dairy education tour canada2

Dairy education tour to Canada (part 1)

AbacusBio Dairy Consultant Peter O’Neill recently joined a dairy education tour to Canada which was organised by Vetlife and MSD Animal Health. Also attending were vets from Vetlife, representatives from MSD Animal Health, and farmers from the Canterbury region.

The first three days were spent visiting nine dairy farms in the British Colombia (BC) province, very close to the US border. For Peter, the area was very reminiscent of the West Coast of the South Island with its high rainfall (two metres) and bush clad hills. Temperature ranges are not all that extreme, with a low number of actual snow days.

The farms visited ranged in size from 50 to 3,000 cows and three of the farms were robotic (10-15% of sheds use robots in BC). There are approximately 520 dairy farms in the British Columbian area with an average herd size of 150 cows. A third of the farms visited were milking three times daily, which is a similar trend throughout BC, with a production range of 11,500l-13,000l/cow/year (800-950kgMS/cow).

Milk production is regulated throughout Canada with the milk marketing board distributing and regulating quota to match supply and demand (Canada does not export any dairy products). As the cost of production goes up, so does the milk price. Farmers are paid on butterfat with a daily quota year round, meaning milking numbers are fairly much the same all year round. At the time of Peter’s visit, the farmers were being paid 75-79¢/l of milk and it was retailing for $1.20/l in the supermarket.

Land value in BC is $50-$60,000 per acre, quota is roughly $42,000/kg which is a very significant financial outlay (interest rates are 2-3%). Half the land area is in grass, cut five times per annum for silage, while the other half is in corn (maize) for silage. Cows are fed on a TMR ration with home grown grass and corn silage plus alfalfa (lucerne hay), grains, soya palm oil etc all purchased in (25 kgDM/cow/day offered). Feed costs appear to be very similar on a per kgDM basis to New Zealand.

All cows and young-stock are housed indoor in BC fairly much 24/7 with most of these in free-stall barns on beds of rubber matting, sawdust, sand (some recycled) or recycled dry manure.  An average of 10T effluent is produced per cow per annum, requiring large storage ponds; a 250 cow farm visited had a 1M gallon effluent tank. All effluent goes through a separator, with liquids irrigated onto pasture and solids stored and worked into crop areas. Recycled liquids are also used for flood washing barns in some cases.

Technology is used widely within the industry with all farms that were visited using activity monitors for heat detection (including heifers) and for measuring rumination. Electronic identification (EID) is mandatory, as it is here, with some of the collars and leg bands used also having EID incorporated in them. All sheds were using milk monitoring, somatic cell count testing and auto cup removers, with a number of the barns having robots to push feed up to the cows regularly.

One of the farms visited had a bio-digester and generator to generate its own electricity and another farm was investigating this, but the high capital cost was a factor in this technology not being widely used. It would take a $2M investment on a 200 cow farm to develop the system to be totally self-sufficient in power.  On one of the farms visited, there was a small digester and by adding 10% cheese whey to the digester, gas production was doubled.

Calves are reared either in individual hutches or in small groups, fed 8-12 l/day of pasteurised milk or milk replacer and are weaned at 120kg, generally at 9-10 weeks of age. Heifers are mated at 400kg live-weight at 13 months.

All farmers are using artificial insemination (AI) intensively, and a large number are also embryo transfer transplanting, with the general rule being sexed semen used on R1 heifers. Conception rates using sexed semen have generally been 20% lower than normal semen, so there was some resistance to this beginning to appear. Generally, 45% replacements were kept at every farm visited, but no one was able to clarify the reasons for this, other than genetic gain, or needing to have the ‘stalls full’. Genomics are also being widely used, although the uptake on this technology is still growing due to unreliability of the genomic data.

Peter says that “the main messages I took from this part of the trip, is that we need to feed our cows better and grow our young-stock out, to ensure they are producing as close to their genetic ability as possible. NZ dairy farmers have an excellent grasp of their costs, whereas I felt the Canadian dairy farmers were less focussed on this.”

In Part 2, Peter will talk about the rest of his trip into Alberta, and the differences between the two provinces, along with his visit to Western Feedlots and a consultancy company.