Monday 26 September 2016

Dairy: Grazed grass is key to surviving the milk crisis

Henry Walsh

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Grass is our only source of cheap feed for the dairy cow.
Grass is our only source of cheap feed for the dairy cow.

Grass growth continues well below normal for this time of year on most farms away from the south of the country. The weather remains extremely cold by day and night with the average temperature recorded here beside us in Athenry for April reading just 7.4C, a massive 1.3 degrees below normal.

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This is the third consecutive month of below normal temperatures so there is nothing normal about this year as it continues to be extremely challenging across every area including cow care, calf rearing, grass growth as well as our own health and well-being.

Grass is our only source of cheap feed for the dairy cow and is the one area where we have a competitive advantage over milk produced from grain fed cows. I believe the only way we can survive the low milk price of 2016 is to feed the cow as much grazed grass as possible. To graze it we must grow it and there is no doubt the missing ingredient continues to be heat. In the meantime we must ensure that there is enough Nitrogen available when the heat eventually arrives and in the knowledge that the lime, P and K status are already good.

To date this year we have spread 97 units of N per acre and our last application was Sul can with 5pc sulphur. We farm on free draining sandy soil and research has shown large increases in grass grown when 20 units per acre is applied from April onwards.

The ongoing milk price drops are unsustainable for any system and the only action we can take that is under our control is to reduce costs by feeding the cows as cheaply as possible.

We farmers, along with the farm organisations and milk purchasers, must work together to improve our lot as primary producers. This must involve rationalisation and amalgamation to increase our strength.

At EU level last year we saw them plunder a massive superlevy payment from Irish dairy farmers and what has been given in return?

This year the shocking level of import tariffs we pay on fertiliser has been highlighted, but no reductions achieved. The sanctions imposed on Russia have impacted us more than any other sector yet no support is offered.

A small number of retailers have control of the market and appear to enjoy the protection of the powers that be with regard to "hello money" or below cost selling. As John F Kennedy said in 1961, and the same still applies, "farmers buy retail, sell wholesale and pay the freight both ways". This must change to give farmers fair play.

Back on the farm, we will start breeding both cows and heifers on May 3. The cows are milking 25 litres at 4.35pc fat and 3.52pc protein or 2kg/ms/day. Stocking rate is 3.4 cows/ha which gives us a demand of 58/kg per day.

Currently we are growing over 40kg/DM/ha daily and still feeding an unprecedented 4kg of concentrate per day.

With the weather forecast it is difficult to see when we will be able to reduce to a more normal 2kg and I am acutely aware of the need to achieve a rising plain of nutrition during the breeding season.

While all the cows have been tail painted for pre heat detection activity has been low. We conditioned scored the herd and put 10pc of them on OAD. Our method is to put a green tape on the tail and they are not milked in the evening. We will put scratch cards on just over half the maiden heifers to assist with heat detection for AI. The rest will be let off with the JEX bulls to reduce workload as well as cost.

I am intending to shorten the period of AI to the cows this year to five weeks and then let out the stock bulls. I may use AA straws also for a further two weeks to reduce the risk of infertility in the bulls.

Henry and Patricia Walsh farm in Oranmore, Co Galway along with their son Enda and neighbour and outfarm owner John Moran

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