Dairy - wake up to the realities of post-quota expansion
Published 27/08/2014 | 02:30
Stock bulls should now be "on holiday" from the dairy herd in grass -based milk production systems. However, many farmers contend that there will be a market for 'late calvers' next year with the ending of the milk quota regime. Therefore, many farmers are delaying their end-of-season pregnancy scan this year.
I am currently on holiday in the west of Ireland where I took the opportunity to cycle the Greenway established as a cycling/walking path on a previous railway track between Westport and Achill in Mayo.
The farming community in this region have to be commended for facilitating this project.
In reality, farmers in this region have been left with very little choice. There are no dairy herds with the only black and white animals being blackface mountain sheep.
The suckler herds are disappearing as farmers face the reality that weanling production is unsustainable.
Is it too late for a wake-up call?
A vibrant tourist industry in this beautiful part of rural Ireland needs sustainable agriculture add a living heritage element to the tourist experience.
Meanwhile, a wake-up is also required with our dairy herds which will see major changes post quota.
Farmers are currently either being driven or driving to expand in an extreme form of monoculture system.
Expansion in dairying requires investment of upward of €3,000 per cow space. The requirement for skilled stockmen is often overlooked, while farm fragmentation and land availability also restrict expansion.
The age profile of the dairy farmer and age at succession continue to place restrictions on both expansion and uptake of new technologies.
However, there are opportunities for partnerships and the rearing of replacements for the dairy herd by dry stock farmers. This could enable expansion of the dairy herd on a grazing platform close to the dairy parlour. The word 'close' is important.
With expansion on many of these large dairy units, cows are being forced to walk in excess of 1.5km to parts of the grazing platform. This in turn will increase problems with issues such as lameness.
There has been an increase in the use of 'zero grazing' but there are extra capital costs with machinery to facilitate this practice. A good stockman will not necessarily be a good machinery operator.
Zero grazing also increases the risk of animal health issues such as stomach fluke and neospora. With zero grazing, the cow has less opportunity to sort the food for consumption.
Both stomach fluke and neospora have become significant issues in herd health management of an expanding dairy herd.
In Britain, neospora is now the number one cause of pregnancy loss in the dairy herd. The intermediate hosts for this disease are dog and foxes.
The canines access the afterbirth which results in the shedding of neospora in the faeces.
Contamination of the grass or food fed to cows is also a neospora infection risk. In pregnant cows, the disease is transmitted to the calf, causing death following an abortion storm or mummification.
The key to preventing neospora is keeping dogs away from grazing areas, feed preparation or consumption spaces.
It is also essential that you safely dispose every afterbirth after calving.
If dogs are walked on your land, ensure that the owners remove any dog faeces and that you make them aware of the potential risk to your business.
Expansion in the dairy herd also brings its own challenges. There has been a significant increase in emphasis on automation for dairy herd management.
Areas of interest include heat detection, body temperature measurement, health monitoring devices, separation of cows for AI, hoof paring.
We cannot allow the Irish dairy industry to go down the same road of commodity driven food production as seen in other countries.
Yes, we have a significant advantage in use of grazed grass.
However, we should not allow the scale of our dairy business expansion to create the sort of stresses on farmers, dairy managers - and cows - apparent in other countries.
We currently have a 'green"'food production image, which cannot be allowed to disappear like the suckler cow on the Greenway in Mayo.
Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.cowsdna.com