Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 19 November 2017

Case Study: Never going back to year-round calving

Elton Griffin

Despite being a somewhat reluctant convert from liquid milk to the seasonal spring milk system, the last 12 months have made up Elton Griffin's mind for good.

"Thank God we weren't trying to get milk out of cows last winter. The cows just weren't up for it coming off the year that they had," said the Carrigrohane farmer, who milks 200 cows along with his brother, Michael, about seven miles west of Cork city centre.

The brothers had been supplying milk into the liquid milk market around Cork for over 30 years before they made the switch to 100pc spring calving last year.

"Our dad had a milk round based out of Mayfield in the city before we moved out here, but we were always heavily involved in the whole liquid milk scene," said Elton, who served on several liquid milk producer committees at local and national level.

However, over the last number of years, the Griffins have seen many of their neighbours switch to spring calving systems, and Elton is expecting more to go the same way.

"My brother was actually keener to change over than I was. I suppose the tradition and the whole social scene that goes with being involved in the politics of the business down through the years prevented me from seriously considering the alternative.

"There was great camaraderie among producers but you could feel the confidence going out of the group over the last number of years," he said.

Through his discussion group, Elton was also getting more familiar with the lifestyle and returns that were available in a seasonal system.

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"Most of the lads in the group were spring calving men and I began to realise that we might actually be better off if we switched over," he said.

The idea that spring calving systems can actually be more profitable than all-year round liquid milk systems is a huge psychological hurdle for those who've spent a lifetime supplying the latter.

Traditionally, liquid milk farmers were seen as the most profitable of the dairy sector, with gold-plated contracts that paid a healthy premium over simpler seasonal calving set-ups.

But the constant squeeze on price by big multiples over the last 20 years has eroded that premium, leaving many liquid milk suppliers wondering why they should continue investing in such high cost systems.

"I think we could be 15pc better off this year in terms of bottom-line profit," said Elton.

"Obviously that could change from year to year but that's my best guess at this stage. I'd say last year, we just held the same margin, but I'm happy enough with that for a transition year."

Evolved

The Cork man was also concerned that the type of cow that had evolved on the farm was not well suited to the liquid milk scene, where farmers were traditionally paid for volume rather than constituents.

"We have a long, narrow farm that demands a lot of walking from our cows.

The big Holstein cow was proving troublesome with lameness so we were moving to a smaller Friesian-type animal that had less litres but higher constituents.

"The problem for us was that we weren't getting paid enough for the constituents," said Elton.

Timing is everything as they say, and the Griffin brothers were lucky in that Dairygold had an offer of 45c/l on the table for liquid milk producers that wanted to get out of the system after the CMP business was sold to Glanbia. This was another obvious carrot for the brothers to switch.

"Now that we've done it, I realise that life on a dairy farm can be simpler. Though there's still plenty of work, there's less bunches of animals to manage and we're not having to grow and buy as much maize and supplementary feeds.

"Plus, we're not calving cows from August through to May anymore. But it's only when you leave that you can see the other side," Elton added.

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