News Article

Taking a team approach and GROWing the dairy business

Friday, 6 July 2018 - 5:48pm

Tony Kemmish, St Boniface Veterinary Clinic

As reported in the last issue of Livestock Matters, St Boniface vet Tony Kemmish has won the award for Dairy Vet of the year in the 2018 CREAM Awards. Here, he outlines his GROW philosophy for working with dairy clients, and how for Devon farmer Richard Daw this has underpinned the continuous improvement in his herd’s health, performance and profitability.


Dairy farming clients of St Boniface Veterinary Clinic in Crediton all benefit from working with their vet under a framework called GROW – Goals, Reality, Objectives and the Way forward. 

Tony explains: “As vets we need to understand our clients and their business aspirations. Different farms have different goals and priorities: understanding these is key to a successful farmer/vet partnership. From these, we can pull out some key objectives – these go into the Herd Health Plan which sets out the priorities and the targets - in writing.

“Being realistic is important too: we all have to be frank about the current situation – the good and the bad. As for the way forward, we need to keep checking that we are making progress, and ensure both parties stay motivated and inspired.

“I make no secret of the fact I want each partnership to be win:win. If the farm does well, then so will my own business. That’s a fact, and I don’t shy away from it.”

Putting GROW into practice

Tony has been working with Richard Daw and his pedigree Lapford Holstein herd at Clotworthy Farm near Crediton, for the past 10 years.

The herd calves down all year with an autumn bias. During the main breeding period, Tony visits fortnightly to carry out routine fertility checks.

Richard explains: “During the summer when the cows are out at grass, instead of AI, an Angus sweeper bull is run with them. So the calves being born from the end of February will be Angus cross not Holstein.”

Richard admits that before Tony came, the farm had something of a fire-engine philosophy. But now through working with Tony and his GROW approach, Richard has seen herd yield increase by around 100,000 litres each year over the past decade.

Some of this is due to herd number increasing from 180 to 250 cows. But significantly, changes in breeding policy have resulted in the calving interval shortening considerably – from around 490 days to 415 days.

Richard explains: “We used to only serve cows once they were 100 days or more in milk. That way, our fertility rate was good and we didn’t use so many semen straws. But on Tony’s advice we are now serving cows from 40 days after calving.

“Milk production per annum has gone up from 7,500 litres per cow to 8,500 litres.”

Tony adds: “Instead of having two milk peaks in a 1000 days, there are now three, plus a third calving.

“Consequently, there are more replacements coming through, and this gives Richard the flexibility to cull more cows, in particular for health and fertility reasons.”

High health objective

IBR disease was one of the first issues addressed by Tony when he started working with Richard ten years ago.

While discussing the poor conception rate of a certain heifer, Richard had commented to Tony that it had a cloudy eye.

Tony says: “My first thought was: this could be IBR. And indeed, this was confirmed in tests of the bulk milk, and in blood samples taken from cows and heifers that had lost calves.”

It highlighted a herd issue, and not just a problem animal. The herd is now vaccinated with an IBR marker vaccine. Thanks to this, and the culling of non-breeding animals, the herd is now testing free of the disease.

Tests for BVD and leptospirosis showed the herd was – and still is - free of both these contagious diseases.

Tony adds: “As for Johne’s disease, a partial screening of the herd was carried out on ‘suspect’ animals – those with mastitis or poor performance. After prolonged discussion the two animals that tested positive were culled, even though there was a chance this one result was due to the inaccuracy of the test, rather than real disease presence.”

Richard explains: “We are currently discussing the costs versus benefits of testing the whole herd for Johne’s.

“Ultimately, the goal is to go for accreditation as a high health status herd which is clear of all four diseases. In the future, there is the potential for sales of youngstock, or maybe even embryos. So on top of better herd performance, having accreditation will be beneficial financially.”

Breeding goals

Both Richard and Tony are very excited about genomics and new breeding technologies, and the benefits they can bring. A first batch of heifers has already been genomically tested, and they are also considering embryo transfer as a fast track to boosting herd genetics.

Tony explains: “From the genomics results we can decide if a heifer should be inseminated with sexed Holstein semen, conventional Holstein or just put with the Angus bull. The very best heifers could be flushed to produce more eggs for use in embryo transfer, and heifers with poorer genomics can be identified and used as recipients.

Both agree that genomics is not just for breeding cattle for the show ring, but is hugely beneficial for commercial farmers too.  Richard adds: “It can help us identify the animals with the best genes and improve our herd, picking the characteristics that suit our herd situation. The potential for acceleration is so great.”

However he is very realistic: “If there is nothing good enough to flush then we won’t do it. But if we find gold, then we will. The long term goal is to have embryos for sale.

Tony adds: “There is scope to go one step further and use ‘ovum pick-up’ technology which allows eggs to be harvested from juvenile heifers which are too young to serve.”

Being realistic

Tony is keen to stress that every farmer has to be realistic about their farm situation, and says he sometimes has to have some very ‘blunt’ conversations with his clients.

“At Clotworthy Farm, calf health and management needs improvement,” says Tony. “With more calves coming through, stocking density increased, and the original accommodation became inadequate.”

The issue had been further highlighted when Richard signed up for the XLVets Calf Tracker service. The levels of total proteins in week-old calves were very variable, signalling inconsistencies in colostrum quality and/or delivery to the calf. So the service has been put on hold while Richard takes steps to tackle the root cause.

Richard explains: “As from January, calves are now reared away from the adult cattle, in an old grain storage shed down the road. Here, there is a concrete floor, and a forced ventilation system has been installed.

“It’s further to take the milk, but everyone here bought into the idea. And once up there, then you do focus on the calves, which is beneficial. But ultimately we do need to put up a new calf shed.

“We will re-start Calf Tracker again when the Holstein calves start coming through in July, and we have made the ventilation improvements and got management routines better established.”

Tony explains: “Richard and I have always been realistic: there are a lot of things that can’t change overnight. “We are genomically testing calves now, and expect to be breeding from them in about 12 months’ time. So this gives us a target of one year to get the calf situation sorted.”

If you are interested in discussing teh GROW approach, please call and have a chat to a member of our Farm Team - 01363 772860