Putting Observation to the Test with Alternative Dairy Methods

Emily McCoy
Thursday, 30th March 2017

In Wiltshire, England, three farmers have been investigating an unusual, alternative method to manage their organic dairy herds. Emily McCoy reports.

Any good farmer will know the value of understanding his or her cows. But what if you take this a step further, what if you evaluate specific cow characteristics and compare them with a picture and a score on a card allowing you to understand how your cows’ digestive system is functioning?

It’s on the Cards

We all know that what goes inside has an effect on the outside. This is the key to the Obsalim® system, a diagnostic tool developed in France, that Wiltshire farmer Christine Gosling wanted to put to the test.

Simply put, Obsalim is a set of cards that you carry with you in your pocket. Each card relates to a symptom in your animals behaviour, or with their eyes, feet, dung or energy levels. Some symptoms would be hard to miss, but others are more subtle. By using the cards, you can diagnose what your herd needs.

For example, if the cows in your herd have dry coats, you can select this card. The card would include a specific set of values that link the condition of the cows’ coat with the fibre content, energy and protein intake in their feed, and how this is affecting overall digestive function. When added to other symptom cards this can help you understand the rumen (the first stomach of the cow) function and work out if any changes to their feed are required.

Using this system of observation and evaluation, the farmer can then improve their animals’ diet and rumen function.

Taking Herd Observation to Another Level

Christine Gosling thought this approach may be able to help improve her herds’ health and productivity. She teamed up with her vet, specialist, Edward de Beukelaer, and recruited a group of interested farmers through the Innovative Farmers network and the rest – so to speak – is history.

Christine said; “I had heard about the Obsalim technique from my vet and after using the technique for a while wanted to share my knowledge with other farmers so I initiated a field lab through Innovative Farmers to run a trial.”

Innovative Farmers is a not-for-profit network funded by Prince Charles’s Charitable Foundation and supported by Waitrose through sales of Duchy Organic. It supports farmer led innovation and helps set up robust field labs to find practical, low-cost and sustainable solutions that will help farmers farm more efficiently, in a way that is better for the environment.

This particular solution aims to improve the overall management of the herd. The farmers involved were specifically looking at how they could alter the cows feed and improve rumen stability.

Christine said; “Learning to use the cards was like learning a new language. It takes a while to get used to it, but then it starts to come naturally.”

What is the Technique?

Obsalim makes observation technical. By comparing ‘symptoms’ with pictures on the Obsalim cards, a farmer is given a score, from which they can make changes to the cow’s diet – altering how much protein content or forage for instance.

Three farmers took part in the trial, and each had multiple visits from Edward and the rest of the group. This meant they got to try out the technique with their own cows, which everyone found was the best way to understand the system.

“In the field lab, Edward taught us how to use the cards effectively and how to recognise the symptoms. It has taken a while to feel really confident in using and applying the system unaided but overall it allows us to reduce input costs whilst improving the efficiency of the herd,” said Christine.

Careful Analysis Leads to Better Production 

Organic dairy farmer, Nick Freeth, was involved in the field lab. Interestingly, it’s Nick’s herd that have seen the best results from using the herd observation technique.

Nick has a herd of around 200 cows and over the period he used Obsalim, he saw a total increase of 6,000 litres in yield on what was expected. This was at the same time as reducing his feed costs and reporting that his cows looked healthier. He said the biggest learning he got from the system was splitting his feed into two meals and making sure his herd got two periods of rumination each day. This really helped, particularly with his young stock.

On the Obsalim technique, Nick said: “I suppose the best indication is that we’re still using it, long after the trial period ended! It’s a case of starting to really look at the animals, and then making adjustments to their feed. For example, I often have cows which are red in the claw, I draw that card and compare it with other symptoms I’m observing and it’s like an alarm button going off that they’re getting too much energy. I usually look back and see they’ve spent the day before on a rich clover ley. It’s all a work in progress though, so I’m really looking forward to trialling again.”

Rumination Cycles

As the field lab continued, it became clear that in order for the herd to find their rhythm and ruminate effectively, it was important to allow them to synchronise. Splitting the feeds into morning and afternoon and establishing an undisturbed period of rumination in between improved rumen function.

Kate Still, animal welfare advisor at the Soil Association, has been facilitating the group. She said; “This field lab has really shown us that to allow cows to make the most of the feed they are given they need both time to digest it effectively and structural fibre to aid that digestion. Establishing a system that allows the herd to feed together and then lie down and ruminate together, undisturbed, enables them to be more efficient at converting feed and healthier as a result. Cows that are disturbed by others feeding or by having feed constantly available are more inclined to snack and over eat, resulting in poor rumen function. Training calves to establish this rhythm early on results in healthy rumen function from the start.”

Natural Observation

This unconventional way of managing a dairy herd harks back to that natural instinct of observing what’s around you.

For all animals, food is a crucial part of health, growth and productivity. Even without a technical pack of cards, from noting down the behaviours and characteristics of your animals after feeding you will begin to understand the effect of different feed stuffs.  

The main finding from this field lab was the importance of a healthy rumination cycle. Dairy cows are creatures of habit that like to function as a herd, allowing them time to sit and digest their food together was found to be crucial to their health and productivity.

Networks like Innovative Farmers help farmers come together to share their own experiences and run more detailed field labs into techniques like this. The website acts as a portal for results and information. This group is currently looking for new members – not just large scale farmers or researchers – but those who are interested in finding out more about an innovative technique. 

Find out more about this field lab and the Innovative Farmers not-for-profit network: https://innovativefarmers.org

Emily McCoy is the press officer at the Soil Association.

Useful links

Why ruminant animals should be pasture-fed

Game-changing ideas for supporting agriculture post-Brexit

The 'wild' farm: regenerative agriculture at Village Farm

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