Jodie is three seasons into a management position on her family’s Awakaponga, Bay of Plenty property, overseeing 550 cows on 140ha.
She came from a busy hospitality industry background where “getting slammed” is code for an unexpected rush of customers through the door. That experience means she can cope well with stress, but she's also minimised the chaos of springtime through good planning and procedures. That in turn helps ensure her herd is in top condition at the start of lactation.
Improving teat condition
Over the past three seasons, a key animal health focus for Jodie has been managing mastitis throughout lactation. Despite a comprehensive dry cow policy of using antibiotics on cows with 150,000+ somatic cell count (SCC), and Teatseal on the rest, mastitis was still a problem during lactation.
“I found it was that most basic procedure, teat spraying, that really needed to be monitored and standardised to keep teat condition up to standard through lactation, which in turn helps lower mastitis risk.”
To achieve that, Jodie has developed a clear procedure for staff to follow on mixing teat spray, right down to the required quantities of each product in the mix. She also monitors how staff spray teats, emphasising coverage on the easily missed front two quarters. Even the ingredients of branded teat spray formulations come under scrutiny.
“I’ve learned recently that not all ingredients are created equal. This applies to the glycerine too," says Jodie.
Finding a winning formula has helped Jodie improve teat condition significantly, reducing cracking and uneven surfaces, in turn bringing her herd’s bulk SCC down to about 130,000.
“It is still a bit higher than I’d like, and I would be keen to try and get it lower.”
Jodie takes a tactical approach to teat spray, with the formula adjusted upward in emollient concentration if necessary in muddy conditions, and for the colostrum cows.
Proactivity pays off
She’s also found that pre-calving blood testing has proven its worth in establishing baseline mineral levels in the herd, and saving money on mineral use.
“The tests have shown us the herd is well covered for key minerals, and we’ve been able to cut the amount administered through a Peta dispenser by half from post-mating to drying off. But the cost saving has been a secondary outcome, rather than our main one, which is to try and optimise what the cows are getting,” says Jodie.
She is, however, an ardent supporter of vitamin B12 and selenium dosing. The herd receives four shots a year. The springer mob receives the first shot, with a second at pre-mating, another over summer and one at drying off.
“I’ve found this helps reduce retained foetal membranes, helps maintain their appetite, and contributes to their overall wellbeing as a preventative,” says Jodie.
This proactive approach to animal health underscores Jodie’s philosophy that the right expenditure is an investment in helping avoid future sickness or failure to grow.
Guided by records
Having good records of key events and herd indicators like body scores, drying off dates, and when zinc was put into the water, is vital for Jodie to understand where health challenges may arise from year to year.
“In many cases I can go back over the previous 10 years’ records to see who did what when. This gives me an idea of how my decision may play out, and how early or late it may be compared to the past.”
She notes which treatments worked, and makes changes to her procedures or policies accordingly.
Jodie attributes much of this feedback loop to her father Michael, who she says has always been a firm believer in investing in cow health, researching options carefully, and looking hard to see if the promise of different products and treatments matches the reality.
She makes a point of being in the farm dairy for morning milkings with staff, treating it as less of a mundane task and more an opportunity to assess, analyse and plan on critical animal health issues present or arising.
“It’s never a dull time. I make a lot of decisions early on by being there looking at the cows, ahead of where they need to be.”
She will compile lists of cows with lighter body conditions scores that may need to go on once-a-day milking, and cows with feet that need trimming. She will also assess overall teat condition.
“It’s also a chance in springtime to decide what cows I will cull, based on their udder confirmation. It’s way harder to spot a splayed udder later in summer than it is in springtime.”
Procedures remove the guesswork
Jodie believes reproductive performance is ultimately linked to animal health and feed levels, so paying attention to sick or unhealthy cows prevents them from also becoming empty cows.
“So, we have very clear procedures for things like down cows. That includes what product to use and what steps to take on finding her,” says Jodie.
“We employ an extra staff member over springtime so everyone has the time to do their jobs properly, including looking after any sick animals. There’s always the risk that the sick down cow becomes the empty cow if you don’t treat her properly.
“All the staff can see the procedures for treatment, and at the start of the season all staff receive a list of their responsibilities. That means no animals get forgotten or left partway through its treatment process, which can happen when people get busy.”
Cows that have a difficult calving, and particularly first or second calvers, are put on once-a-day milking until mating. Jodie does that to reduce their loss of body condition and increase their chances of cycling. She records all these details so she can better understand the history of empty cows.
Jodie also makes a point of ensuring her colostrum cows get extra ‘ante-natal’ attention to help minimise complications later in the season.
“We just milk them once a day, taking extra time to check for mastitis and ensure they’re fully milked out. They also receive a special Starter-Plus brew with limeflour. Doing it once and doing it right means they get more individual attention.
“We also back-fence them with a portable trough and give them palm kernel. It all helps the cows settle and get into routine with less stress on them and on staff.”
Using the vet wisely
Jodie is not averse to seeking her vet’s advice when cow health is compromised. But she’s also worked with her staff to ensure they appreciate the cost of a vet call-out, and how to get the best value from their animal health professional.
“The staff know that if it’s a Friday and there’s a cow not looking too good, it’s better to call the vet then, rather than having to get them out on a Sunday afternoon at extra cost.”
She also keeps an inventory of non-urgent vet cases so when the vet does come, those cases can all be seen at one time, rather than staggered across days or weeks.
Not just about the animals
Reducing stress on staff goes hand in hand with better animal health, particularly over the busy spring period. Having good procedures, an extra set of hands, and clear responsibilities means the only uncertainty is the weather, leaving staff with enough time to manage animals as individuals.
Putting in some hours well before calving begins helps too. That includes setting up the calf sheds in May, and getting the farm dairy sorted straight after drying off. Staff then get a decent break from calving preparation which helps them be in a more relaxed, rested frame of mind when the burst of spring demands arrive.
Jodie also encourages her staff to attend Dairy Women’s Network (DWN) workshops and DairyNZ field days over that period, including days on body condition scoring.
The Healthy Udder guide is required reading for staff as Jodie continues to ensure they’re aware of teat condition’s impact on mastitis.
“There are some great resources available to farmers through DairyNZ and DWN. I’ve found the DairyNZ website excellent for that, alongside the events held regularly.”
Jodie attributes some advice a few years ago from farm advisor Tonya Greig for helping her become more proactive in herd health management.
“She told me not to be a fire fighter, but instead get to issues before the fire starts, and that has proven to work well.”
Jodie's top tips
- Record any new treatment, procedure or product to monitor its outcome. Use the records as a reference for future treatments, rather than having to relearn the process.
- Create clear written procedures for all animal health treatments so staff members are consistent in their treatment of health issues.
- Plan ahead for the high-demand spring period so mundane daily tasks are simple. That leaves time to focus on more time-consuming, unplanned tasks such as looking after down cows and sick calves.
- Seek advice from professionals and talk to other farmers about what they’re doing. Don’t waste time and energy reinventing the wheel.
DairyNZ animal health research
Your DairyNZ levy supports research and development programmes on various aspects of animal health, including mastitis, facial eczema, lameness, Johne’s Disease, metabolic disorders and biosecurity.
One of the largest current projects is ‘Pillars of a Sustainable Dairy System’, a seven-year research programme to improve cow health, fertility, and lifetime productivity. It aims to address animal welfare concerns and productivity and profitability losses that occur with suboptimal animal health, cow longevity and reproductive performance.
Inefficiencies in these areas are estimated to cost the dairy industry more than $1 billion each year. A key focus is to develop practical strategies for improved metabolic health and immune function in cows during early lactation. This should reduce the risk of disorders and diseases, and increase cow fertility.
Pillars is jointly funded by the farmers’ levy and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, with additional funding from AgResearch, Fonterra and LIC. It is led by DairyNZ scientists, who collaborate with researchers from New Zealand and overseas.
For more information visit dairynz.co.nz/pillars.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy July 2017