Joe Kelleher: 'Once-a-day milking can go a long way to reducing dairy farmers' stress levels'
Milking freshly calved cows once a day (OAD) in springtime is a concept that is becoming increasingly popular as herd sizes increase, but will the reduced labour input compensate for the reduced milk cheque?
In 2010 the average herd size in Ireland was 53 cows. That figure has now increased to over 90 cows, which means that on average every farmer in Ireland is calving down 37 more cows now than they were nine years ago and they may also have 37 extra calves to feed.
Coupled with this, the fertility of the national herd has been increasing steadily over the past 10 years or more resulting in a higher proportion of the herd calving down in the month of February.
All of this combined has led to a significant increase in spring workload on most Irish dairy farms.
So how can we cope with this extra workload?
There are four main options:
1. Work harder and faster;
2. Improve facilities for calving cows and feeding calves;
3. Employ extra labour;
4. Reduce the workload.
Option 1 will lead to mental and physical fatigue and increase the likelihood of farm accidents and should be avoided at all costs.
Option 2 is a good idea but it is unlikely you are going to get a new calf house built by next week, so it is possibly an option for spring 2020.
Option 3 is a popular option assuming the labour can be sourced, but this is increasingly difficult and the situation is unlikely to increase in the near future.
Option 4 is the option that many farmers are choosing, and the most obvious choice here is milking once a day for four to six weeks in springtime.
Those who practice OAD will generally milk the cows first thing in the morning, freeing up the rest of the day to tend to calving cows, feeding calves and the many other jobs that arise in springtime.
However, any cow that calves in the evening time, should be miked that evening and then again the following morning with the rest of the herd.
Somatic Cell Count (SCC) is often a reason that many farmers will avoid attempting OAD.
Extra care has to be given to hygiene around milking time and it is important to milk all the cows out fully at milking time.
Teat dipping is essential.
Springtime is the most stressful time for farmers but it is also the most stressful time for cows.
They go through the stress of calving, then milking for the first time in eight weeks or so, and all the while their requirement for energy is increasing.
Many cows at this time of year will experience negative energy balance and will not be able to consume enough energy to meet their body's demands which will inevitably lead to them losing body condition. OAD milking is the cheapest and one of the most effective ways of addressing this negative energy balance.
Under good levels of management, yields can be expected to drop by approximately 6pc (over the entire lactation) when milking OAD for four to six weeks in the spring.
However, milk solids will increase leading to a higher milk price which should offset much of the drop in litres.
In addition to the increased solids, body condition should also improve which should have a knock-on effect well into the breeding season and into the following calving season, which should more than compensate for the reduced milk cheque.
The average dairy farmer is now calving 90 cows and the most fertile herds are calving half the herd in two weeks.
This can lead to huge stress for farmers, both physically and mentally, thus making the farmer more vulnerable to accidents. OAD can go a long way to avoiding some of this stress and fatigue.
Most of you have a week or two left before the first cow calves. There is no extra cost or facilities required to implement it. The biggest change is in mind-set. Talk to neighbours or discussion group members who are practising it. Find out for yourself the merits of it and give it a go.
Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newscastlewest, Co Limerick
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