouths and actually increased the total yield; the total herd production increased quite dramatically actually,” the farmer said.
The following partial budget highlights how these small benefits covered the entire year’s cost of herd testing.
Additional gain: extra milk income from milking herd, concentrate not fed, saved labour: $11,903
Additional costs: six herd tests, lost milk income from cows dried off early: -$8060
The net value of this single decision based on herd test data: $3800
Three of the focus farms found herd testing created opportunities to fine tune their breeding strategies.
They used herd testing to assess the performance of younger stock entering the herd and believed ongoing herd testing would help refine their breeding program by making it easy to monitor the improvements with each new group of young cows coming into the herd.
The results gave farmers the ability to identify high-genetic merit females, which could be joined to high-value straws of sexed semen. Herd testing results also highlighted particular traits that could be improved in the herd, which influenced bull choices.
Another farm valued the pregnancy testing service from herd test samples. Compared with conventional pregnancy testing, it involved less stress on the herd and avoided production losses because cows were not held in yards after milking.
Source: The Australian Dairy Farmer