Covid-19 restrictions are beginning to ease, which means the return of on-farm walks. Earlier this week MSD held a farm walk on the farm of James and Paddy O’Connor in Piercestown, Co. Wexford, with technology being key to their system.
The father and son, along with farm worker Frank, are milking 220 Holstein Friesian cows in a spring-calving system.
Paddy returned to farm alongside his father in the spring of 2013, after completing two years at Kildalton Agricultural College.
At the time, a split calving system was operated, with cows calving in both spring and autumn.
Two years after Paddy returned, the farm had moved completely to spring-milking, with the focus now on the farm being to improve production and breeding figures.
The change to spring milk was something that Paddy knew was going to happen, and James was just as keen on it.
Cow numbers have remained steady over the last number of years; when quotas were abolished in 2015, the cow numbers increased by 20 cows from 200, to 220.
The farm is currently stocked at 1.3cows/ac, with no plans to increase cow numbers but rather, expansion through efficiency.
In march of this year, the O’Connors installed new on-farm technology; SenseHub collars on their cows.
Before the collars, the O’Connors aimed to tail paint all the cows three weeks before the start of breeding.
But according to Paddy this did not always happen: “It is a busy time of year and things happen, so it was not always done when planned, which meant we were missing out on the non-cyclers and delaying their breeding date.
“When breeding started, we were topping up tail paint and detecting heats in the parlour; it always took two or three of us to look at cows and draft the cows in heat.”
Cow type has not changed from a Holstein Friesian-type cow, but the breeding focus has, with the aim of improving fertility and solids while holding production.
The cows are currently producing 490kg of milk solids (ms)/cow, with the aim to improve that figure each year, and the goal of getting to 550kg of ms/cow.
Paddy and James are not really focused on economic breeding index (EBI), with cow fertility, solids and fitting into the system more important to them.
Commenting on the replacement rate, Paddy said: “We are not overly focused on the replacement rate, whatever has to be replaced has to be replaced.
“We are more focused on having the right cow in the parlour – a three spin or slow milkers all cause delays and increase the workload.”
Speaking during the farm walk, Paddy noted the six-week conception rate as the most important figure.
“The aim is to keep it above the 2020 figure of 70%. We want as many cows calving in the first six weeks as possible,” he explained.
“The empty rate will vary from year to year; it’s something we keep an eye on but it is not our focus.”
The empty rate for this year is estimated to be 6% based on what the collars are saying, which is a 5% improvement.
“We were happy enough with the conception rate figures, but it is the little things that you can improve.
“We use AI [artificial insemination] for four weeks, so every cow is served once and then the bulls are introduced.”
Commenting on sexed semen, Paddy said: “We haven’t used sexed semen for a few years, mainly because it would be very easy to blaim it if conception rates were not good.
“We have used it before on heifers when we were autumn calving, when they were in the yard and it was handy.
“Looking at how the collars have gone, I can see why people use it, but again this year it was our first year with the collars, we didn’t chance it.”
Looking at the boards on display at the event, a figure which increased this year was the number of straws used.
Paddy attributes this to the SenseHub collars picking up the non-cyclers earlier, which meant they were treated earlier and then served earlier.
Paddy said: “Last year the non-cyclers were not picked up until three weeks into breeding, so they would not have gotten a straw.
“This year, because all these cows were cycling when we were using artificial insemination (AI), they would have gotten a straw.
“We only had the collars on in late March of this year. Next year I am hoping that I will be able to deal with non-cyclers even earlier and have more information built up on each cow.”
The O’Connors have embraced technology on their farm, with automatic calf feeders being used for several years now, an automatic Saber drafter installed in 2019 and now the SenseHub collars.
Commenting on the technology he has on his farm, Paddy said: “As long as it is cost-effective and it reduces the work load for us, it is worthwhile.
“The collars mean that you do not have to be here to detect cows in heat, it is like having another man watching the cows full-time.”
Catherine Heffernan, technical and customer support manager with MSD, gave a brief overview of the SenseHub collars at the farm walk.
Catherine outlined the three main areas where information is generated by the SenseHub collars: Rumination, eating and activity.
Catherine explained that a controller is placed in a centre location in the yard, with the ability to read over 800m.
The reason for a central location in the yard is so that when the cows are coming in to be milked, the information from the collars is dropped off.
The system can be used on a computer, iPad or smartphone, with most people using it on their phone.
Heat detection and reproduction is generally the reason why farmers buy the system.
Catherine briefly explained how the collar determines the ideal time for service: “The collar has a 30-hour breeding window.
“Counting down, the black triangle will move with the time. Hour 23 to eight is the ideal time for conventional semen, with hour 15 to one the ideal time for sexed semen.
“It means that you are getting the timing of your AI correct rather than going too early or too late.
“The system also generates an anoestrus report for cows that are calved longer than 30 days and have not cycled yet, which allows farmers to identify cows that may require treatment.”
Catherine asked Paddy for his experience of the reproduction cycle. Paddy said: “For the first week of this year’s breeding season, we tail painted the cows and the paint would be removed from cows, but there was no alert.
“We would draft the cow and when we went to AI her, she would not be on, then a few hours later there would be an alert on that cow.
“We would draft her again and she was on, so not only is it picking up cows in heat, but [also] when it is the correct time to AI them.
“After that, I never had any doubt about the collars, they reduce a lot of labour and this technology can work on any farm.”
Commenting on the anoestrus report, Paddy said: “We used it several times this year and these cows were checked by the vet.
“Some of them were fine and others were dirty cows. Although we never did it, for some people this will do away with the pre-scanning of cows.
“We would of only ever check cows that had a hard calving or held their cleanings.”
The system will also look at the herd as a whole, usually when there is an event on the farm – such as TB testing.
Commenting on the group alert, Paddy said: “We had a group alert when the cows were in a paddock for two hours after milking to clean it out properly.
“They had to come out of the paddock and onto the roadway, that ran alongside the paddock.
“About half the cows came out of the paddock and down the roadway while the other half stayed in the paddock.
“The cows left in the paddocks started bawling and about 10 minutes later, a distress alert was generated.
“Afterwards I thought that it would be good if the cows ever broke out.”