Herd testing has given Brad and Meagan O'Shannessy a quick and clear understanding of their cows' production and performance, resulting in easier culling, decision making and even pregnancy testing.
"Herd test results are our main tool when it comes to culling decisions because we have clear figures on each cow for production and cell counts," Mr O'Shannessy said. "It's always easy to identify which cows need to go."
The O'Shannessys signed up to take part in regular herd testing when they were invited to be one of the seven ImProving Herds Focus Farms in 2015.
The ImProving Herds project explored how herd test data could be used for improved farm decision making.
Mr O'Shannessy said their experience had demonstrated that herd test results gave information on cows which was undetectable by just looking at the animal ù and sometimes the results were surprising.
"Even if you think you know your herd really well, you will be surprised at the results you get from herd testing," he said.
"We've had some cows which looked like they were producing really well, but were clearly not producing when you saw their herd tests figures.
"In contrast, there were some cows which looked ordinary but were producing 50 litres a day in peak lactation.
"It's the same with milk quality. You can't pick some of the cows with the higher cell counts because there are no clots or signs of clinical mastitis.
"While we've always had premium quality milk, sometimes you can start flirting with the line, so it's always good to make sure you can identify the cows which could push you over. You can pick up on cows that need to be treated or cows which have recurring subclinical mastitis and need to be culled."
The O'Shannessys now look at herd-test figures for cow production to identify cows to dry off. Any cow that has been in milk for 300 days is dried off once its milk production falls below feed costs.
This ensures feed resources are directed to the most profitable cows, which is particularly important as their farm is totally reliant on purchased water for irrigation and cows are fed 7-8 kilograms of pellets all year round. "When water prices are high we really need to make sure we are running cows which are producing well, and the herd tests results let us identify those cows," Mr O'Shannessy said.
The O'Shannessys milk 180 cows in a split-calving herd on 97 hectares at Cooma in Northern Victoria and have recently moved to total A2 milk production.
"We've been farming for 10 years and started with help of our parents," Mr O'Shannessy said. "My parents put 80 cows into the herd while we bought in another 50-60 head and have been slowly building up ever since.
"While I came from a dairy farm, we are still learning. When you buy in cows you don't have a lot of records.
"We had only done the occasional spot test before joining the ImProving Herds project ù but now we are herd testing every second month because the information it generates is helping with our farm management.
"You know a lot more about your cows and your business if you herd test."
Each ImProving Herds focus farm was given six free herd tests as well as support in interpreting the results. The O'Shannessy's local herd test centre also provided a person to take samples in the shed on herd test days.
"We operate a 20-unit swing over so the person sampling did all the work and I just wrote cow numbers on the flasks so it really didn't disrupt milking at all," Mr O'Shannessy said.
The O'Shannessys had six bi-monthly herd tests over the first year of the project and were amazed by the information it gave them.
"We received our results electronically on the same day as the herd test and could then either rank the cows on Excel or upload the results into EasyDairy," Mr O'Shannessy said.
"There are two main things I look at whenever we get herd test results back: the cows in the lowest 10 per cent of the herd for production, and the cows in the top 10 per cent in the herd for cell counts because these cows are the ones we need to make decisions about.
"If I wanted to get excited, then I look at the top 10 per cent of the cows for production and the lowest 10 per cent for cells counts because these cows show you what is possible."
Hassle-free preg testing*
In recent months, the O'Shannessys have also used herd testing as a way of pregnancy testing cows via milk samples.
The cost of pregnancy testing using milk samples is comparable with traditional pregnancy testing with a vet but the milk sample option has clear advantages, according to Mr O'Shannessy.
"We use fixed time AI in two joining periods and recently used herd testing in October to pregnancy test the March-April calving cows," he said.
"In the past, we would draft off these cows as they came through the dairy and hold them in the yards until the vet arrived.
"It was more work and meant that the cows that were held back in the yards lost grazing time.
"Their milk production would drop by a third at the next milking because they had been off feed and it often took a day or two to recover.
"Using herd testing to pregnancy test meant no extra handling, no stress on the cows, no time off feed and no lost production."D
Contact: DataGene, phone (03) 9032 7191 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
ImProving Herds is a Gardiner Foundation project in collaboration with Dairy Australia, DataGene, the Victorian Government, Holstein Australia and the National Herd Improvement Association of Australia (NHIA).
*For more information on the various pregnancy testing strategies, see the InCalf Book 2nd edition (dairyaustralia.com.au/incalfbook s) pages 159-172.
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