Dairy special: Conversion from straw yards drives drop in antibiotic usage

Dairy special: Conversion from straw yards drives drop in antibiotic usage

Historically, loose housed cattle bedded on straw was the most common & popular housing system in the UK. Following extensive research into bedding types and more thought given to their welfare, shed design and cow comfort- housing design has changed significantly. Cubicles were first introduced in the 1950’s and have been a popular investment for farmers across the country. Most commonly floored with a rubber mat, the soft cushioning provides cows with the best comfort, leading to improved lying times. Research shows that where cattle lying times increase, so do milk yields.

Recently published by the Farmers Guardian was the below article written by Hannah Noble –  following the Broadley’s, who undertook the conversion from a straw yard based system to a cubicle system, using sawdust bedding- and are reaping the benefits. Thank you to Farmers Guardian for permission to republish the below.

“Three generations of the Broadley family have farmed at Home farm, Ripon, and currently it is run by Michael who farms in partnership with his wife Vivienne and father, Chris. Their three children, James, Alex and Helena are also actively involved in the farm.

Oldest son James, 23, works full time on the farm, returning home after gaining a degree in agriculture at Askham Bryan College, York. Alex, 20, is currently studying agriculture at Newcastle University and daughter Helena, 18, is doing her A-levels with aspirations of studying biology at York University.

They also employ Arthur Lockey, a stockman who has worked at Home Farm for 50 years and two self-employed part-time workers, Josh Beresford and Ryan Dixon who help with tractor and livestock work.

In August 2018 the Broadleys undertook the conversion from a straw yard based system to a cubicle system, as despite the availability of home grown straw from cereals and good muck for straw deals, it did not last all winter, Mr Broadley says: “We always ran out of straw by March, last year was a bit of a one off, it was not a case of what you could pay for straw, it was whether you could find straw.”

Over winter, they were using eight big square bales each day just to bed the milking herd, at an average of £80/tonne bought-in, it was costing about £250 per day.

The buildings had to be mucked out every three weeks which took a day and a half each time.

“In the summer James was bailing 24/7 to keep up with the straw demand and all winter was spent moving muck. We saw a drop in milk every time we mucked the beds out,” he says.

“We were working with spikes in cell count every three weeks, and missing targets for cell count and bactoscan.” Mr Broadley says at its worst, somatic cell count was peaking in the 300,000’s cells/ml and now they are running at less than half this level.

The number of antibiotic tubes required for the treatment of mastitis has decreased by half as a result. Cleanliness of the cows is much better and it now takes 30 minutes less to prepare cows for milking.

Mr Broadley says the positives of the straw yards were that they allowed the natural sleeping position of the cows, they were easy to spot bulling and worked well for smaller numbers of cows, but he felt they had outgrown the system.

Fellow dairy farmer, John Walmsley, Ripley offered lots of advice, sharing their experiences and helping out with dimensions.

Matthew Sharp, dairy specialist for I’Anson’s feeds, recommended Wilson Agri to help with the conversion, and in particular they worked closely with Charlie Sutcliffe, who offered advice.

“When you are making such an investment, you are reliant on the knowledge and experience of the middleman,” says Mr Broadley.

They adapted the existing buildings and have installed 240 cubicles so far, the majority of work was done by the Broadleys with the help of a local builder and some good friends.

They chose to top the beds with 40mm mats and sawdust which is swept off twice a day and spread with fresh sawdust with a newly purchased bedding-up machine. Bedding now costs between £20 and £25 per day and it takes a total of 10 minutes to bed and clean the cubicles.

By November 2018 the 240 milking cows were moved in. “We are amazed how well both older and younger cows have taken to it, we have not had many problems getting the cows to sleep in the cubicles, we thought it was going to be a nightmare,” says Mrs Broadley.

Although spotting bulling behaviour was not a problem in the straw yards, groups of cows on heat at the same time became a problem. The majority of bulling behaviour was carried out on the bedded area which disturbed the other cows and tore up the beds making them too dirty to use and effecting cow cleanliness. However, Mr Broadley says visual heat detection in the new cubicles is going well with cows showing heats in the concrete passages, causing less mess and disruption.

Both Mr Broadley and James are AI trained and all replacements are bred using sexed semen, and as well as the milking herd, there are currently about 180 followers and 50 calves on the farm.

Mr Broadley says: “We have been using sexed semen from Cogent since the early 2000s with great results, there is not a cow on the farm that was not bred with sexed semen.”

Sexed semen is used on about a third of the best of the milking herd, including some milking heifers, second and third lactation cows and a handful of the best fourth lactation cows. “It has got to be a good one, once it has done a lactation you have a better idea if they have a future. It needs to look like it is going to last and is producing well.”

The remaining cows are bred to beef semen with Limousin being the preferred breed.

Mr Broadley runs a predominantly closed herd but occasionally buys in an Angus bull which runs with the heifers, the current bull has been with them for the last six years. No semen is used on heifers.

The main method of disease control on the farm is through their closed herd status, Mr Broadley says in the future they may use embryos to breed bulls to help keep the herd completely closed

“Our next venture is to start using male sexed beef semen, because the bull calves are worth so much more than the heifer calves, there will be at least £50 to £60 difference.”

When selecting Limousin bulls for use on the cows they look at calving ease, “We want a reasonably good calf that is easy to calve, if we do not have to assist, it is so much easier to get that cow back in calf,” Mr Broadley says.

All calves are fed fresh milk and reared in individual hutches. They are sold between six and 10 weeks old, the majority go through Leyburn and Skipton markets and the others are sold privately.

Home Farm is a total of 238 hectares (583 acres) and the Broadleys try to be as self-sufficient in feed as possible. The majority of their milk is produced from forage, with dairy cake fed to yield in the parlour which is the only regularly bought-in feed.

As well as grass silage, each year they grow about 60ha (150 acres) combined of wholecrop oats and barley. They also grow about 48.5ha (120 acres) of wheat which is sold as an arable crop, Mr Broadley says it is a safety net to compensate for fluctuations in milk price, if required.

“With the dry summer and the ground being so dry we are looking to go back to maize, which we have not grown for five years, just to give us another option in the diet.

“We are covering ourselves, if it is a dry year we will get a good maize harvest, and if it is a wet year we will have a good grass and oat harvest,” says Mr Broadley.

“The aim is to try and grow as much [feed] on the farm as we can, but trying to grow wholecrop and cereal forages took away our straw for the straw yards, we have ended up buying in a lot more bedding straw.”

Since the introduction of cubicles the option to turn out during the day and keep the cows in at night is now feasible too. Previously when the cows were turned out there was no option other than for them to stay out as they made too much mess: “But we will play everything by ear as it is all new to us,” he adds.

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