Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Dairy: It's time to keep calm and carry on despite those bitter April showers

Young Tim Brennan from Dungarvan , Co Kilkenny seen here with his dog bringing the130 cows in for the milking. Photo: Roger Jones.
Young Tim Brennan from Dungarvan , Co Kilkenny seen here with his dog bringing the130 cows in for the milking. Photo: Roger Jones.

Mary Kinston

Well it has certainly been a year of April showers, and some of the days will be hard to forget here in Kerry. Even the cows were happy to be tucked up in the shed as the heavens poured and a biting cold wind blew.

It's extremely undesirable to put cows on a full diet of silage knowing that both milk yield and milk protein will fall substantially, but the horrendous weather on Sunday, April 10 left us with no other choice. Financially we had to take the hit in an effort to protect the cows and the land.

Since then, on and off grazing has had to be resumed and in some paddocks fingers and toes have been crossed that damage wouldn't be too significant.

Without grass in the diet cows will struggle to peak and will exhibit oestrus as mating draws closer, but we must also balance this with a bid to keep them well fed.

We made a strategic decision to start the second round before finishing the first to graze ground which was drier.

Luckily having been grazed in good weather with no previous grazing damage, these paddocks have held up extremely well.

Having had numerous conversations I know low covers on farms are common as a consequence of low grass growth rates.

Shortages of good quality or just moderate silage are also abundant, and to top it all off I imagine a number of bank balances are waving so very close to the overdraft limit, as income fails to cover spring expenses.

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As a consequence, farmers moral can often be low. It's important to talk and it's also important to listen. Groups are a fabulous mechanism to give farmers the chance to realise how common these problems are.

As dairy farmers we all having to some degree similar pressures, but there are options and it's the time to 'keep calm and carry on'. So my lines of advice for a tough April are;

Above all else, maintaining one's own mental health is a priority - if you neglect it, everything else is more likely to fail

Protect the average grass cover if low. Ideally do not let it fall to less than 400kg/DM/ha, and certainly no less than 350kg/DM/ha. If it is lower than this it will reduce the farms ability for grass growth as there is just not enough green leaf on farm. Where low, supplement hard and heavy until this rises above 400kg/DM/ha. Do not wait it out, as correcting this at mating time is not desirable.

Feed the cows well. We all know the consequence of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

If underfed a cow's lactation will prioritise above reproduction. By now the cows body condition score should have plateaued. If you are noticing losses you need to review your feed allocation.

Consider your stocking rate. Being over stocked will exaggerate all of these problems and remember that stock sales are an important income source, though do not over react.

It's the week of the milk cheque and so now we're all more aware of what we will be getting paid for our milk and ultimately what the deficits will potentially be.

Time to review the budget. Having looked at many accounts over my time in Ireland, whilst individually we all have areas that need improvement, whether financially or physical performance, my general statement would be to say that the Irish farmers I work with are well able to operate a 'grass based low cost' style of dairy farming.

Therefore stripping out costs in hard times is simple to say but not easily done.

Obviously as farmers headed into 2016 spending on capital items or even repairs and maintenance on farm were already being cut.

However the recent income reality has now forced farmers to question the value of items such as milk recording, vaccines, fertilisers containing phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), lime, level of concentrate feed, reseeding and labour.

Some are short term gains and long term pain (P and K, feed), others expose a business to greater risks (vaccines, labour), or a reduced opportunity for objective culling or management (milk recording) others are a bit chicken and egg (reseeding). However, possibly there is a true saving to be made so still worth doing as long as the pros and cons are fully considered.

Soon we will be faced with articles and documents highlighting the impact of market price volatility, cash-flow budgeting, over-indebtedness, slush funds and investment returns.

So I ask the question that having experienced a second down-turn in seven years, after 2009, have you considered what you need to do to make your business more robust to handle these repeated downturns.

Maybe you need to force yourself to save a cash reserve, maybe costs need to be assessed more in a good milk price year, maybe cashflow management needs to improve, maybe the risk and return of investments made need to be better assessed.

One thing I know for sure is that the weather is as much if not more of a risk to our business as milk price.

Unfortunately it seems in Ireland bad weather and poor milk price like to go hand in hand.

While this is no consolation to the immediate pain being felt, we survived 2009 and we can do it again, but could you do it better?

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in County Kerry

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