January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry - planning for calving

Cattle, farming, husbandry, making plans for calving, avoiding stress on family, staff & stock, checklist, feeding, health, farm dairy

By Dr Clive Dalton

The main aim
To get through calving with minimal stock losses and minimal stress on family, staff and stock.

Good signs in the staff & herd

  • Happy herd manager, happy boss and happy staff.
  • No accidents to people or serious damage to plant and machinery.
  • All records present (none lost) and up to date.
  • No milk quality down-grades.
  • Minimal mastitis and a high cure rate of clinical cases.
  • Cows all calved with few calving problems.
  • Few calf losses.
  • No cow deaths.
  • Minimal vet visits.
  • Cows milking well.
  • Feed budget balanced with plenty of reserves ahead.
  • Adequate feed ahead of the cows for the second grazing round.
  • Cows in good condition and looking good for mating.

Bad signs in the staff & herd
  • Exhausted staff with no energy and rapidly losing interest in their job.
  • Staff taking great interest in Situations Vacant in local paper.
  • Staff with regular bouts of flu and coughs.
  • Rubbish bin full of used antibiotic tubes and beer cans.
  • Milk quality breakdowns on Sunday nights and Monday mornings.
  • High calf losses as well as too many dead cows.
  • The vet always on the farm.
  • Herd records a shambles and are lost.
  • Feed budget not balancing and no feed ahead of the cows.

Really bad signs
  • A strong smell of dope around and people suffering from hang-overs.
  • Staff falling asleep on the job.
  • Staff wives and kids getting shouted and smacked all the time.
  • Continual accidents officially described as “minor but bad enough to affect work.
  • Staff always getting flu-like symptoms and cuts and sores all over their hands.
  • Staff not turning up for milking with no believable explanation. Not arriving for work at all on Sunday nights and Monday mornings.

Plan well ahead
This is such an obvious point, but it’s amazing how often it’s neglected because folk are so busy doing what they’re doing, that they don’t have time to sit down and make future plans. It’s “crisis management” all the time.

In an ideal world, planning for calving should be done at drying off. Wouldn’t that surprise all the staff if you did that as, the last thing anyone wants to think about is calving when the season has just ended.

Pre-calving checklist
  • Do this as a team exercise – a sort of competition to see who can remember the most things that have to be done.
  • Write it up on a board as a “mind map” or a series of checklists. Doing it communally gets everyone to “buy-in” so they take ownership. Make it become their list and not just the boss’s or the company’s.
  • Put it on the wall in some communal spot like the tea room. Use colour a lot as the brain likes colour, and mark off things when they have been done to provide a sense of achievement.
  • Put names and dates beside each bits of the chart, as there’s a lot of job satisfaction in marking them off when finished. There’s nothing more depressing than working in a job where you never seem to achieve anything after working hard. Here are some headings for the plan:

Drying off
  • Condition score. What is your target for all cows now and then by calving? How is this going to be achieved? How many cows need special treatment NOW?
  • Make sure everyone can condition score cows correctly and to the correct standard. Have a checking exercise to test them.
  • Blood profiles: Get blood samples from 20% of the cows in the herd or preferably liver samples from any cows sent for slaughter.
  • Decide what to do about cows that will calve very late. They will have to be induced (aborted) so make sure you know the new guidelines on this practice. It has big negative animal welfare implications with the public.

  • Feed budgeting: Make sure the person doing this is competent. You don’t want to be in cloud-cuckoo land for most of the winter, and then find out in spring that you are in deep crisis.
  • When sure the person using a calculator can also do mental arithmetic to make sure get the decimal points are in the right place! Also that they can calculate volumes and areas and understand square roots.
  • What’s the plan for feeding cows as they approach calving (the transition period)? Are they going to be boosted, when and by how much?
  • Have you got a plan to deal with feed deficits? Is there the finances to buy in supplements if things go wrong? Does the bank manager know about this possibility?

Farm grazing plan
  • Are all the paddocks clearly numbered for any new staff?
  • Are there plenty of laminated pocket-sized farm maps available.
  • Is the grazing plan integrated with the feed budget?
  • Are the calving paddocks sorted out? Are they safe, near the house with good feed and water and not all pugged after winter?
  • Grazing records. Who is going to be responsible for these and what backup is organised in case of lost data.

Animal health
  • Have you had a chat with your vet to discuss the most likely problems for the spring? Check what products will you need.
  • What do the blood profiles indicate about spring mineral and trace element problems eg leading to metabolic diseases?
  • Mastitis will be the major problem so how are you going to deal with diagnosis, treatment and prevention? In other words how to implement the SAMM plan. Do the staff know what the SAMM plan is? It’s been around for 30 years.
  • Errors with antibiotics can be very costly. Make sure all “Dry Cow” products are removed and locked away in case they are used to treat lactation cases.
  • What system are you going to use to Identify (ID) cows with mastitis at various stages of their treatment so there is no chance of them being milked and causing inhibitory substance grades (the most expensive)? Check everyone’s colour vision as disasters have happened in the past.
  • Lameness is a likely spring problem. Make sure you have the products to deal with lame cows and experienced staff to handle them and teach others safe practices. It can be a dangerous exercise.
  • Bloat. It would be a rare spring if you didn’t have bloated cows to deal with. Make sure everyone knows the drill and especially where to stab a cow safely in an emergency.

Training heifers
  • Decide how you are going to get the heifers used to the milking routine.
  • You can either give them some training or face a wild-west exercise with each one.
  • More and more of today’s heifers are calving with mastitis so getting them used to having their udders handled before calving would be a great help for when you have to treat a painful udder.

The farm dairy
  • This is the most important part of the farm – the “food-harvesting” plant and it should not be called “the shed”.
  • Call it the “Farm Dairy” to lift the attitude of staff and make them realise that they are in “The Human Health Food Business”!
  • Check all building alterations have been completed and approved by the appropriate authorities well before milking has to start.
  • Have a major cleanup. Previous staff may have left in a hurry! Working in a dump saps motivation and so does cleaning up other people’s mess.
  • A qualified milking machine tester must have checked the machines and all their recommendations carried out and not just filed away till the next test! The machine should also have a mini check after peak lactation. The milking machine is the most important one on the farm – just ask the cows!
  • Check the plant cleaning routine is up to scratch, and make sure all staff understand how it should work properly, and not just know how to “cut corners” at weekends or when busy.
  • The cleaning routine should be written up clearly on the hot water cylinder for all new staff or relief workers to follow.
  • Organise the responsibilities for daily and weekly plant checking. It’s a good opportunity to get staff to take ownership of the job and feel proud of success.
  • Pay them a good bonus for a Grade Free Certificate.

  • Sort out who is responsible for the calving records, and especially what backup system there is in case of disaster. Paddock books and palmtops get lost and fall into water troughs, and computers have crashes.
  • How are staff with separate field books going to synchronise the information so they everyone knows which cows have calved etc, and not just the ones they have dealt with individually on their rounds?
  • Tags and tagging pliers. Always get enough tags and make sure the pliers work? Don’t try to save money on old pliers.
  • Temporary ID of calves. What system is to be used and is it foolproof? Does everybody know how it works?
  • Stress the importance of being honest with the records. It’s far better to record “not sure” than guess.

General equipment
  • Effluent system. The industry’s image is at stake and effluent systems could blow it!
  • Whatever system the farm has, make sure it’s working to specification as fines for contravening regulations are now very high.
  • Bikes and ATVs. Remember these kill one person a month on NZ farms so make sure yours are in good working order and staff take pride in their machines. Give them time to check essentials for their own safety.
  • Provide safety helmets, even if they won’t wear them: at least you will be in the clear if they have an accident.
  • Tractors. They are also killers so make sure they are checked and staff who use them are competent drivers that are not asked to put themselves at risk.
  • Fences. Get everything checked.
  • Raceways. This is where most lameness starts do make sure they are correctly graded and the surface is good. Remember the rule that if you can’t walk on them in your bare feet, you’ll eventually end up with lame cows. Remind staff that the two main causes of lame cows are motorbikes and biting dogs! Both these come back to impatient staff.
  • Water supply. Check for any leaks and that all pumps have been serviced.
  • Drenching system. Get it checked and serviced if necessary, and have plenty of spare parts.
  • Fire extinguishers. Have enough in the right places where risks are greatest. Make sure old ones have been checked. Many farm dairies burn down with shorts from unprotected plug boards and birds nesting in power boxes.
  • First Aid. Check that there are first aid boxes in appropriate places and that they are checked and serviced before calving. Buy extra small plasters as there are never enough in the standard box as these will be used most. Boxes also don’t have enough sterile pad to stoush bleeding from large wounds so the best thing to buy is some sanitary pads and leave them near the box. They are handy for both human and animal cuts and gashes.
Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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