BEFORE JOINING the Improving Herds project, dairy farmers Brad and Meagan O’Shannessy, Cooma, northern Victoria, had only done the occasional spot test on their 200-cow herd.
Now a convert, Brad says herd test costs of $4500 a year can potentially be recouped in one month through the ability to make better decisions based on information at hand.
The couple were one of 27 businesses that participated in the ImProving Herds project as Herd Test Focus Farmers.
As they weren’t herd testing, the project provided them with a year’s free herd testing and support in getting set up and using the reports.
“Before ImProving Herds, we had only done the occasional spot test,” Brad told the audience of 300. “We would use spot testing to solve problem when cell counts flared up. Apart from fertility and structure issues we would cull cows if we could see a visual mastitis problem, or if we put a cow on a test bucket and could identify that her production was dropping off.”
Brad said cost was the main issues they did not test.
“Our debt levels and seasonal conditions at the time made herd testing seem like a luxury,” he said.
The project gave the couple free bi-monthly herd tests for 12 months, help in the shed for the first year and help in interpreting the herd test results received.
Brad now pays Adam from Northern Herd Development to help herd testing.
The cost for bi-monthly herd testing is $15/cow/year, plus Adam’s labour which works out at $240 for two milkings on the same day or $1400–1500 a year.
Brad said the annual cost of $4500 is easily recouped making making better decisions.
“If herd testing shows me that the bottom 10 per cent of my herd were doing 10 litres or that those bad subclinical cows that could potentially take you out of premium, it would recover that cost in just one month,” he said.
Brad said herd testing has shown information on cow performance is not detectable by observing the animal.
“Even if you think you know your herd really well, there will be some surprises.
“We’ve had some cows that looked like they were producing really well, but their herd test results showed they clearly weren’t.
“In contrast there were some quiet achievers that looked quite ordinary but produced 50 litres a day at peak.”
“Seeing what the top cows can do is inspiring but gets you asking why the whole herd can’t be like that.”
Brad said there are two areas he pinpoints when he receives herd test results: 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 count.
“Our aim is to take the bottom 10 per cent out of the herd for production and quality and keep replacing those cows with better young stock every year. We want to cull on cell count and production.
“We keep a close eye on production of each cow that has been in milk for 300 days and dry them off as soon as their production falls below feed costs.
“This ensures feed resources are directed to the most profitable cows.
This is particularly important in our system which is totally reliant on purchased irrigation water and with cows fed 7–8 kg pellets all year round.
“When water prices are high, we really need to make sure we are running cows which are producing well and herd test results let us identify those cows.”
In the future Brad and Meagan would like to be able to use herd test results to generate figures on gross margin (income over feed costs) per cow.