Farm Ireland

Friday 28 October 2016

Dairy: Taking stock of the post-quota options

Mary Kinston

Published 08/04/2015 | 02:30

We are now in a milk quota-free era
We are now in a milk quota-free era

So here we are in the milk quota-free era. An era where we can start to plan a little more freely rather than having to think how we can work our way around the system. Freedom to produce they call it.

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However, this new-found freedom needs to be handled with due deliberation.

With the breeding season less than a month away for the spring calving herd, there are some decisions that will affect the farm's future milk supply to be considered:

* What date should you start calving? Should this stay the same as last year or is there value in moving this earlier or later? Consider how the spring grazing usually works out in terms of grass availability and grazing conditions;

* When is the ideal time to dry off the herd? Consider the autumn supply of grass, potential pasture damage, the date when cows are normally housed, and your ability to produce adequate silage, and silage quality;

* Are your maiden heifers of an adequate weight for mating and will you mate these before the cows or at the same time?

* Are you going to use full dairy breeding or sweep with beef bulls? What are your plans for surplus dairy heifers if using full dairy breeding?

* How many dairy heifers do you want? Could you simplify the workload associated with the breeding period by considering changes in the number of weeks of AI, the use of AI on heifers, the total number of weeks breeding and the introduction of stock bulls?

* Are you considering expanding your herd further? What's the ideal stocking rate for the milking platform and the farm overall? If you increase the herd size, what impact will it have on the supply of winter feed and young stock grazing? Will you need to lease more ground to make an increase in herd size a plausible option?

Some farmers actually delayed calving to mitigate the impact of super levy, but we now have to question when is the ideal time for the herd to calve?

To maximise profitability, the grass-based system must use spring grass strategically.

Therefore, when considering the ideal calving date I always remind myself of the importance of matching the herd's increasing feed demand around the supply of grass.

In essence, this can be based on the fact that a cow hits peak production around six weeks post calving and her appetite peaks two weeks later.

Therefore, if the herd calves compactly with the median calving date two to three weeks after the start, then the magic day (point in time when feed demand equals grass supply) for grass should be around 10 weeks after the start of calving (eight weeks plus two).

So if magic day is usually in early to mid-April then calving should be at the start of February. If your farm has a high stocking rate and therefore a higher demand at peak it may suit to calve the herd slightly later and vice versa.


The length of the first grazing rotation can also be considered. In an ideal, or more normal spring this should be around 56days (eight weeks) with magic day occurring around one to two weeks after this, again indicating that calving should start around 9-10weeks prior to magic day.

The herd's average days in milk has a significant impact on the cost of production. In recent years milk quota has limited our ability to exploit this efficiency.

Ideally a herd should achieve an average of around 280days in milk/per cow.

Considering calving and staggered dry-offs this may actually require the farmer to milk for around 300-320days, depending on the herds ability to calve compactly.

Consequently, a herd that calves at the start of February, should milk on until end of November.

Therefore, when changing the calving date you must consider your ability to milk on and whether this works in forms of grass or silage.

For example, a wet farm will struggle to milk on into the autumn as much as milking early in spring, so you must balance the number of days in milk with farm type.

Now that we're free to produce milk we must do it both efficiently and profitably.

This can be achieved by keeping the calving date in line with the grass growth curve and maximising the days in milk and at grass.

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in Co Kerry.


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