Sarah Liddle reports on how respected Yorkshire farmers are taking part in a project to ensure dairy herd health.

BROTHERS Richard and William Houseman are fully committed to continuing a strong tradition of dairying upheld by their forefathers before them. Ingerthorpe Moor Farm, at Markington near Ripon is home to the 530 milkers who are milked twice daily through a 48/48 Herringbone parlour which was installed around eight years ago, when the farms infrastructure underwent a significant reinvestment, and cow numbers were increased from circa 350 cows. At this time a new building with sand beds was integrated with a new slurry lagoon and bulk milk tank, and the new site incorporated a heat recovery system (used for heating calf milk) along with a variable speed milk pump showing an increased emphasis on efficiency and reducing environmental impact.

The Houseman family name is well known and respected in the North Yorkshire area of Ripon, Harrogate and Otley and particularly in farming circles - as good farmers, pioneers in their fields and campaigners of the farming community with good husbandry and welfare - and for Richard and William this comes down to embracing and using the aids and tools on hand to succeed in the continually advancing world of modern dairying. Finding means and ways which can help the herd improve stockmanship, animal health and welfare with larger stock numbers is very important and the brothers feel this is aided by their strong working relationship with their local vets at Bishopton. The Bishopton Veterinary Group are celebrating their 75th year in practice in 2019 and Richard explains that through three generations the vets have served the Houseman family. Jonathan Statham is their 'super vet' and on hand to do fortnightly routine visits. Through this association the farm have been keen to adopt some of the initiatives, which includes a current project run by the RAFT Farm Network and Operational Group. This is a group of farmers, of which the Houseman’s are key contributors, committed to research and innovation within the practice. There are currently 10 farms in Yorkshire (7 dairy and 3 beef) all of who will be part of an 18 month project to apply precision farming to dairy production to reduce disease impacts and antimicrobial usage through early detection of health alerts using sensors.

This is an exciting opportunity to see if farmers can use a temperature recording bolus which is ingested by the cow to proactively see early indications of illness and use an anti-inflammatory treatment to then prevent clinical symptoms manifesting themselves. Once an animal has obvious clinical signs there is normally a requirement for antibiotic intervention so if an 'early warning system' can be used there is a hoped to be a reduction in antibiotic usage longer term. In practice a receiver box is installed on each farm, that uses a cloud-based system to record data from boluses which have been inserted into the rumen of each mature animal on the farm with a bolus gun through a crush and handling system. In calf heifers are bolused as they approach calving and each bolus has a lifetime of around five years of battery life so some animals may need more than one bolus during their lifetime.

The bolus gives a core temperature reading and any 'spikes' in temperature are alerted to the farmer, with a 'spike' indicative of either the onset of potential ill health (e.g. mastitis), onset of calving, mastitis or onset of oestrus. In the pilot project any animal with a spike (and identified by an even numbered ear tag) is treated immediately with a non steroidal anti inflammatory drug, while odd ear tagged numbered animals are not treated (thus being the control animals). All animals are then monitored for clinical signs and all animals are treated according to normal farm procedure and protocol if required, with all treatments and outcomes recorded. The hoped end result is that by early intervention, based on the temperature bolus data, that anti-inflammatory use can be successful in reducing subsequent antibiotic use, deemed by farmers and consumers alike a benefit.

With the herd of 530 averaging 9600 litres emphasis is very much on looking after the cows and Richard sees approaches, such as these temperature boluses, as a means by which the technology of his parlour system can be mirrored more closely to that afforded by robots. Richard explains that for the Houseman's herringbone parlour was the right choice for their farm and system demands. Rotary parlour installation was considered cost prohibitive at the time of investment and labour for the herringbone is better managed while the herringbone also offers the most flexibility in terms of cow numbers. Managing the herd fertility and health is also a priority, with the herd bred for a medium sized, robust Holstein and Belgian Blue and Angus used on the bottom end of the herd. The calving interval is a very creditable 378 days, with pregnancy rates currently creeping over 30% and rolling at 22% in part due to the efforts of the Genus RMS system, and the long-term benefits of arising from investment in the farm infrastructure and good herd health.

The farm will also be one of Bishopton Vets longest standing Herd Health Scheme embracers and to this end mastitis in the herd is running at 19 cases per 100 cows/year, with a herd SCC of 134,000 cells/ml, which saw improvement with the switch to sand bedding when the new set up was built and also the new parlour has an iodine teat spray and cluster flush system, and with the new temperature boluses it is hoped further improvements can be made in this area. Technology is ever evolving and in coming years the prevalence and therefore cost of this type of technology will fall, while farmers can have more data at their fingertips, hopefully in a collated and easily identifiable format that helps pre-empt issues and ill health, reducing the fire engine scenarios or overrun A&E department analogies of our modern world - so coming back in two years to see the outcome of this project is a must.