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You Can’t Save Yourself Into Profit

Irishman Bill O’Sullivan is clear that he doesn’t like to be interviewed, but he has agreed to talk on the record – twice – for one reason.

Along with their family, Bill and his wife, Keri Kahotea, milk 800 cows in a 50-bail rotary on 271ha. They produce 370,000kg of milk solids a year and employ four staff, including their daughter, Stella.

Bill O’Sullivan says the Dairy Business Centre’s lead feed and mineral supplements are now an important part of their programme. (Photo supplied)

Bill keeps meticulous records of cow health and events on their property at Wreys Bush, which is often described as the “golden mile” of ideal dairying country.

He remains concerned that too many New Zealand dairy farmers appear to have little idea about what “lead feed” is, what it does, how it helps minimise milk fever, and what that means across the whole business.

Milk fever is acknowledged as the gateway to seven post-calving conditions. It is also worth noting that half the profit a cow generates each lactation is achieved in her first 100 days post-calving – and the most important time for reproductive performance is achieved three weeks either side of that calving. Bill says it then makes sense that any post-calving issues – including ketosis – become the silent thieves of peak production, health, and fertility.

“I think many New Zealand farmers go into calving, expecting their cows to pump a calf out, get going, and start milking without any support. We’ve been a bit blasé about getting that cow up to a standard in the dry period.

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“In many cases, it seems to me that they are taking a knife to a gunfight.”

He has taken control of his own conversation around pre-calving preparation. He now trusts lead feed to give his cows their best chance of calving uneventfully. He says he wanted to speak up because of the repeated positive results they are getting on their farm as a result of that decision, and because he believes that helping young farmers shouldn’t be a chore. It should be a choice.

Historical reference

Bill first introduced lead feed to their herd in 2018, because they were routinely treating up to 80 downer cows every year for milk fever in their spring-calving herd. On his first interview in 2022 he pointed to the boxes of calcium in the dairy as he remembered the early morning dramas on 10% of his herd.

At the time, he said: “There’s 20 bottles in each of those blue and brown boxes, and when it was really bad, we were using 12 boxes of both.”

“My biggest problem was that we were getting those cows up, but it was so frustrating that they went down in the first place, and it was tough on our staff who were coming to the shed in the morning after being up so early. They were then having to go and treat two or three cows that were down.

“In the end, we could put the bottle in the vein blindfolded.”

Two vet visits this season

Fast-forward to reflecting on their 2023 calving near the 2024 dry-off and he flips to through the pages of his records.

Of the 750 that calved, they had the vet visit twice, there were no caesareans, and through the entire season (including misadventure and Johnes) they have lost 15 cows – none to milk fever.

Protocols on this farm include the final check on the calving paddock at the end of milking at 5.30pm with the next check not until 4.30am the next morning. To have less than two percent mortality is something Bill counts as a successful work in progress.

Further to that – which he also credits (in part) to their lead feed – is that he has 8% empties in his herd this season. It was achieved using manual heat detection, no cidrs or drugs – and only a single cycle with the mop-up bulls (December 20 to January 12).

Milk production was up 4% this season. Their average Somatic Cell Count over the whole season 128,000 (down 28%). The only other change they made in the 2023-2024 season was that they teat-sealed every animal that calved.

“The lead feed has carried on its job from the previous year to this season. We’ve had the same results,” Bill said. “It’s put the joy back into farming for us. We’re not afraid of spring anymore because the calves are popping out, because the cows have the energy to push them out.”

Lead feed explained

So what is lead feed? The Dairy Business Centre’s (DBC) lead feed, Get-Set-Cow, is a specifically formulated supplement that is fed at 3kg/cow/day in the 10-14 days pre-calving.

It includes a blend of pelletised, anionic salts, calcium, magnesium, grain, and protein. It includes a full specific requirement of trace minerals cows need in the lead-up to calving, along with Rumensin.

Bill genuinely wants to help others.

“We pride ourselves that we have no c-sections on this farm because we feed lead feed and minerals. The cows are like Olympic athletes, and calving is all about the preparation.

“As we go on, every year our cows are developing more and more. We don’t go out there and wish for a good calving and a good mating. If we haven’t done the homework beforehand, wishing is no good. There is honestly no reason to have a lot of downer cows if you use this lead feed.

“I’ve been thinking about this story and the worst scenario is that we’ve had 15 cows die out of 750 this season. It doesn’t take that long when you’re dealing with that number of cows to potentially lose more.

“This way, it now means that we have around 130 cows we can choose to replace, so it doesn’t take long to pay for that lead feed, does it?”

Cows treated for being down post-calving:

Pre-2018 season – 80

2019-2020 season – 23

2020-2021 season – 11

2021-2022 season – 16

2022-2023 season – 21 (no lead feed fed from the end of September to save costs. 11 of this number didn’t get lead feed)

Testing the theory

Bill inadvertently tested the theory this season.

“When Fonterra came out and lowered the payout on us last year, things got very testy on every farm cost-wise,” Bill said. “We decided to drop the lead feed towards the end of calving to save costs, so we probably had 50 to 70 cows that missed having it.

“It’s interesting to look at things now after the fact. Right through the whole calving we had 21 cows go down. Of those 21, more than half of them came from the group that missed out on the lead feed.

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