Flexible Milking, Nick Dowson (Bay of Plenty)
6 min read
Flexible milking was adopted by Tauranga farmers Nick and Mary Dowson to handle dry summers and to ease cow walks in heat. Nick Dowson and farm manager Rick Phillips changed from a 24-hr to a 48-hr grazing plan while keeping feed amounts constant. This alteration benefited staff wellbeing, improved cow conditions throughout the season, and enhanced grazing management. However, the breeding approach has been adjusted to focus on cow health, fertility, and longevity. The major success includes staff retention, better grazing management, consistent milk production, and a decrease in animal health costs. The main challenge was refining grazing and rotations.
Tauranga farmers Nick and Mary Dowson initially decided to give flexible milking a go from Christmas onwards as a strategy to cope with dry summers.
Pahoia, Bay of Plenty
210 Friesian cows
1.5 full time equivalents (140 cows/FTE)
2020/21 - Full season 3-in-2: 2021/22 - Full season 10-in-7
They also wanted to reduce the distance cows had to walk in the heat and extend the round. Nick and farm manager Rick Phillips also hoped that this approach would improve the herd’s repro performance.
In the beginning, Nick had some worries about the anti-social hours for the evening milking (16-hour interval) and wondered how some of the big Friesian cows would handle the changes. He also had some concerns about the associated loss of production.
“We realised that the hours aren’t that critical, so we adjusted our intervals to 10-19-19 at 5.30am-3.30pm-10.30am.”
After we’d done it for a few years, we became comfortable with the system and DairyNZ’s research data gave us the confidence to go full season.
Apart from changes to the milking routine, Nick and Rick went from a 24-hr grazing plan to a 48-hr one while continuing to feed the same amount. They also implemented MAXT to standardise milking. “When I milk, I’m doing it exactly the same as Rick,” says Nick.
Mating also had to be altered and required an AI technician who was flexible. They have ended up mating at noon each day.
Tanker pickups had to be adjusted to account for milk storage capacity through peak milking. This season (21/22) night pick-ups solved any capacity problems.
|Season, or average of:||2013-14 / 2014-15 / 2015-16||2013-14 / 2014-15 / 2015-16||2016-17 / 2017-18 / 2019-20||2016-17 / 2017-18 / 2019-20||2020/21||2020/21||2021/22|
|Dowson's||Bay of Plenty||Dowson's||Bay of
|Farm milking schedule||Full season TAD||Part season TAD, part season flexible milking*||Full season 3-in-2, OAD from 23 April||Full season 10-in-7, OAD from 23 April|
|Comments||Dry off late April/early May||16/17 drought, 19/20 drought||Dry off 13 May||(Provisional numbers only) Dry off 29 April|
|Peak cows milked||224||429||208||446||215||479||214|
|10-day peak milk per cow (kgMS/cow/day)||1.89||1.84||1.88||1.89||1.84||1.97||1.78|
|Imported feed (kgDM/cow)||746||610||816||886||797||918||911|
|Operating profit margin||30.6%||25.1%||20%||26.6%||22.3%||31.2%|
*2016/17 TAD and 16-hour from 14 Jan 4.30am:8.30pm:12.30pm. 2017/18 TAD and 3-in-2 from 19 Dec 5am:8pm:12pm. 2019/20 TAD until 2 Dec then 3-in-2. Drought caused OAD from 1 Feb to dry off in April.
Read Nick's insights about these costs in the cost implications section below.
“Rick and I certainly enjoy having some sleep-in days so we’re less exhausted especially though calving and mating which has definitely improved job satisfaction,” says Nick.
“The new regime has a positive effect on keeping staff”. Nick explained that going back to a full season TAD system is not as attractive for Rick as “he’s loving the extra mornings he gets with his young family”.
“Cows have cycled well, and I think this is partly due to them losing less weight between calving and mating. There have been no real changes other than the cows carry better condition throughout the season.”
Grazing management has improved too as Rick has more time and energy for pasture walks and to measure the pasture with a plate meter.
Somatic cell count has dropped due to weekly stripping (on the single milking day), which Rick now has ample time to do. Early mastitis detection is another positive side effect with the added benefit of cows becoming calmer as they get used to being handled more often.
Nick says there has been little change to production. “Cows peaked lower (seasonal effect) which we made up for with a longer lactation due to cows carrying more weight throughout the season.”
The first full year of 3-in-2 saw an increase in 6-week in-calf rate and Nick hoped they were making ground, but it has since decreased, mainly because they’re changing their approach to their long-term breeding programme to improve cow health, fertility, and longevity.
“After seeing the research from DairyNZ’s Pillars of a new dairy system and chatting to Dairy Holdings who have been using high fertility BV bulls for some years and are seeing fertility gains, we decided to make some changes,” says Nick.
Last mating, Nick and Rick synchronized 120 of their best cows to mate on the first day of mating. They nominated sires and chose bulls with high fertility Breeding Values.
From days 3-17 they used a team of eight bulls to naturally mate the rest of the herd and then went to one week of AB to cover the returns before returning to natural mating. They then added 10 days of short gestation AB to finish (just over 11-weeks total).
Rick says from a labour point of view he loved it. ‘We only had 19 days of AB which removed a bit of pressure.”
Nick says they had hoped that by using bulls they would have improved the 6-week in-calf rate but that hasn't happened.
“I guess that’s going to be a slow burn. On the upside, it means our heat detection in previous years wasn't the problem. So, this result is definitely not related to milking frequency!”
In general, Nick is glad they made the change to flexible milking. He’s even had the odd pleasant surprise.
“I’m surprised by the lack of production loss, given that we have a 550kg Friesian herd. And I’m surprised how quickly the cows adapted to the new regime. Previously, when we made the change at Christmas, the cows tended to stand at the gate for a week before they adapted, but with full season, it just doesn’t happen,” says Nick.
You can read more about Nick and Ricks experience with flexible milking from their 2020 interview No turning back from 3-in-2.
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