Problems of Derrypatrick Herd serve to give project a purpose
Managing an intensive high-quality suckling herd is a greater challenge than managing a dairy herd but without the same profit. I am even more convinced of this after attending last week's open day for the Derrypatrick Herd at Teagasc Grange.
Teagasc established this 120-cow demo herd in 2009 in response to industry demand for a blueprint of best practice in breeding, grassland management and technical efficiency for suckling. The venture took on a gross margin target of €1,000/ha (€405/ac).
From the start, the Derrypatrick Herd has been under the public microscope. Quite serious teething problems have highlighted the critical challenges of top drawer suckling, especially in relation to getting cows in calf and getting top-quality calves born alive. In the first year an infertile bull led to a high empty rate in one section of the herd. In spring, there was a spate of caesarean sections in the herd.
But it is better that the lessons from these teething problems are learned from the publicly-funded Teagasc research herd rather than from losses in a farmer's herd. The essence of this project is to identify and solve possible roadblocks of which suckling has many.
Compared with her suckler counterpart, the dairy cow has a simple life. Dairy cows, after a short gestation, deliver a plain calf which is immediately whipped away leaving the dairy cow to concentrate on milking. This breaking the cow/calf bond enables the dairy cow to quickly return to heat cycling.
In contrast, the suckler cow, after a long gestation, is expected to deliver a beefy offspring and quickly go back in calf despite her natural suckling hormones telling her not to.
When it comes to efficient grass management, the Derrypatrick project is in reality rotating up to six herds. The individual rotations include cows with bull calves, cows with heifer calves, yearling heifers, two groups of yearling bulls and replacement heifers.
A dairy farm has the one rotation of dairy cows plus replacements as a minor consideration. Hence my contention that life is simpler on a dairy unit.