Milk logging can act as an important early warning system, flagging problems that could affect herd profitability without intervention.
Specialist dairy vet Andrew Bradley says farms investing in milk recording should get the most value from this data, as it enables better-informed decisions in several areas of farm management.
“Looking for secrets in this data can help identify early indicators of poor performance and help diagnose a herd problem,” he says.
See also: UK dairy farmers exceed antibiotic reduction targets
From monitoring mastitis at an early stage of infection to informing management decisions around breeding and slaughter, Quality Milk Management Services (QMS) and Nottingham University’s Professor Bradley and The Dairy Group’s milking expert Jan Ohnstad offer their advice. how farmers can best use their record data.
1. Use data to identify cows at risk for mastitis
Mastitis treatment and resulting production loss is one of the biggest costs to the UK dairy industry.
Registration will catch the infection at an early stage and reduce future financial losses.
Recording allows monitoring of mastitis by providing somatic cell count (SCC) readings for individual cows. A threshold of 200,000 cells/ml is generally accepted as indicative of the frequency of mastitis.
“Receiving these signals allows the farmer to get on top of the problem before it becomes a problem,” says Professor Bradley.
This is because an increase in the rate of new infection will be detected in individual cows before being detected during bulk milk sampling.
“Due to the dilution effect with milk from other cows, the bulk milk index may not change at all during the first month of infection,” he says.
“By not picking it up in its early stages, the infection is more likely to progress to a chronic stage.”
There are additional tools that can help farmers with this. AHDB, together with the University of Nottingham and QMMS, have launched QuarterPro, a mastitis pattern analysis tool, to help farmers identify where most mastitis infections are occurring in the herd.
A report is automatically sent to the farmer after each milk recording.
2. Record consistently
The gold standard of milk recording is monthly, tracking individual cows through lactation and planning patterns and herd-level infection changes.
Changes in cell count can indicate whether mastitis is environmental or infectious in origin and whether the problem is related to lactation or the dry period.
“Some herds settle into their patterns – they change little – but if the infection problem shifts from the environment to the infectious, farmers will start to see a pattern forming,” says Mr Ohnstad.
To limit the costs of monthly accounting, some farmers prefer ‘factoring’, where a milking is only sampled on the day it is recorded – this might be a morning milking in January and afternoon milkings in February and March, for example. .
However, morning and afternoon milking intervals usually differ and this will affect the SCC values in the collected data.
While Mr. Ohnstad does not advocate factoring, he says that if farmers use the system, they should be consistent and choose to record always in the morning or always in the afternoon.
Never make management decisions based on a record for an individual animal, he advises.
“If the herd is block calving, a minimum of three months’ milk records are needed, ideally four or five. The more information you have, the more informed you are.”
3. Use data to inform drying policies
With pressure on dairy farmers to reduce antibiotic use, more are adopting selective dry cow therapy (SDCT) as a strategy to achieve this.
To do this safely, they need to have a very clear picture of the health of individual cows, says Mr Ohnstad.
“If a cow doesn’t have an underlying infection, she’s only a candidate for teat sealant; otherwise, it should be dried with a dry cow pipe,” he advises.
“If farmers are against monthly milk recording and are only testing towards the end of lactation to inform drying policy, that is quite dangerous.”
4. Base decisions on the latest information
When data is limited because milk registration is not done regularly, ensure that it is collected as close as possible to the decision point.
“Don’t make decisions on eight weeks of dry data, as cow health may well have changed since it was collected,” says Mr Ohnstad.
Use individual cow SCCs from three consecutive milk records, along with a history of clinical mastitis within the last three months, to determine an individual cow’s infection status, he adds.
5. Use data to improve herd genetics
The most obvious benefit of milk logging is that it allows you to track the best and worst producers in the herd.
Prof Bradley says milk records allow farmers to assess the genetic potential of their herds.
“This allows the farmer to make management decisions such as which cows are underperforming and may be suitable for culling, or which cows in the system are producing and better suited for breeding replacement.”
Milk recording data can help farmers inform decisions about breeding and culling the most profitable animals, such as those that produce high-yielding, high-quality milk and have strong genetic traits.
He adds that increasing productivity through milk logging can also be beneficial from the perspective of reducing emissions due to increased efficiency.
6. Use the data to check the fat:protein ratio
This ratio is calculated by dividing the percentage of fat in milk by the percentage of protein. In early lactation, if the ratio is greater than 1.4, the cow is probably in negative energy balance. This means that excessive accumulation of body fat increases the risk of metabolic disorders and related health and fertility problems.
7. Use milk protein data when considering herd diet
Milk protein levels are affected by many factors, particularly energy levels and rumen function, both of which are important. However, reduced protein may indicate a deficiency of digestible undegradable protein and essential amino acids in cows.
This usually occurs when cows have lost so much condition in early lactation that they have mobilized muscle as well as fat and are using dietary protein to restore muscle.
When this happens, it is recommended to consider the cow’s diet.
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