Like his All Black namesake Ben Smith from Waimate is playing to win.
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Accurate, trustworthy data is supporting better decision making on the multi-farm dairy enterprise of energetic South Canterbury farmer Ben Smith. Ben operates three adjoining dairy units, all owned by Greg and Quintin Paul, south of Waimate. He is the lower-order sharemilker on an 830 cow unit, and 50-50 sharemilker on a 420 and 250-cow operation. Every cow on all three properties is now fitted with Allflex Heatime Pro+ collars and each dairy shed also features Allflex auto-draft gates.

His first move into cow collars was motivated by the appearance of Mycoplasma bovis in the district three seasons ago, just as he was purchasing a herd from the previous owner to start the smaller of the 50-50 sharemilker operations. “At that time, the lawyers were including clauses in the sales agreement around M bovis to protect everyone. Our owners had sufficient run-off land for replacements and supplements so we were able to be self-contained, other than for bulls,” he says. “So, the collars enabled us to make the move to not having back-up bulls on the property.” But the collar convert says that was just the start and he is now testing many aspects of the management of his herds to gain improvements in health, more efficient staff work allocation and mating performance.

He began by validating the heat detection data he was gathering on his herd, working with veterinarian Ryan Lucknow from Waimate, to scan cows selected for mating to check their ovulation status and the result was very clear. “The data produced by the collars is overwhelmingly accurate. We know now that if heat detection is not good through traditional techniques like tail painting and observation, then you’ll pay for the collars in no time at all from improvements you can make mating performance straight away.”

Ben was also keen to see what he could learn from the rumination data collected through the challenging transition period just after calving. Again, with his veterinarian, they graphed the rumination data for each cow for the first 10 days after calving and matched that against their future mating date. “What we found was a very clear link between the level of rumination post-calving and their mating date. When we split the rumination data into quartiles, those cows in the top quartile on rumination post calving were getting back in calf much earlier in the mating period than those from the bottom quartile.”

This evidence led to a change in policy for each herd and all cows now remain in the once-a-day milking mob until their rumination reaches 90% or more of their pre-calving level. Ben says without the rumination data showing up every day, it is difficult to detect cows that are slightly off their feed after calving. “It sounds cheesy, but we can make every cow count. If a cow is not right, the data tells us and we can check her. If we can’t see what is wrong with her, then we’ll ask the vet to check her, because we know she needs help.”

Standard practice now is to treat all cows with a Calcium enriched molasses dose within 24 hours of calving. The scary thing about cows with low rumination after calving is some of them are able to push through and recover, but they always end up cycling later and most of the time you don’t know why. With the collars, we know something’s wrong immediately, even when we can’t see a change in the cow from looking at it in the paddock.”

“We just don’t get downer cows anymore.” In-calf rates were already high in each herd before collars were added and have improved slightly since. But when accurate heat detection is combined with the use of sexed semen for replacements and short gestation beef semen, the results have been game changing for Ben.

“The collars are brilliant for accurately picking those later cycling cows which are often quite difficult to catch. We also made the call not to use any tail paint or back-up bulls from day one and we’ve never regretted it.” “If a cow is in the pen for the technician, we don’t question it. They just get a straw.” Being confident about the selection of cycling cows also frees up one person in the shed each milking, allowing more efficient staffing and scope for that person to tackle other farm activities.

• Ability to validate heat detection accuracy
• Massive gain in transition period health
• Herd achieving oestrus sooner after calving

Waimate, South Canterbury
215ha, 108ha, 57ha
plus runoff land
1500 cows – three herds
(830, 420, 250) on adjoining land

Arla Foods is examining how dairy farming can help improve soil biology, carbon capture, water quality and biodiversity via regenerative farming methods.

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