Like the permutations in deck of cards – during a game in which the stakes are high – technology is one of several variables that might randomly fly a dairy farmer’s way during any given dairy season.
And ‘latest and greatest’ of technologies can rank from a lowly two of spades to the heady heights of an ace, or better.
In 2013 Takaka farmer Corrigan Sowman came across a trump card, and he played it well.
“The latest short gestation length semen has been awesome, and it’s going to be a very valuable tool for farmers,” he says.
He’s an advocate for good reason.
When entering week-six of calving on September 4, Corrigan was 88 percent done (he had calved 720 of his 820-strong crossbred herd).
“Compared to the same date two years ago, we’ve had 120-more cows calved at this point, and we’ll be all done by 26 September. We’ve got 12 percent of the herd left to calve, so we’re now doing other things on the farm.”
Corrigan puts the tight calving squarely down to his use of LIC short gestation length semen during weeks five, six, and seven of last year’s spring mating plan (weeks one to four consisted of replacement AB straws).
“So this year we’ve seen plenty of instances of cows calving in 265 to 268 days, which is substantially earlier than your standard 282,” he says.
“Because it was our first year (using short gestation length semen), we didn’t appreciate just how early some of these (cows’ calvings) were going to be.”
He acknowledges the danger of short gestation length heifer calves becoming mixed up with AB-replacement heifer calves. “For about a 14-day window we had to manage things very carefully.”
Along with cross-checking against mating records, separate mobs were run for a time – and having the whole herd DNA-profiled through GeneMark™ provided excellent back-up.
Results have not been perfect however, and Corrigan says it’s still a case of learning how to best-play the short gestation card: “I’d say there will be about six (non-replacement) heifers I’m going to have to quit, so there’ll be a few unnecessary rearing expenses.”
What could he do better?
“If I’d understood just what short gestation semen might do for my calving spread, I’d have made sure I calved with another 50 to 70, or 100kg of average farm cover. So I’d have manipulated that feed supply on start date”.
“Because having cows milking right now (early spring), doing a couple kilos of milksolids a day – purely because that’s what they naturally want to do – is a whole lot more efficient than trying to feed well and milk in the last 10 days of May at 1.2 kilos.”
Days-in-milk have to be kept in context – the cost of buying in supplement to make up shortfalls is a case of ‘doing the maths’.
In saying this, Corrigan knows he’s making slick progress.
“We’re ahead of last season in terms of milk production, and this is great because we’re milking about 60 fewer cows… we milked 869 cows last season and this season we’ll peak at only about 815 – and that’s partly a decision around inputs and stocking rate in relation to profitability.
“The interesting point is that the farm is producing more today than it was on the same day last year, with a substantial reduction in stocking rate – and most of that’s to do with the fact cows have calved earlier.
“While we’re getting better at condensing things, the key is around matching patterns to feed supply ahead of balance date, and understanding what the implications are.”
Corrigan says a low payout year is a good time to do some re-evaluation.
This year he will do all-AB. He will run with enough AB replacement semen to allow him to sell about 150 replacements, netting him an estimated $100,000 in an alternative revenue stream. He’ll swap to the short gestation length dairy or short gestation length marker products for weeks 7 to 10 (Corrigan says he would limit AB to seven weeks if he did not have the assisted heat detection system EZ Heat installed).
“It’s timely to look at things again – (given phasing out of inductions) people should look hard at their systems.
“My advice would be to put the tools in place. Half a dozen days running an extra mob in spring – is that really too big a commitment compared to the benefit of getting the extra milk in the vat? I would challenge anyone, particularly those with scale, to say it’s too much trouble.”
“We’re trying to set our system up to be as productive as it can be when the grass starts to grow, and setting our calving date right.”
It’s a balancing act, but with appropriate use of the right technologies it’s a case of tinkering with the cards that are dealt, then playing them at the right time so results come up trumps.
Footnote: In terms of New Zealand index’s, Breeding Worth (BW) and Production Worth, the Sowman crossbred herd is in the top five percent nationwide. Corrigan credits his staff with the high six week in-calf rate, meaning the farm is able to cull 10% annually on PW. The farm is a family-run operation run by Corrigan and his brother Sam, with their parents Brian and Glenda still actively involved, along with their respective wives, Ruth and Cara.