Farm Ireland

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Greenfield project provides a blueprint for low-cost milk production in post-quota era

CLOSE SHAVE: Doug Smith, the world record holder (left), and Irish shearer George Graham (right) get in some practice with the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, ahead of the Clik All-Ireland and International Sheep Shearing Championships in Cillin Hill, Kilkenny on the June Bank Holiday (June 5-6). For more, see Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
CLOSE SHAVE: Doug Smith, the world record holder (left), and Irish shearer George Graham (right) get in some practice with the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, ahead of the Clik All-Ireland and International Sheep Shearing Championships in Cillin Hill, Kilkenny on the June Bank Holiday (June 5-6). For more, see Photo: Jason Clarke Photography

John Shirley

Visitors to the open day on the Greenfield dairy project in Kilkenny should have been impressed. One year on the farm is humming. Under the project's 15-year business plan, from a greenfield start, this herd will generate an income capable of paying for all running costs, including labour (€88,000 to €120,000), land rental (€240/ha), plus repay a €750,000 bank loan and €350,000 investor start-up capital. Nationally, the project is a blueprint for low-cost milk production in a post-milk quota era.

The project demanded that start-up costs be minimal, with priority given to grass, cows and cow health. This project was always going to demand excellent management, plus that bit of luck that we all need when facing a new challenge. Also, in terms of farmer confidence and credibility in the venture, it was always vital that the full story be told, warts and all.

The bit of luck came with the lift in milk price above the level budgeted for. Table 1 summarises the outcome for the start-up season versus the targets. Sales of milk solids were below budget, partly because extra milk was fed to calves in spring as a herd number was sorted out. Also, in December, the big freeze resulted in cows being dried off early. Mortality in cows and calves was below target, which indicates good day-to-day management. Grass yield on the newly reseeded pastures (which have lots of clover), at a massive 16 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, far exceeded the 9.5t target. This has encouraged the management team to bump up cow numbers to 313 or 2.75 cows/ha (1.12 cows/ac) this year.

The dairy unit is classic New Zealand. The only cow accommodation is a one acre outdoor pad plus a few calving boxes. The 30-unit milking parlour is open on three sides. All feeding, fertiliser spreading and topping has been contracted out. Bull calves are sold as they drop and heifer replacements are reared off farm. The labour force of two is supplemented by a student for the calving and breeding season.

The first winter for Greenfield was one of the coldest on record. The pad froze up in December, as did the dung. When the thaw came, cows were standing in slurry which had to be removed and the woodchips replaced. The pad was also deemed unsuitable for the milking cows.

In spite of this, there are no immediate plans to roof the outdoor accommodation. However, the cash surplus from the first season has been invested in a silage base, thus facilitating a switch from baled to pit silage. This is expected to rectify the problem of baled silage being dragged onto the outdoor pad.

The cow herd at Greenfield is a 'liquorice allsorts' mix of Holstein, Friesian, Jersey and Norwegian Red. There is a huge range in cow size -- so much so that the 30-unit milking parlour can hold from 28 to 33 depending on which animals happen to be passing through. The plan is to continue criss-crossing with Jersey and Holstein.

Cows readily go through the parlour to get to their new paddock, which happens every 24 hours. The key to managing this farm is continued grass measurement and grass budgeting. Given the variability of grass growth, this takes skill and constant monitoring. For instance, despite the excellent growth last month, some silage buffer feed was used to top up the grazing at Greenfield last week.

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As a blueprint for profitable milk the Greenfield project is set to have a strong influence on Irish dairy farming over the coming years. The unit will be of special interest for new entrants starting from scratch.

There is a also a large section of land-restricted dairy farmers who can learn from the Greenfield grass management but will prioritise yield per cow.

Irish farmer reaction to an environment free of milk quota will be watched with interest. In reality, our neighbours across the border have been free of quota restriction for the last couple of decades. It's interesting to look at how farmers there have journeyed.

Between 1993 and 2008, milk output in Northern Ireland grew by 46pc. Over this period, the number of dairy farmers fell from 6,179 to 3,363, while cow numbers increased marginally from 273,000 to 284,000. The big change was in average cow yield, which grew by 28pc from 4,930 to 6,350l/cow.

Northern Ireland's farmers are far more into grassland reseeding than their southern counterparts, except the northern emphasis is on silage. In the first week of May this year I was amazed at the number of fields in Northern Ireland that had already been cut for silage.

One Northern observer commented to me that good grassland management in the North is now measured in the volume and quantity of silage that is harvested.

"Herds are getting bigger and farmers are chasing yield per cow. Some are even switching away from cubicles back to straw bedded courts, especially for cows in early lactation," he added.

Will the South follow the same trend when milk quota goes? The attraction of the higher input, higher yield approach is that life is more predictable and the farmer feels more in control. They are not subject to the vagaries in the weather. The Northern trend isn't replicated across the world.

There is a rule that says that if a farmer gets a good price for a product they will find a more expensive way to produce it. Even in New Zealand, farmers are tending to increase inputs. A family cousin, a builder in NZ, says that he cannot satisfy the demand for winter cow accommodation there.

As long as milk price stays buoyant, the high input, high yield systems can prosper. However when times are tough, it is the tougher operators that will stay going. The Greenfield project is shaping up to be a resilient operator.

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