Blake Korteweg: 78 percent six-week in-calf rate
Location: Hedgehope, Southland
Farm size: 175ha (effective)
Herd size: 500 cows
Production: 203,000kg MS
When 50:50 sharemilker Blake Korteweg took over management of the family farm in South Otago from his father, the six-week in-calf rate was only 60 percent. Under his management, that’s climbed to 78 percent. The first change he made was to get mating down from 15 weeks to 11 weeks.
“Each year you’d have those late calvers and then, with inductions being taken out of the system, that just didn’t work anymore. We couldn’t get those cows back in calf so we had to change and tighten up the calving,” says Blake.
It took Blake two seasons to make that change and he initially used controlled internal drug release (CIDR) devices heavily to get cows cycling earlier. He’s now sharemilking on a 175 hectare (ha) farm at Hedgehope, Southland, and still uses CIDRs but now for a maximum of 10 percent of the herd. With culling, he expects that to fall further.
Blake says the shorter calving has led to his improved six-week in-calf rate.
“The cows get time to recover and a good chance to get cycling again. We’re all finished calving in that first week or so of October and we try to get them to have at least two cycles before we start mating.”
Another change Blake’s made over the past two years is to focus more on cow condition throughout the year.
“We don’t really look at certain times of the year anymore; we just try to keep them consistently good through the whole season and I think that’s definitely paid dividends,” he says.
In the past, the cows were sometimes pushed in autumn to keep production up, at the expense of condition. But with Southland’s cold winters it was difficult to put condition back on them for calving.
"Basically you can only hold them where they're at," says Blake. "They were already on the back foot when they calved, so we try to keep them in good condition all year round now."
Since he took over, Blake has also put more focus on picking cows and he makes that his sole job in the shed during six weeks of artificial insemination (AI).
“I reckon that’s the most important time of the year so I like to be there for that. We do nothing special – we just keep the tail paint fresh and always check them.”
Blake believes in the importance of feeding his cows well, so he supplements grass with in-shed feeding in spring, using a mix of 40 percent dried distiller grain, 30 percent barley and 30 percent palm kernel expeller (PKE). Spring grass growth in Southland can be variable.
"We try to get as much grass as we can into them but we definitely top them up with a bit more energy over that period when they’re trying to put condition on and get in calf.”
Blake’s made big strides in improving repro performance but is still trying to do better.
”The golden target for us would be to consistently achieve an around 80 percent six-week in-calf rate.“
Chris and Lynsey Stratford: 84 percent six-week in-calf rate
Location: Curio Bay, Southland
Farm size: 135ha (effective)
Herd size: 390 cows (peak), 410 (winter)
Production: 169,700kg MS
Equity managers Chris and Lynsey Stratford farm in the Catlins, also in Southland, and consistently achieve at least an 80 percent six-week in-calf rate and empty rates as low as five percent.
“I guess we focus on getting the basics right and it goes from there,” says Chris.
“We have a very busy start to spring so we’re getting that early milk. Plus, if they all calve early it means they’ve got the maximum amount of time to start cycling again in order to repeat the process the following season.”
To achieve good repro performance, it’s important to get things right throughout the year, not just during mating, says Chris. He uses DairyNZ’s FarmTune programme to assist with that.
“That helps us put on paper the various checklists we need to tick off during the year in order to achieve a good result at mating. FarmTune’s a great way to get things out of my head so the rest of the team can see what’s happening and what we need to achieve at various times. It also helps the team look for opportunities to continuously improve and tweak what we do. It just gets everyone on the same page,” says Chris.
“At various times of the year, we make sure the cows are in good condition and feeding well. We single out any cows that aren’t in good condition and give them a bit of special treatment here or there, making sure things are on track.”
The Stratfords’ cows get annual blood tests to ensure their mineral levels are good, and all young stock are weighed to check their growth is on track. Chris and his 2IC Parminder Pal have completed DairyNZ’s body condition scoring (BCS) workshop and use DairyNZ’s BCS phone app, which Chris says works well and saves time.
Chris shares heat detection duties with Parminder.
“A lot of farmers make sure they’re at the shed every day during mating to draft out, but I still like to have a couple of days off during mating,” says Chris.
“We monitor them before the start of mating to see what’s happening. If she can have a couple of cycles before she’s due to be mated, the better the chance of her getting in calf.”
Ben and Jemma Abernethy: 77 percent six-week in-calf rate
Location: Ohoka, North Canterbury
Farm size: 119ha (effective)
Herd size: 410 cows
Production: 178,000kg MS
Ben and Jemma Abernethy are coming up to their second season as 50:50 sharemilkers on a 119ha (effective) farm just out of Rangiora, North Canterbury. They’ve put together a 410-cow herd, which includes 70 cows they already owned, plus 100 from Southland and two lots of 100 from Canterbury – mostly younger animals.
“We picked them a bit on calving dates so we did have quite a compact calving last year," says Ben. "I think we had a couple at the start of October and there were a few calves that were meant to come from AI but we were getting hereford calves, so I’m looking forward to this year because I know what they’re in calf to.”
Calving surprises aside, Ben believes the most important ingredient for reproduction success is nutrition.
“For me, feeding is number one. I say to people, ‘I’ll go hungry before my cows do’. I just think it’s so paramount that you get the feed into them right through mating to get them on that rising plane.”
Ben calls in his vet to do blood tests to ensure mineral levels are where they should be. Five weeks before mating, he starts monitoring pre-mating heats to make sure everything is on track.
“I’m not really a believer in CIDRs and I think with intervention you’re almost breeding in infertility, like you’re forcing that cow to have heat. And if she has a heifer calf then she’s getting her genes from her mother and is she bringing through that little bit of infertility as well.”
Ben prefers to avoid intervention and believes in attention to detail. He’s in the shed every day picking cows and touching up tail paint.
“You want to make sure there’s no in-between time when you’re guessing because the paint has worn off a bit. If you went a week without touching up, you’d be mating some cows that weren’t on heat.”
While 300 of Ben’s cows are put up for AI for six weeks, another 110 are run with jersey bulls throughout the 10 weeks of mating. He must run two herds anyway, because of the small size of the farm’s yard, but he’s found a way to turn that to his advantage.
“Many people believe if you run bulls with the herd it can bring cows into season – a natural intervention if you like. We went through anything that hadn’t had a pre-mating heat or that we thought was an at-risk cow – she had retained membranes or was a little bit lighter or something like that – and we ran them with the bull,” says Ben.
“It worked really well, although we did have to handle jersey bulls for 10 weeks and that wasn’t much fun. While they’ve got work on they’re ok but when there’s not, they’ll find other things to wreck and be a general pain.”
Working on farms since he left school, Ben has learned from experience but backs that up by talking to his vet and going to discussion groups. He also finds the search tool on DairyNZ’s website very useful.
His goal is an 80 percent six-week in-calf rate and he was disappointed with the 77 percent he achieved this year. However, he believes that was in part down to 33 percent of his herd being rising two-year-old heifers, and young stock can be harder to get in calf.
“You’re disappointed when you don’t reach your target but I think, in the scheme of things, it was a pretty good result,” says Ben. “You live and learn every year and, with mating, you always learn something.”
Tips for Repro
Seek advice from those trained and experienced in long-term repro success. DairyNZ's InCalf resources and website contain valuable information.
Stick to the Spring Rotation Planner until balance date. Achieving target residuals and rotation lengths will ensure good quality pastures going into mating.
Pasture is enough for reproductive success if you have an adequate supply. If you need supplements, ensure they're good quality, but the type (e.g. pasture silage, PKE or barley) does not matter.
Make sure your whole team knows the farm's reproductive management plan and has the knowledge, skills and time to implement it.
Involve the team in pre-mating heat detection from 35 days before the herd’s artificial breeding (AB) mating start date. The level of pre-mating cycling is an indicator of how fertile your cows are going into mating.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy August 2017