When you are the largest independent cheese maker in the UK, good herd fertility is a vital prerequisite to maintaining a consistent flow of milk. That’s why Wyke Farms takes such a planned approach – paying particular attention to the throughput of heifers into its milking herds – and is now able to make effective use of sexed semen.
Howard Stokes is the man with responsibility for heifer rearing at Wyke Farms, situated at Wyke Champflower in Somerset. He takes charge of the youngstock from before they are even conceived, through their rearing and preparation for service, until they calve and move on to one of the company’s three milking herds – Easthill, Champflower or Firwood, which total around 1000 cows.
At every stage of the process Howard pays meticulous attention to detail, focussing on nutrition, growth, health and hygiene to achieve the best possible conception rates and a successful pregnancy.
“There’s nothing quite like seeing the heifer safely calve,” remarks Howard. “That’s my job done then, which is a great satisfaction, although I am always sorry to see them go when they join the milking herd.”
The calves come to Howard at 12 weeks of age by which time they have already been introduced to forage, through grass silage and chopped barley straw, which is fed with 1kg of a blend.
With a heavy emphasis on grazed grass and an eye on costs of production, youngstock are turned out at the earliest opportunity on to a strict paddock system.
This ensures that grazing is tight, grass on offer is young and palatable, and white clover has ample opportunity to compete and thrive.
“Throughout the grazing season we still feed a 16 per cent protein cake,” says Howard, who explains that this has as much to do with regular handling of heifers as to meeting their target growth rates.
“If you have cake-trained yearlings before turnout, they will come to you and you can move them anywhere or handle them when you want,” he says. “This is a really important part of the rearing process as - from start to finish - you want to keep stress levels low.”
The policy pays off at bulling when groups of heifers are brought in as they approach their service dates.
“Ten days before service begins they come into a cubicle house and yard,” says Howard, who emphasises the importance of this period for heifers to settle and adapt to their new diet of grass silage and 1kg concentrates.
“As long as they are 15 months old and well enough grown, we will start serving from day 11. If they are not, they will go back to join a younger group – although we do all we can to avoid the stress of mixing.”
Keen attention is paid to the heifers whilst they’re in the yard, with regular foot bathing and twice daily yard scraping, both designed to avoid lameness which could have a detrimental effect on bulling activity.
“We treat them like a milking herd at this stage,” says Howard. “We’re watching them all of the time. It’s no good turning up twice a day; you’ve got to observe them every time you pass the yard – especially in the morning which is a good time to spot activity, whether it’s head-rubbing, riding or ‘just that look’.”
Once bulling activity is first observed, it’s at least 12 hours until Howard serves the heifers, which is carefully done, by moving the whole group into the area with the crush.
“We never just pick out one heifer that’s bulling,” says Howard. “We bring the whole gang and keep her mates with her for as long as we can, and at the last moment, put her through the crush. Then it’s straight in, serve, and out, while her mates are still all around her.”
With conception rates to first service running at 83 per cent, farms director, David Clothier felt confident to try sexed semen, with which he was keen to increase the throughput of heifers and even have a surplus to sell.
“I admit I wasn’t keen at first,” remarked Howard, “but I gave it a go, in a small way at the start.
“The first two bulls we tried were Dillon from Bullsemen.com and Genus’ Dondee,” he says. “I served eight heifers to start with and of these, six were confirmed in calf to first service.”
Encouraged by this success, he continued with the sexed semen and a run of 222 sexed services from August 2008 until February 2009 saw 133 head in calf to first service, equating to a conception rate of 60 per cent.
“I was very pleased with this,” remarks Howard, who never inseminates more than once with sexed, switching to conventional semen for any returns and only as a last resort, puts the heifer to the bull. All animals are then PD’d at 30 days.
The use of sexed semen has edged upwards and today Howard has sufficient confidence to introduce its use to the Firwood herd – the only block calving herd of the three.
“I didn’t introduce it at first as I was worried the calving would slip but this year I’m confident enough to use sexed semen across the board.”
“We’ll be keeping a strict eye on hitting our targets on a weekly basis,” adds David Clothier. “Everything impacts on the cost of manufacturing cheddar and those involved in dairying know full well that there are no shortcuts in progressive milk production. The whole team here are passionate about their achievements and output in every department has to be on target. To achieve that, you have got to get cows and heifers in calf as reliably and economically as you can and if they are carrying a heifer calf into the bargain, that’s a significant boost to the bottom line.”