Farm Ireland

Thursday 27 October 2016

Dairy: Robot technology impressive but it is reliant on high milk prices

Henry Walsh

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

Joe McEvilly from Killawalia (centre) was a winner at Mayo Blackface Sheep breeders show with his hoggetts, with Jimmy O'Dwyer and Pat Deane (Show Judges). Photo: Conor McKeown
Joe McEvilly from Killawalia (centre) was a winner at Mayo Blackface Sheep breeders show with his hoggetts, with Jimmy O'Dwyer and Pat Deane (Show Judges). Photo: Conor McKeown

We enjoyed the break from the rain here in the west over the last week. The previous wet spell had a major impact on ground conditions with gaps and roadways coming under pressure. I felt cow intakes were reduced due to the low drymatter of the grass, which resulted in a decline in milk production. We increased the 14pc protein meal to 1.8kg per cow daily, and this along with the spell has stabilised the situation.

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Currently the herd are producing 16.7kg at 5.04pc fat and 4.05pc protein, resulting in 1.52kg of milk solids per day. SCC levels are at 160,000. Growth has been excellent for the past week at 60kg/ha drymatter, and farm cover at present is 965kg/ha or 310kg per cow.

We will begin our autumn rotation plan on October 5 with a target of having 65pc of the milking platform grazed by the end of October and all of it closed by December 5.

The planner highlights the percentage of the platform to be grazed every week and we have plenty of high quality round bales to feed as required.

We scanned the herd on September 23 and have an empty rate of 9pc, which is just under our annual target of 10pc after 13 weeks breeding. There were a number of surprise empties including three with non-viable calves. The scanner aged all three pregnancies at 70 days but my AI dates showed nearer to 120 days.

Moorepark research shows that as many as 10pc of early confirmed pregnancies subsequently turn up empty. In our case this year I believe BVD may be a factor. We tested during the voluntary year and culled a PI calf and a PI in-calf heifer. We have not found a PI calf in the three years since of compulsory testing. for this reason we decided not to vaccinate for BVD this year.

We screen the milk four times a year for all the major diseases and the second test on May 20 showed a very high BVD reading. On our vet's advice, we vaccinated immediately. It would appear we are exposed somewhere so until such time as culling of PI calves is enforced we will continue to vaccinate.


Focusing on the positives from the scanning, we have hit our target of 270 to calve down in the spring of 2016, with 60pc calving in the first three weeks, and 86pc within six weeks.

Over the next few weeks we will dry off all the first calvers, body condition score the herd and dry off any light cows to ensure they have a good rest before calving.

For the annual trip away this year my discussion group travelled north and visited five farms over three days.

Ballyhaise agricultural college was first up where we were taken on a farm walk by Donal Patton. He believes the farm can achieve a profit of €2,500/ha each year from the spring calving dairy herd. The farm has a range of soil types varying from river flood-plains to dry soil on top of the hills.

The farm is growing the same amount of grass as Moorepark with a higher growth over the summer but less growth in the spring and autumn.

This is a challenge and requires more supplementation on the shoulders, along with greater use of on-off grazing techniques.

We then visited two high-input, total-confinement, year-round calving herds. The first was completely automated with Lely robots milking the cows on average 2.8 times daily. The feeding system again was almost fully automated and consisted of a five-bay feed store filled with two different shear grabs of silage a big bale of straw and five different types of ration.

The robotic diet feeder was guided by a metal track and was loaded by a roof-mounted grab which travelled the length of the feed store to choose the ingredients for the diet.

The second farm was another fantastic example of modern dairy technology. This was a 60 unit rotary milking the cows three times a day achieving a superb 11,000 litres per lactation with a 400 day calving index.

There was a 100ha block of land around the milking parlour and shed, but no cows are grazed on grass.

Both farms were paid for their milk in Sterling. Base milk price was 18p/l (25c) with a 3p bonus for three winter months. Costs were around 24p (32c).

Both farms included an owner's wage in this calculation which is something we need to include in our Teagasc profit monitor figures.

The conclusions were that these farmers have chosen a high input route which has no role for grass. But they were adamant that they were maximising efficiency.

They know that they are losing money but expected a milk price recovery in the short term to allow them become profitable again. Personally, I prefer a robust business that will survive at a low milk price rather than a system that makes a lot of money when milk price is good.

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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