Sunday 25 September 2016

Outsourcing labour is way forward for dairy farmers

Published 13/09/2016 | 02:30

Dr Padraig French, Teagasc pictured addressing farmers at the Teagasc open day
Dr Padraig French, Teagasc pictured addressing farmers at the Teagasc open day

A tripling of workload during the spring calving season has made workloads a 'critical issue' on expanding dairy farms.

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An open day at the Shinagh demonstration farm this Thursday will see Teagasc experts advising stressed-out dairy farmers to out-source as much of the workload as possible during the spring.

"Traditionally, farmers just worked harder during the spring, but as herds increase that's becoming increasingly unsustainable," said Teagasc's head of livestock systems, Padraig French.

"It can create massive stress and some farmers just don't cope, especially if you get a tough spring," he said.

Data from the highly efficient Shinagh herd shows that nearly half of the 4,322 hours required to made the herd were racked up during three months in the spring.

Some 20pc of the total hours were accumulated in March, followed by 18pc in the February. During these periods, the farm relies heavily on student and part-time labour.

To cope better, Mr French is advising farmers to contract out as much work as possible, including getting silage contractors to feed and clean out sheds.

"Having the right facilities is also a factor, but things such as automated calf feeders can be very expensive."

The Shinagh herd managed by Kevin Ahearne achieved a massive 45pc annual return on the €260,000 originally invested in the project during 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2015 the breakeven price per litre was as low as 21c/l due to what Mr French described as an "extraordinarily good year".

However, lower grass growth in 2016 has reduced the milk solids output in the herd by close to 25kg/cow, while livestock sales have also been depressed by lower milk prices. Combined, these factors pushed up cost per litre by 2c/l to 23c/l in 2016.

Despite a forecasted drop in net profit of €100,000 for the 229 cow herd this year, the Carbery base price has been a significant factor in maintaining a positive cashflow. The 26c/l was close to 4c/l higher than the base price on the other Teagasc demo farm at Greenfield (which supplies Glanbia).

However, the herd continues to be one of the best performing in the country, with a 96pc six week calving rate, and a replacement rate of less than 20pc.

Calving interval has been purposely increased to 368 days by delaying breeding for the last two years.

"We found that the demand for grass was increasing too quickly in the spring, so we've pulled back the start date for calving from February 1 in 2014 to February 10 next year," said Mr French.

However, the Teagasc man believes that converting more the farm's pastures to clover will give the farm another profitability boost.

"That's the only way that we are going to make more money. At the moment we are utilising 12.3t of the 15t/ha of the grass drymatter that we are growing. But clover has the potential to increase that further," he said.

The open day will also feature a share-farming update.

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