Fertility Management Tools Crucial For Future of Dairy Farming
Herd efficiency is key at Meinside Farm near Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, the heart of Scotland’s dairy industry. David Hyslop, along with his two sons David and Martin, farm around 360 Holstein cows on 580 acres at Eaglesfield, and 300 female young stock on another farm nearby.
Milking twice a day, the herd produces 9,500 litres sold per cow per year. It’s not a large-scale operation; alongside David and his two sons, they have three other people helping them in the dairy and on the farm.
The cattle are reared on a predominantly grass-based system. “We grow 140 acres of whole crop here for the herd.” David says, although the wet weather of the west coast can cause challenges.
With all female stock, they breed all of their own replacements using genomic bulls and sexed semen on both heifers and cows. David and his son, who are both trained, do most of the AI themselves.
With the issues surrounding the milk price, David has been keen to improve the efficiency of his herd, and believes that keeping tight control of fertility management is crucial.
As well as running his own dairy business, David is on the Arla Board of Representatives, standing for the South of Scotland and North Cumbria. Part of his role is to ensure that members’ needs are looked after, feeding through information from members to the board and back again, making sure communication between the Arla board and their members is clear and well-organised.
“I’ve been on the Arla Board of Representatives for six years now. I really enjoy being involved, and I think it’s important to give something back to the industry.”
Five years ago, David started considering other options to help him manage his herd. “We’re always looking to improve our fertility rates, and we wanted to ensure that we were continuing to achieve high standards of fertility within the herd.”
Reducing the herds’ calving index and attaining higher pregnancy rates were two of the main reasons David was looking to install a heat detection and behavioural monitoring system on their herd. “We’re trying to achieve heifers calving under 24 months,” David says.
With the developments in technology within the dairy industry coming thick and fast, the idea of a heat detection system was something that could benefit the Meinside herd. “Time management is key for us, and this was something we wanted to get better at; ensuring that we were being as efficient as possible.”
Investing in a system
In 2012, David decided to take the plunge and install a heat detection system at Meinside and across the herd. They haven’t looked back since. “Having a heat detection system allows us to make instant decisions, which saves us time in the long run.”
One of the key factors that they were looking for in a heat detection system was a parlour interface, which David sees as crucial for the management of their herd. “The fact that you can access everything from your mobile phone and you don’t have to keep going back into the house to see the data is brilliant.”
“It’s an excellent management tool, and allows us to make well-informed choices from the data in front of us, saving us time and improving the accuracy of the judgments we make when it comes to the productivity of the herd.”
David has been using the CowAlert system from Edinburgh based technology company IceRobotics across his dairy herd since 2012, and has just renewed the farm’s contract for another five years.
He receives an email to his phone from IceRobotics three times a day with updates from the herd, including the cow number, when she started bulling and the recommended AI window. Alongside a heat detection and herd management system, David also uses herd-based programme Uniform Agri.
“The heat detection technology works very well. Since installing it, we’ve put together a very successful fertility programme with our vet who comes in every Monday to do fertility work with the herd and PD the cows.”
“We wouldn’t be without the system now. It’s crucial to keep control of our fertility management and is very user friendly, making it easy for everyone to understand.”
“We’re at the stage where we can easily recognise the spikes on the graph and we can quickly make decisions based on the information in front of us.” This means that David and his team can tell if increased motion picked up by the sensors is because the cow is on heat, or because she’s been moving around a lot (if they have been working with a particular group of cows, for example.)
David says that the main problems they have had with the heat detection system have been down to getting a decent internet connection in a rural area.
“When the system was first set up, we had to use satellite internet before we were able to get a good enough signal on broadband. A poor internet connection affects the transfer of information, but I’ve been impressed with IceRobotics’ reaction to the system going offline; they’re very quick to flag up the issue with us and check the problems that we’re having.”
As an Edinburgh based business, David is able to meet with the IceRobotics team in person if need be. Despite some rural areas having poor internet signal, IceRobotics can combat this issue and install a 4G router alongside the CowAlert system.
Investing in a heat detection and behavioural monitoring system has been key to the organisation and running of the herd at Meinside. Not only has it improved time management within the team, but it has also helped David create an enhanced fertility programme for his cows and heifers. “It’s been a crucial part of the process when it comes to knowing when to AI the cows.”
“The key to promoting higher yields is to reduce calving index and get higher pregnancy rates which we are working towards with an improved heat detection system. CowAlert has helped us to become more accurate and enables us to pick up any issues with cows that we might not be able to see yet.”
Calving index = 380
Pregnancy rate (average) = 27
When it comes to the benefits of a heat detection system, David says the improvements in fertility are what he’s noticed the most in the past five years. However, it has also proved useful in other ways too.
“We recently changed the mats in the shed for a group of cows, and the system showed an increase in lying time with the new mats which helped us to see it was worthwhile.”
As well as improving timing and decision making, having a heat detection system has improved the accuracy of the AI window for the herd, as it picks up cows that David and the team can’t necessarily see.
“Having a heat detection tool has been excellent, and I would definitely consider it a worthwhile investment.”
Preparing for the future
David has recently added the CowAlert lameness module to run alongside the heat detection system, which they’re currently trialing on their herd. “We’ve only been testing it for a month or so, but I’m hoping the lameness technology will help to flag up issues that might not be obvious to the human eye so we can get to them before they get worse.”
“I’m impressed with the continued development of the technology. We’ve seen improvements in the CowAlert ankle tags since we started using them and we now have them on all cows and heifers in the herd.”
“We’re continuing to make improvements within the herd, and we’re always looking for expansion opportunities in the future. That’s depending on the milk price, of course!”