ai24 revolutionises heifer management to improve farm profit and cut labour

Edward Bruce with John Berry
Edward Bruce with John Berry

The use of heat detecting technology like ai24 Heatime on cows is now a common practice on farms to improve heat detection, farm performance and profitability, and to reduce labour.

But the potential of the equipment to fundamentally revolutionise the youngstock side of a dairy business should also not be overlooked, says Semex’s Northern Ireland manager John Berry.

“The benefits of the system for cows and the workforce are massive, but there are huge benefits to be had with the heifers, too,” he says – as born out by the experience of the Drumsluice Herd at Drumsluice, Ballinamallard, Co Fermanagh.

Run as a family partnership by Edward Bruce along with his Dad Edwin and Mum Dorothy, the business recently took advantage of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) to fit ai24 to the maiden heifers for the farm’s 200 cow 8,000 litre averaging unit, after great success with the system in the milking herd.

“Before we installed ai24 our system was very basic and amounted to recording all in heat on a piece of paper!” says Edward. “But like most farms we were tired of getting black and white bull calves instead of replacement heifers. We also sell Belgian Blue beef calves at four-six weeks, so this made the black and white bull calves a doubly inefficient use of our resources. The question was how could we increase the herd’s fertility rate?”

To solve the problem John advised that the Bruce’s used sexed semen on the heifers. Opting for quality sires like Brekem, Unix and Lineman, meant it wasn’t a cheap investment, so the requirement was to make the best of what was being bought.

“With sexed semen accurate heat detection is required and for this I think the cows need checking more than five times daily. But with limited help on the farm this duty gets neglected,” he adds. “Heats were being missed and the accuracy of the timing of the insemination was resulting in more repeats, making the sexed semen more expensive.”

The ai24 system was the obvious answer, with the collars fitted to all of the maiden heifers in October 2016. This would detect heats 24 hours of every day by monitoring the cow’s daily movements by looking for behavioural patterns and picking out those that resemble the cow being in heat. A mobile app shows exactly the optimum time to serve, and thus would bring about the best use of the semen by maximising conception rates. It took Edward about a month to confidently trust the data. But now, some 12 months later he is achieving up to 50 heifer replacements a year, with any heifers being covered by the Aberdeen Angus stock bull.

“I am not a gadget geek in any manner, but ai24 is the best investment in the farm in years!” he says. “We couldn’t be without it. Not only do you know exactly when to AI; we can also identify problem heifers and immediately resolve issues before too much time has been lost! And on the rare occasion I may be away for the day I can arrange for the AI technician to inseminate the animals that have been alerted on the system, resulting in cows in calf at the right time!”

So successful has the technology been that now Semex sexed semen is used on second and third calvers with “very satisfying results”, says Edward. “Sires of choice at the moment for the cows include Boldi V Armour with Semex’s Solutions computer program being used to identify the most suitable bulls to maximise the farm’s milk contract, and to select the type of animal they want to milk. Increasingly Immunity+ and genomic sires are coming into the mix,” says John Berry.

As for the future the farm will be purchasing more collars for the herd so it doesn’t have to swap them from a cow that is confirmed in calf to one that is due to be served, and would like to one day upgrade the technology to include the rumination function. This further monitors cow health and well-being. And one day soon the farm will be renovating the parlour to include auto ID and associated gates so it would be able to automatically shed cows to be inseminated into a holding pen.

“The technology facilitates so many great performance, labour saving and profit improving features, for so little extra work,” concludes Edward.

“It’s just like having an extra person on the farm 24 hours a day seven days a week helping out!”