Farm Ireland

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Toughest breeding season in 25 years will require a 25pc replacement rate on farms to reach target

Dr Dan Ryan

Breeding programmes for spring calving in 2013 should now have ended. However, only 10pc of farms I visited in July planned to have stock bulls removed by the end of the month. It will be early September before 90pc of herds will cease breeding cows.

This has been the toughest breeding season in my 25 years of working with dairy cattle. Persistent rainfall allied to little sunshine has created a situation where a 25pc replacement rate will be required on many farms to maintain a 90pc calving rate in a 14-week period in 2013.

The roll-over effect of adverse weather on feed quantity and quality will impact as cattle are housed for the winter. This scenario will be mirrored in the large corn and soya bean growing belts in the US. This explains the recent 20pc increase in soya bean protein sources used in most rations. This is one reason why forward planning of feed budgets will be a requisite. Do you know the quantity and quality of silage conserved for the winter? Consult a nutritionist to determine how many livestock units you can feed for a given wintering period. Budget for the concentrates needed to achieve various liveweight gain and body condition targets.

Milk prices at the farm gate are now leaving profit margins below those seen in 2009. It is now time to sell any stock not required on the farm to meet future business needs.

Many farmers have focused on expansion beyond quota restrictions in 2015. But this expansion requires investment in genetics, labour and infrastructure. The wet summer of 2012 has caught many farmers off guard with stocking rates that are too high for the farm to support. Concentrate supplementation has been used on many grass-based systems that would normally require zero concentrate for the summer months.

This has led many farmers to question expansion plans. The stress of milk production in 2012, the investment required by Glanbia and Dairygold for future milk production, volatile milk prices and restrictions imposed by farm fragmentation are all looming large in farmers' minds.

Previously, milk production has focused on cost efficiencies by using genetics that survive on grass-based production systems. This, in my opinion, is wrong because management requirements of livestock have been put on a knife-edge during the production cycle.

Dairy stock on the farm needs to gain weight at this stage of the production cycle. The breeding programme for 2013 has already begun. Are you aware of the target liveweights and body condition scores needed for calves, in-calf heifers and cows on your farm? Teagasc have excellent literature describing how they can be achieved.

The key is to weigh your young stock on a monthly basis. Supplement grass-based diets with high quality rations to ensure liveweight targets are achieved. Many rations supplied on a least-cost basis do not deliver in terms of the long-term production potential of your herd.

It is best to have body condition scores assessed by a person who visits the farm on a monthly basis. Also, remember to ensure all cases of lameness are addressed immediately.

Research data from various domestic animals has highlighted the negative impact of inadequate nutrition on intrauterine growth of foetuses. There is also increasing evidence that environmental stressors such as under-nutrition in early pregnancy can change the genetic potential of an unborn calf.

As a result, the nutritional management of your livestock should focus on the 2013 breeding season and the health and production potential of future generations.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist. Website:

Indo Farming