Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

10 steps to stress-free dairying

Preparation is key for dairy farmers
Preparation is key for dairy farmers
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Many dairy farmers are dicing with burnout as expansion locks them into 90-hour weeks. And there is no way to side-step the peak in work that goes with the spring calving system. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be torture. Darragh McCullough talks to the experts and top operators about how to achieve stress-free dairy farming

1. Get yourself and  your cows in the zone

Talk to any high achieving athlete about the secret to success, and the conversation will inevitably centre on preparation.

"Both the farmer and the cow need to be ready for the huge workload that will inevitably occur during the spring," says Teagasc's head of livestock systems, Padraig French.

For the cow, this means getting the right amount of body condition so that she's not too thin and under pressure to stay with the pack once she enters milk production.

If she's too fat both her chances of complications at birth, and the farmer's stress levels, will sky-rocket.

Farmers also need to be smarter about the workload they take on over the winter.

"Traditionally, farmers tended to busy themselves during the winter by milking on or feeding fattening stock," French notes.

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"But they've got to ask themselves what is the real breadwinner in their operation. Invariably it's the milk pumped out during the spring and early summer. The way to optimise that is to be ready to rock and roll come February."

2. Get your facilities up to speed

This encompasses a whole range of issues including having adequate calf rearing facilities, clean calving areas, good cow flow from one area to another, good laneways to be able to get cows out to grass fast and the small stuff like having the shock right in all the paddocks BEFORE the cows go out and lighting around the yard for those dark evenings at the start of the year.

"Lads worry about spending money on making life easier for themselves but very often it makes a lot of sense," comments former Teagasc advisor John Donworth.

"Automated drafting, cluster removers, tank washing, apps like Herdwatch, even automated calf feeders costing €10,000 all make sense if you have enough cows and most guys are heading that direction," says Donworth.

The parlour is always the biggie in terms of capital investment, but again John believes in setting the bar relatively low at a maximum daily pit-time of three hours. "That only leaves seven hours for everything else if you are clocking up 10 hour days, which is long enough for anyone on a constant basis," he says.

3. Keep debt levels manageable

Despite advocating plenty of automation, John Donworth also sounds a note of caution regarding the financial burden that all of these investments entail.

"You will need to be a tip-top operator to cope with borrowings over €4,000 per cow. That's a kind of pressure that not everyone is kitted out for and even at lower levels still provides a constant layer of background stress."

4. Stick to a cow to the acre

Sounds old-fashioned now when many farmers are striving to graze four cows per hectare on the milking platform, but John Donworth is still a believer in keeping the overall stocking rate on a farm to one livestock unit per acre.

"Not having enough grass in front of cows is not just a cost but inevitably also a stress with the added work of feeding indoors and constantly moving stock that it entails," notes Donworth.

5. Cut out unnecessary work

Joe Leonard, a former Nuffield scholar who runs a 520-cow herd in Meath says that farmers are still doing unnecessary work.

"There's no need to be feeding calves twice a day after the first two weeks, or maintaining a 12- or even 10-hour interval between milkings," he maintains. He believes that whatever hours between the morning and evening milkings are available inevitably get filled with jobs. Instead, he sets a start time of 7am and a finish time of 5.30pm and works back from there to figure out when afternoon milking needs to start. "The workload just shrinks to fit," he claims.

6. Contract out as much as possible

Labour is the biggest issue in dairy farmers' minds, but the reality is that there is never going to be a pool of skilled labour available for two months work every spring when they need it most. Padraig French feels that the sector should be looking to two seriously under-utilised resources - contractors and beef farmers.

"Contractors aren't busy in the spring. Many are used to spread fertiliser and slurry but why not get them to do every job involving a tractor, from feeding cows to cleaning out sheds? Why not ask a neighbouring beef farmer to rear your beef calves? Daily contract rearing costs of €1/head are a good starting point and could provide a win-win for all involved."

7. Breed the right type of cow

Another reality of modern dairying is that there is no longer time for special treatment for animals with their own quirks. If the cow doesn't fit flawlessly in with the system, she's going to cause you heartache in the spring. So breeding the low maintenance, high fertility cow is a must.

8. Avoid difficult calving bulls like the plague

Padraig French believes that anything with a calving difficulty of over 2pc should not be used on heifers and over 3pc should not be let in the gate. "There is nothing worse than downer cows, so avoiding bulls with calving difficulty is a no-brainer," he says emphatically.

9. Get the calving date right

If your cows calve too early, you will be blue in the face bringing them in for extra feeding while you wait for grass growth to catch up. This one can only be figured out from experience, but it's vital to get it right.

10. Do out a work plan

You know those days when you clock in 16 hours because everything went wrong? Another bull calf died that should have been brought to the mart two weeks ago but couldn't go because he hadn't been registered in time...small but important routine jobs become urgent problems when the workload is too much. The time to fix that is two months earlier according to Padraig French.

"You sit down and do out a list of all the tasks that need to be done daily, weekly and monthly. Figure out how much time it'll all take and then add in extra time for things to go wrong. That's your starting point for figuring out who's going to do it all and whether you need extra help."

Many dairy farmers are dicing with burnout as expansion locks them into 90-hour weeks. And there is no way to side-step the peak in work that goes with the spring calving system. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be torture. Darragh McCullough talks to the experts and top operators about how to achieve stress-free dairy farming

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