This article was published in the Link newspaper - January 2016
They may have won a trophy for winning Hauraki Sharemilkers of the Year, but they deserve a gold medal for their determination, graft, and persistence.
Evan and Jan Billington spent the early part of their new careers as dairy farmers travelling hundreds of kilometres to milk cows, complete school drop-offs/ pick-ups, and – in Jan’s case – also work as a fulltime school teacher in the city. It was a scenario that was never sustainable on many different levels. So by the time the Billingtons settled on a sharemilking job near Ngatea five years ago, with the children attending school just one kilometre down the road, they were sure their days of doing ‘the real hard yards’ were over. They could concentrate on their new venture, get on with milking, and spend more quality time with each other and their three teenage daughters.
Gremlins in the system
But little did they know what was around the corner; their in-calf rate was well behind the national average, and a persistently infected (bovine viral diahoerrea, BVD) animal in their herd was a likely cause of production not reaching its potential, and disappointing reproductive results. They were conscious that herd performance wasn’t where it should be, especially when it came to reproduction. And although the cows were producing, the herd records needed serious attention. Being relatively new to the industry, the Billington’s initially listened to assurances of someone more experienced, who advised them BVD would “sort itself out.” They weren’t aware of the potential ramifications of persistently infected (PI) animal during mating – but have since learnt the consequences can be devastating.
Know symptoms, identify cause
This probably goes some way to explaining the starting point of their six week in calf rate a few seasons ago. “It was 60%,” says Evan, “and historically the herd’s empty rate has hovered around the 12-15% mark.” “So that’s how we became interested in the LIC six-week in-calf rate programme; the decision to sign up to it was borne out of frustration and dissatisfaction really. So we spoke to Jeanette (their LIC Farm Solutions Manager) about our herd performance, and she referred us to the co-operative’s repro team.”
Once on the programme, the first step the Billingtons took was to meet with a group that included Janette, their vet (Hauraki Vets), and LIC’s specialist reproduction solutions advisor, Jair Mandriaza-Munoz. "We seemed to be growing our animals well from July onward, but we were burdened by a wide calving pattern and a poor in-calf rate." Jair had already done some reproduction analysis on behalf of the Billingtons. “It showed we were struggling with heifers coming into to the herd,” says Evan, “and that we were struggling to get them back in-calf the following year, and that our submission rates were lagging behind. “Our cows were also slow to start cycling again; our younger cows were either getting in-calf late, or not at all – and as a result they were exiting the herd (in itself a significant waste of quality AB replacement stock and rearing cost).”
Part of the repro analysis included a break-down of the herd, allowing age group and breed comparisons. “Jair drilled down on the figures with us, and he asked a lot of questions that focused on what could be causing it (poor reproduction performance).” Evan told Jair that prior to mating, a handful of cows from another herd were introduced to the home herd: It was believed this may have upset herd dynamics, possibly impacting sexual activity. But, probably more concerning, was that among the replacement heifers introduced that season lurked a persistently infected (PI) BVD animal.
Jair and the vet advised the animal be culled immediately. Part of the wider plan to arrest the 60% in-calf rate was to also put more condition on animals post-calving; to metri-check animals; to train staff up on heat detection, and; to pay close attention to health events, with all medical information entered into MINDA.
“We came up with a mating plan,” says Evan, “and that included recording our premating heats; identifying non-cyclers; a prostaglandin programme with cows, and; a CIDR programme.” Evan and Jan, as well as their team of repro advisors and Farm Solutions Manager Jeanette, then sat back at end of mating with a good deal of confidence in the action they had taken. With solid reason, improved results were anticipated: “Good results were certainly the expectation,” Jan says. “But our six week in-calf rate went from 60% to 54%! After all that, it went backwards!”
“We met again and everyone met to discuss things but we had no real answers,” Evan says. “We then discovered a second PI in the herd (a newlypurchased heifer). And we suspected the poor results may have reflected a lag from the previous year’s drought. We were disappointed, to say the least.” Perhaps significantly, the second PI was culled. A lower payout also forced a re-think in the following year. The CIDR programme was ditched. All replacements were tested for BVD to ensure no PIs were entering the herd. Meanwhile, metri-checking, health recording, and nutrition (with palm kernel supplement fed in the lead up to mating) were maintained – along with the prostaglandin injections. The bottom-third of the herd – comprising late calvers, low-BW cows, and non-cyclers – were run as a separate mob with natural-mate bulls from day one of mating. Teaser bulls were also leased for $3000 throughout AB.
Results were dramatic. The six week in-calf rate rocketed from 54% to 68%, while the empty rate fell from 14% to 10%. This was on the back of a higher submission rate (75% to 83%), and a higher conception rate (40% to 49%). Evan and Jan say the Six Week Challenge has brought ‘focus’ to the tasks that make the biggest difference to reproductive performance, and a realisation that the reproduction focus needs to be year-round. “We didn’t know about the repro team at LIC and what was available to us,” Evan says. “We found the analysis was quite complex, but the evidence was clear and simple once it was broken down – it really highlighted the areas that should be looked into, without necessarily having to shell out big expense.” It was also a matter of making bold decisions on the back of an open mind and willingness to make fundamental changes to mating plans and practises. “We’re proactive people, and we were motivated to change things for the better,” Jan says.
To tidy up records, to protect animal health and good genetics, and to add value to the herd, the couple have since gained DNA profiles of their whole herd through GeneMark. “We did our research on it (GeneMark DNA profiling), and Jeanette – having been a farmer herself – has been a mine of information and a good sounding board. As a rep (Farm Solutions Manager) she deals with many farmers and has seen a lot of different scenarios and has sound industry knowledge. In terms of the DNA profiles, our stock agent also confirmed it adds value to the herd. “For us, we know exactly the right heifers are now coming into the herd.”