How this Cork dairy farm family is maximising output of milk solids per ha while keeping costs at a reasonable level
Last week the O’Sullivan family opened the doors of their Cork dairy farm to the European Dairy Farmers Congress, which took place in Ireland.
Over 300 visitors to the farm heard how the family farm has grown from 140 cows to 500 today and also how restrictions may curtail the number of cows the farm has in the future.
Over the years the O’Sullivan farm has won at the Spring Show in Dublin in 1977 and 1984 and last year they were the runners up in the National Dairy Council Milk Quality Awards.
The farm, originally bought in 1953, started out with 40ha. Today John and Teresa farm with two of their sons, John and Victor, and Farm Manager David McGrath.
All the heavy machinery work on farm is done through contractors and extra hands are available through some nephews.
But John Snr says the reality is they could do with a fifth worker.
The milking operation is split over two farms and investments have been made in new milking facilities, updated buildings and land purchases.
The 288ha farmed by the family includes 210ha of silage and maize is cultivated on 18ha.
The O’Sullivans milk 365 days a year, with a minimum of 28pc of the total production to be produced in November, December, January and February.
The farm target is about maximising output of milk solids per ha and producing female young stock that sell well.
“The aim is to produce the maximum quantity of milk solids from the milking platform while ensuring costs are kept at a reasonable level,” according to John Snr.
The winter milk aspect of the farm also means spring calving is not the ordeal it could be.
Farm Manager David McGrath is integral to the smooth running of the farm, according to John Snr, and a split calving pattern on the farm means the autumn calves are gone before spring calving happens. Some 30pc of the herd calve between September 1 and November 30, while the other 70pc calve between January 5 and April 30.
While there are bonuses from Dairygold for winter milk of 5.6c/L and 7.6c/L, the bonuses have been eroded with the rising costs of inputs in recent months.
“These figures will not be sufficient in the future with the cost of concentrates. I do not know what it will cost this winter and I will be agitating for the co-op to review these figures,” John Snr said.
“The bonus figures are not enough to keep people in winter milk.”
They feed about 5kg of concentrate over the summer months, approximately 5kg per cow through the parlour on a feed to yield system.
Spring calving heifers start breeding on April 5, using sexed semen up until the end of June when they switch to conventional semen for the last three weeks.
Conception rates on the farm are very good, around 65-70pc for maiden heifers. The cows as they get older is a little less. Calving internal is 398 days.
In previous years the herd was a complete liquid milk herd, where the focus was not on fertility, but over the years they have worked to improve solids.
“We’re working continuously to improve fat and protein and I think the combination of using sexed semen on heifers we’re getting improved genetic gain and we’re using genomic testing.”
The biggest challenges facing the farm the family say is limits on stocking rates, which will be a major challenge from next year for the O’Sullivans and may lead to a reduction in cow numbers.
The farm, with 496 cows, has a 2.7LU/ha stocking rate.
Increasing environmental regulations under the new Nitrates Action Plan means the farms high-yielding cows (more than 6,500kg milk/cow) will fall within new banding limits, move the cows from 89kg/N/cow to 106kg/N/cow, making it more difficult to say under the maximum limit of 250kg/N/ha.
“The implications of that on this farm would be we either find another 50ha of ground or we will have to cut cow numbers by up to 100.
“As I see it, that is the single biggest challenge here and here we are on July 1 and I still don’t know what is going to happen. I would be reluctant about leasing anymore land.”
Renting five different blocks of land is not ideal for the O’Sullivans, they told the group but the availability of land near the farm, which is just a few miles from Cork City is not simple, with significant competition for land including from other dairy farmers.
“If it became available (to buy) quite close, you would probably have to go for it,” John Snr said.
But land in the area is not cheap. Leased land in the area would cost around €750-900/ha per year. “To buy, it would cost up to €50,000/ha. But the problem is it doesn’t come up for sale around here.”
Son Victor though is hopeful that while stocking rates in the future will be challenging they can keep the number of stock they have.
“We are adopting practices that reduce emissions such as reducing the amount of nitrogen we’re spreading, the method of application of slurry and we’re producing a more efficient cow.”
Selling stock is a big part of the farm and every year the O’Sullivans hold two sales, selling over 160 calved and in-calf heifers. While the abolition of quotas in recent years has driven demand for young stock, it has broadly been returning customers to the O’Sullivans herd.
“We held a young stock sale of 70 animals here last week and in the autumn we will put a sale together of 125 heifers — a mix of spring calving and in-calf heifers and freshly calved heifers,” Victor said.
“When we put a sale together like that we’re trying to pick animals that make a good sale. You don’t put in your bottom animals at all you try and put in a good mix of animals that will make an attractive sale that gives you a good reputation so you can hold a sale every year.
“Within that, we will use data, such as milk recording data of their dams and grand dams to influence our decisions and classifications also comes into it.”
According to John Jnr, the farm sold 70 calves in recent weeks, with a top price of €5,300 made from a full clearance sale and an average of €1,200.
A paddock of mixed species sward went in seven weeks ago on the farm and how it will perform remains to be seen.
The field was last reseeded in 1973, according to John Snr, who said the decision to reseed with mixed species was made due to the big drive to reduce the amount of nitrogen being spread on the farm.
“This is us trying to find out if it works!
“It was last reseeded in 1973, as it has not been cut for silage, just grazed. We need a year or two with it to see how the cows perform on it.”
The re-seeding was carried out in recent weeks and according to John Jnr, the most they know about it is that “it grew”. The newly re-seeded land will be grazed at 1,000kg DM/ha and grazed again when it comes back at 1,000kg DM/ha.
“Normally what we would hope to do is graze it closer to 1,200kg DM/ha and 1,500kg DM/ha but to get the clover established so it’s not muscled out by the grass, that’s why we’re going to graze it a little bit sooner.
“After we graze it we might give it a run of 2,500 gallons an acre of watery slurry for those two grazings.
“Maybe towards the end of the year when we’re closing out we might give it a small bit of nitrogen and certainly at the start of next year. The plan is to fertilise it as if it was a grass field up till about April, after that you can start reducing the nitrogen output.”
John Jnr said a grass only sward after grazing is getting about 20-25 units of N as soon as the cows go out of it.
Teagasc advisor William Burchall said some trials in Ireland have found that sheep grazing these types of swards have a lot less lung and stomach worm burden on them.
The sward mix includes grasses and clover as well as plantain and chicory, with the latter known for its deep root system, which they hope will help during dry conditions.
Plantain, according to William, is a natural diuretic which will encourage the cows to urinate more often and in turn help spread urine and dung across more of the field.
John Snr told visitors that when he was his sons’ age, “the norm was you went out with the fertiliser spreader in February with 40-50 units of nitrogen and then you probably threw slurry on top of that, to get rid of the slurry.
“Nowadays, there is no chemical nitrogen for the first grazing on the grazing platform here. We put out 3,000 gallons (approximately 7,500L) of slurry per acre. So slurry grows the entire first rotation of grazing.
“The first chemical nitrogen goes out after the grazing rotation has started, so it’s March before it goes out. That’s a very significant saving on nitrogen.
“The last time P and K were purchased on the home farm was in 1973. There was a slurry tank built at that point and it has supplied all the P and K since. The last artificial N application on the farm is done by September 15.”