November saw the return of Premier Nutrition’s technical conference, where speakers from around the world came together to provide nutritionists, consultants and farmers with the latest technical updates from all four corners of the globe.

The day began with an excellent presentation from Marco Winters, Head of Genetics at AHDB, covering the impact of genetics and genomics on farm businesses. “In the last 10 years we have come on leaps and bounds in the field of genetics, especially in the dairy industry”, he said. “As an industry, genetic progress is now doubling year on year with the introduction and widespread usage of genomic bulls. This has meant we can now have a very large impact very quickly on the national herd.”

Whilst some may see the pitfalls in such a scenario, Marco assured the audience that regular test and review meetings are scheduled to manage the effects of genetics. The importance of data collection and analysis cannot be stressed enough, allowing close monitoring of the effects of all genetic selection. AHDB are also investing considerable time and resources in to the genomic markers for dry matter intake. A vital factor in all livestock production systems, AHDB now believe they can, with 70% accuracy, select for dry matter intake in cattle. This truly exciting development from the field of genetics could potentially yield huge benefits for the industry and Marco announced AHDB hope to release the indexes next year.

Cattle health & production specialist John Cook followed Marco covering the management of dairy fertility. Whilst there is often much debate between farmers, consultants and vets on the benchmark of fertility, John was very clear on this. “Pregnancy rate is the finite measure when it comes to measuring failure or success in the vital transition period. Working out pregnancy rate is quite simple; multiplying conception rate by heat detection rate to give you a pregnancy rate percentage”, said John. He informed the audience all dairy herds should be aiming for a pregnancy rate of above 20%, although he warns that whilst getting a higher pregnancy rate is desirable for obvious reasons, the financial returns when reaching 25% do diminish significantly. Farms striving to improve fertility must be clear on where pregnancy rates are currently sitting and assess whether it is financially viable to spend money on further improvements.

Tyler Mark was the first international speaker of the day, flying over from the University of Kentucky. Coming from a finance and statistics background, Tyler covered the performance measures of the commercial dairy herd, addressing some of the pitfalls farms often fall in to. As with fertility on dairy herds, there is often a great debate around which factors are our measure of success.

For financial performance there are many financial ratios to choose from, such as debt/asset ratio, equity/asset ratio, debt/equity ratio and asset turnover ratio. The key to assessing financial performance is first choosing which ratios to measure; “It often doesn’t matter which ratios are chosen, it is more the act of picking them and sticking to them without a constant change”, Tyler informed the audience. “Whilst we don’t need a huge number of ratios to measure performance, it is important to pick more than one. One ratio alone has very little link to overall farm performance. As an industry we are often seen as odd by others, producing a product we don’t know the selling price of, at a cost we don’t often know. The key for many farms and consultants is to start emphasising the importance of proper financial reviews and performance management”, he concluded.

Cow comfort is a vital factor on every dairy unit, and the importance of its continual update and measurement should not be underestimated. Joep Driessen from Cow Signals® presented a fascinating talk on the impacts of cow comfort on performance and longevity.

Lying time is often something dairy units fall short on. Whether it is over stocking, small cubicles or uncomfortable beds, there are many factors that can reduce lying time in a herd. Joep advises 13-14 hours of lying time as being the ‘gold standard’ that every herd should be aiming for. Increasing lying time from 9 hours to 14 can yield up to 3.5L of milk, certainly worth a considerable sum of money when considering improvements to sheds.

Feed space is another key factor in ensuring maximum efficiency. Joep recommends 70cm for fresh cows and 85cm for dry cows and it is vital these parameters are met, however he told the audience many units tend to pay less attention to dry cow comfort and focus solely on fresh cows. “The fact is that many fresh cow issues can be linked back to issues stemming from the dry period, which is further backed up by Premier’s TMS data, where they have been able to link rumen fill and cow comfort with almost every issue experienced in fresh cows”, said Joep.

Increasing the efficiency of individual dairy herds and the industry as a whole must be a key driver in the decision-making process. Getting cow comfort right will not only improve efficiency but will improve cow longevity as well. Longevity of cows was a key point in Joep’s presentation, and with the average lactation number for the UK herd sat at just 2.4, there is considerable room for improvement. Presenting a Dutch study, Joep indicated that dairy cows do not reach their maximum efficiency until lactations 6, 7 & 8 so, if we can increase cow comfort, decrease transition issues and therefore increase cow longevity, we can only improve as an industry.

The day was rounded off with a presentation from Premier Nutrition’s Andrew Pine, who covered the top ten nutrition KPI’s to help drive performance. Reinforcing Joep’s message on cow comfort, Andrew covered many of the things often overlooked on dairy units. One of these being water intake and specifically amounts and timings of consumption. With milk being 87% water, it is vital we ensure cows have access to clean and fresh water 24/7, especially when we consider some of our high yielding cows are drinking upwards of 100L. 60% of daily water intake is consumed within 1 hour of milking, making it important to ensure good water access for all cows as they exit the parlour, and with the average cow only drinking for roughly 30 minutes/day, it is vital to ensure maximum availability for each sitting.

Moving on to chop length and TMR consistency, Andrew presented a study confirming that long chop fibre actually increases the risk of acidosis. By reducing chop length, we reduce sorting in rations, ensuring maximum fibre and forage intakes and therefore maximising rumen buffering. This is also supported by pushing feed up continuously, “Every two extra push-ups in a day provides 0.1kg increase in DMI, yielding great benefits in milk yield”, Andrew prompted.

Protein efficiency was also covered in detail, an area often discussed on farm. With ever increasing pressure from an environmental stand point, we all have a duty to improve nitrogen utilisation in all farming practices. Amino acid balancing is one way to do this and the closer we can get to the ideal Lysine:Methionine ratio of 3:1, the more efficient our cows become. For every 0.1 improvement in getting to the 3:1 ratio, we can reduce grams of crude protein in the ration by 2%, not only a huge cost saving but a great improvement in protein efficiency.

This conference was an excellent day, containing talks that really pushed the boundaries of what we think we know about the industry and challenging us to improve our current practices. If you would like to know more about the Premier Nutrition technical conference or require more information on any of the topics covered please get in touch with a member of the Premier ruminant team.

Photograph left to right:
Marco Winters, AHDB; Joep Driessen, Cow Signals; John Cook, health & production specialist; Tyler Mark, University of Kentucky; Dr Andrew Pine, Premier Nutrition; Tony Blackburn, Black Cow Nutrition (chairman).