Emma McCormack, the farming queen runs through her top tips for the drying off period, her take on selective dry cow therapy and her plans for the near future. She is one busy lady, miking 400 cows and also running 100 sucklers and 200 sheep on the home farm.
I was born into a farming family in a rural area of the midlands of Ireland. Land is generally quite flat locally but a little wet too. I have four sisters and three brothers. We were always outside as children, and that made great workers out of each of us, right to this day. I have always loved animals and since going on to study agricultural science and work across the sector, I have really taken to farming as a career like a duck to water, despite bumps along the road.
We are farming 100 suckler beef cows at home, with a flock of 200 sheep also. Stock numbers tend to vary year on year. This winter we will have a lot more livestock than intended on the farm, due to being restricted with TB. This is a huge burden physically and mentally for any farmer. It is incredible difficult to send strong, happy, healthy and thriving animals up the ramp of a lorry to be culled. Over the past three decades little has been done to improve the TB eradication system in Ireland. This year alone, over 20,000 animals have been culled due to the disease yet many don’t react in blood test, or display lesions at slaughter. There is widespread speculation that the system is merely another income for the Department of Agriculture and the government and I can see some grains of truth in this for sure. It isn’t a nice task for vets to deliver such bad news to a farmer either, and I appreciate that too.
This TB restriction has been ongoing since the spring time and has really affected our farm. Between that and the fact that beef prices being paid to farmers remains on the floor, it’s not a simple era to farm in. However, unlike any other sector, in farming you don’t throw in the towel if your business takes a big hit. You have no choice but to weather the storm because it’s your livelihood but also your way of life, and nothing can change that.
I work full time on a local large-scale grass-based dairy farm which was newly established last year. It is spring calving herd of 400 crossbred heifers. They have performed outstandingly throughout maiden season this year despite it being a very strange year for everyone. I think the success the farm has achieved in reaching and surpassing targets, is down to excellent management and communication between the entire team, and also down to having the right people on the team who strive to push the farm to its potential. Happy people achieve great things in their jobs and careers.
As Irish farms grow and adapt to meet modern scale farming, many employers have experienced issues with labour. Finding the right people for the job, and holding onto them. I think the larger farms become, the more user friendly they must be in order to attract valuable staff to the opportunity! I have had many jobs that didn’t quite inspire me or educate me, but I’ve used them as stepping stones to continue along my way.
I am content with the progress of my career, as long as I’m learning. When there comes a time I’m not learning or I’m dreading the thought of peeling myself out from under my duvet to go to work in the morning, then I know I’m in the wrong job. That has happened before and I’ve picked myself up and moved onto the next chapter. It’s important not to let a bad experience turn you off an entire career. Farming is difficult but very rewarding. I try to just keep moving forward. Each step may seem insignificant right now but it’s only later, when you’re looking back that you can appreciate the results of your hard work. I have plans to initiate my own farming enterprise over the next five years while always continuing to learn from the most knowledgeable people I know and have yet to meet. You’re never an expert in farming and it’s important to be aware of that.
As Halloween approaches and the pace slows down, yield too drops. Spring is just around the corner and the cows are getting close to their well earned winter break before entering their next lactation. That means we will need to start drying cows off from the end of October onwards, according to their calving date. We try to give heifers 100 days of a break and cows get 60-70. Heifers tend to calve down before their due date so it’s important to give them a good break so they are well rested before calving and entering the herd. The cow must be on the list of top priorities on the farm or everything will suffer. Without the cow, the farm is void of purpose.
There are many videos and articles online to educate yourself further on the drying off process itself. It generally involves milking the cow out fully for a final time before administration of an antibiotic tube along with a sealer tube into each teat. Hygiene and sterility of teats is absolutely crucial. Cleanliness of the parlour and the operator are incredibly important at this time. When the teat canal is open, it is hugely exposed to bacteria and bugs.
Some tips I’ve picked up along the way from experience and from education by key leaders in the Irish dairy industry are as follows:
- No benefit to milking cows once a day prior to drying off. It doesn’t actually lower milk yield as perceived, but actually increases SCC of milk therefore lowering the quality of milk being sold by the farmer. It’s better to decide when the cow must be dried off, and to do it abruptly. Milk her normally until that day, and dry her off.
- Cows must be placed on a very low plane of nutrition after drying off, for a few days. People often feed hay, straw or lesser quality silage to cows to encourage milk production to come to a halt.
- Once dried off, cows must be observed closely for about 2 weeks. It’s during this time that problems will occur. Sometimes one teat may leak a little. It can be advised to apply another sealant tube into that teat. However it is not advised to ever apply a second antibiotic tube as it leaves many questions as to when the cow will be out of withdrawal period, after a double tube in said teat. If cows appear to have mastitis after drying off, the teats must be stripped out and treated accordingly.
- It’s important to take measures to prevent this. The day of drying off, an experienced person should be overseeing the job. Plenty of help should be available and it’s advised not to take on the task of drying off a very large number of cows in one day. It’s a slow process and can be tiring. It would be better to do just 20 cows rather than 40 and at least you know you’ve done it right for each cow. You only have one chance to do the job right.
- Heifers observed with mastitis, some farmers look at sealing their teats but it’s really only a case of doing it if you have a big issue with mastitis but it’s highly uncommon. I’ve not come across anyone doing it myself. Heifers teat canals have never ever been exposed to any sort of bug or bacteria so if you sacrifice on hygiene or sterility and it can lead to huge problems. When and if we can, it’s always best to let nature run its course and if there’s any question around an animal at drying off time, it’s always advised to give the vet a quick call.
- Make sure to keep dry heifers housed separately to cows if you are in any way restricted for lying space as heifers will be the last ones to get a chance to lie down and this can put them at risk of teat infections etc.
- When choosing cows for selective dry cow therapy, you need to base the decision on facts and science. Ideally, 6 milking recordings should be completed on the farm over the year to gather sufficient data on cows and their SCC. If a cow has a Somatic Cell Count value of 50, it seems pretty low and a farmer might choose to omit antibiotics in the drying off process. However, it’s extremely important to note that this SCC value is an average of her four teats. One teat may have an SCC of 250 or 300 individually.
- Get used to paddle testing cows using the CMT test (Californian Milk Test) to identify high SCC cows. This works well along with milk recording results but isn’t sufficient alone as it’s subjective. Each person may look at the result on the paddle and take from it something different. A trained eye is so valuable and consistent operators carrying out the task. When assessing SCC post calving, it’s best to wait until 14 days after the cow has calved to get an accurate reading.
- Medicine records are vital when choosing cows for selective dry cow therapy. If a cow has been treated for mastitis during that lactation, it’s advised to use antibiotic dry cow tubes at drying off, even if her SCC appears low in milk recording results. For example with staph aureus mastitis, SCC can fluctuate. Without records, we can’t make decisions on selective dry cow therapy.
- With staph agalactiae mastitis, it can affect one teat which we treat, but it proceeds to spread throughout the udder without us knowing. This depicts the importance of carrying out sensitivity testing to determine what strain/culture of bacteria, treated cows showed up with.
- The best time to tackle SCC issues is at drying off. You can avoid costs of extra bolus’ for example if you look after cows, before, during and after drying off time.
I think selective dry cow therapy will become somewhat mandatory to Irish dairy farmers but it may not be a bad thing. Farmers may need to show what SCC value the cow has and the type and strength of the antibiotic tubes will be prescribed by the vet accordingly. This may be more effective than simply buying the strongest dry cow tubes available and blanket treating the herd with them, as is commonly done. Whether we want to or not, we must adapt and overcome challenges like this as they are inevitable. I think farmers should definitely see if any cows in their herd may be eligible for selective dry cow therapy and then make an educated decision on the matter.
For more invaluable farming tips and to check out Emma's day to day life, her Instagram account is one to follow EmmaMc_Farming Queen