Extra earnings from Gallagher heat detection puts operation ‘miles in front’

Gallagher's Flashmate heat detector improves in-calf rate for Victorian dairy farmer.

“Realistically, just getting an extra five cows in calf compared to the other way, puts us way in front”

​For Western Victorian dairy farmer Will McDonald, using Flashmate heat detection is a "no brainer".

Will and his wife Melissa have 500 milkers on their Bessiebelle property, Boldrewood Dairies, which they run in conjunction with Mel's parents Naomi and John Pye; John has been a board member of Murray Goulburn since 2005.

Since coming on board the business in 2006, Will and Mel have added to the original property, which today totals 545 hectares, and built a new 50-unit rotary dairy. The herd is mainly Holsteins, with a handful of Jerseys and crossbreds.

The couple has always been interested in using heat-detection devices, and has tried various methods before.

Will says, "We just found them difficult. Some in particular are really messy to apply. They generally don't last as long as you would like them to, and it can be very difficult to get a true reading from them, I think. Once we went into the new dairy, we used these previous ones once more, then went back to using tail paint — we just found it easier."

Because the tail-paint method relies on knowledge and skill, either Will or their main herd worker Jeremy Hunt — or often both — were at every milking during the joining period.

"It's a fair call on our time."

High-tech simplicity

Looking for something a bit more high-tech than tail paint, Will came across the new Flashmate heat detection from Gallagher.

"I was interested in putting electronic detection in, and I'm always really interested try new things.

"From the application point of view, I found it very easy: they stuck on — and stayed stuck on — which was pretty important. Two weeks after we applied them, we went back and touched them up. I probably touched up more than I needed to — only because I was standing there doing it.

"We do a split calving, so we used around about 280 this autumn and I only replaced six. I was surprised at firstly how easy it was to put them on, and then secondly how well they stuck.

"Importantly, it didn't add any time to milking at all. The only effect was having three people in the shed instead of one person — but that was just for that one milking."

Pin-point accuracy

Will says the guidelines for using Flashmate are to put them on the left side of the tail.

"However, as an extra little test we put them on the right-hand side of the cows and tail painted them as well. That meant we were actually looking at tail paint before we saw the Flashmate, because I wanted to note down any differences. We AI'd four cows that we thought were on heat from a tail-paint point of view but where the Flashmates hadn't gone off. All four of those cows came on within a week with the Flashmate, so obviously we AI'd them again, which just showed that we were a little bit early with the AI when just relying on tail paint."

Extra 26 in-heat picked up

"But, what was really important was that we AI'd 26 cows that had the Flashmate flashing red that we wouldn't have picked off the tail paint."

Will says as well as pulling their seven-week joining period forward 10 days, they also had more cows in calf to AI than they did for the joining beforehand.

Time benefits are on top of the financial benefits: both himself and other staff, because even staff who aren't skilled in herdsmanship can tell the difference between green and red.

"We've got two full-time and one part-time staff members; it came up to be the weekend for one who'd not been working quite 12 months for us. I got up and I went over to the dairy to do the Saturday morning milking with him. On the Sunday he said, 'I reckon I can handle drafting the red ones out; it'll be all right.' So he did the milking all by himself.

"Me not needing to be in the dairy each milking during joining means I can actually have a sleep in or do something else around the property."

Strong ROI 'no brainer'

Will says to use Flashmate over both calvings over 12 months cost around $6,000.

"Using the previous method was around $600 per calving initially, but ended up being around $1,000, because one of the problems was they'd fall off, so we'd often end up applying more. So there's a $4,000 difference comparing $2,000 that way for both calvings versus the Flashmates. Getting half of those 26 cows the Flashmate identified as in heat in calf, has paid for the Flashmates.

"Realistically, just getting an extra five cows in calf compared to the other way, puts us way in front. It's a no-brainer, even though the capital outlay is a bit more to start with, we're getting better results and we're actually earning more out at the end of it. We're in front by miles."
Will says another reason that steered him towards the Flashmates was he wasn't investing in technology that would be superseded that season.

"I was talking with another farmer about a traditional electronic heat-detection system; for 500 cows, it was roughly $100,000. That's a fair few years using Flashmate to get to that amount. My comment to him was you're better off spending six grand every year and watching, (a) the Flashmate get better, and (b) the other technology get better too before you buy, than investing $100,000 now and in five years' time being out of date yet you still have that huge investment."

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